Voices: Rishi Sunak as PM is not the UK’s Obama moment

When Rishi Sunak was born in 1980, there were no ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons. It was not until 1987 that the first ethnic minority MPs were elected in the post-war period: Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott – all four were Labour MPs. As recently as 2001, the Conservatives did not have a single ethnic minority MP.

The 2010 election was a transformative election for the representation of ethnic minorities in the Conservative Party. Under David Cameron, the party made a concerted effort to promote more ethnic minority candidates in an attempt to modernise the party and reach out to ethnic minority voters. As a result, the 2010 general election saw a huge increase in the number of ethnic minority MPs in the Conservative Party – from two to 11.

The Conservative Party now has 22 minority ethnic MPs. Across all parties, there are now 67 ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons, just over 10 per cent of the chamber’s membership, and the pursuit of diversity has become an institutionalised norm for Britain’s two major parties.

The prospect of an ethnic minority prime minister was fanciful in 1980. In 2022, it is a reality. Given this context, that a British Asian man is now the nation’s leading politician is, at least symbolically, a reminder of how far Britain has come regarding the social and political integration of ethnic minorities.

But beyond symbolism, what does a Sunak premiership mean substantively for ethnic minorities in Britain? The evidence from his time in government so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. An important example of this is how Sunak has actively contributed to the Conservative Party’s “culture war”, which frames anti-racist activism as an attack on British values, with the term “woke” as a shorthand for “bad” or “un-British”. In July, he vowed to tackle “woke nonsense” in a bid to turn around his faltering leadership campaign.

The idea that ethnic minorities across Britain should uncritically celebrate Sunak’s ascent, in the face of evidence that seems to suggest he may not have their best interests at heart, is laughable. Why should ethnic minority communities unanimously celebrate a prime minister who boasted to a group of Tory activists in Tunbridge Wells about diverting funding from deprived urban areas to affluent places? Sunak later defended his comments, saying he was making the point that “deprivation exists right across our country”.

From voter ID to the Rwanda deportation policy, Sunak has been a leading member of a party that has made the pursuit of racially repressive policies central to its political agenda.

If anything, the Conservative Party’s ethnic minority MPs expose the limits of representation – diversity is no guarantee of inclusion or positive change. Ethnic minority MPs like Suella Braverman and Priti Patel speak with pride of the structures and policies that allowed their grandparents to make Britain their home, while simultaneously presiding over policies that ensure current migrants and refugees to this country will not be afforded the same opportunity – and they do so with glee.

Comparisons have been made between Barack Obama and Rishi Sunak, but they miss one fundamental difference: Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was built on tackling racial injustice and fighting for a new America. That is why his presidency was met with optimism and a renewed sense of hope among African Americans.

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This is a critical juncture in our history as a nation. Research by the New Economics Foundation found that the cost of living crisis is likely to exacerbate racial inequalities in Britain. Additionally, research by the Runnymede Trust highlights how ethnic minorities are more likely to be in deep poverty than their white counterparts. Ethnic minority families are overrepresented among the lowest income groups, and they are experiencing higher levels of food insecurity and fuel poverty.

From the climate emergency to the cost of living crisis, many of the major challenges we face as a nation have asymmetrical effects and racialised outcomes. I believe it is unlikely that Sunak will engage with this reality.

Sunak’s premiership might symbolically change perceptions of what is possible. It is possible that young Asians might feel inspired to pursue an interest in politics, but more substantively, he is unlikely to be a deviation from the norm for the Conservative Party.

I see no evidence that Sunak will not continue and expand the Conservative Party’s policy agenda, which harms ethnic minorities and targets refugees and asylum seekers. That is hardly worthy of celebration for ethnic minorities in Britain.