The race to choose Britain’s next Prime Minister has revealed a surprising fact about the country’s ruling Conservative Party: its willingness to back a potential leader from a racial minority background, even as some 97% of the party’s membership—who will ultimately decide the next leader—is white.
It’s a far cry from the Conservative Party’s old reputation as a white, privately-educated boy’s club that was out of touch with the multicultural nation that it aspired to rule.
Two of the remaining four candidates for Boris Johnson’s replacement on Tuesday were from racial minorities, while three others were women. The leading candidate, Johnson’s former finance minister Rishi Sunak, is of South Asian heritage. Kemi Badenoch (ex-parities minister) is one of Johnson’s rivals. The other two women, Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss, who are both former foreign secretary, are all white. Half of the eight initial candidates were from racial minority groups.
Even though Badenoch lost in Tuesday’s penultimate round, observers believe she will be able to secure a top-ranking cabinet post in the near future. Sunak has the most votes among his colleagues and is currently leading the trio of remaining competitors.
Britain’s ruling Conservative party has led the way in terms of both racial and gender representation at the highest levels of the U.K. government. If Sunak is chosen to replace Johnson, he will become Britain’s first Prime Minister from an ethnic minority in the modern era—but not ever. Benjamin Disraeli was a Jewish Prime Minister who held two Conservative posts in the 19th-century.
The Conservatives were also responsible for Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, who was elected in 1979. Theresa May, Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, was also a Conservative leader. In recent years, party members have broken down barriers to allow racial minorities into the top offices of the state. Sajid Javid, a senior lawmaker became the first home secretary for racial minority and the finance minister in 2018, and 2019.
The party’s next leader will be decided by a convoluted internal process. First, the field of candidates is whittled down by Conservative Party lawmakers in successive rounds of voting, until the final two are announced—which is expected on Wednesday. Then, those two candidates will be voted on by the card-carrying members of the Conservative Party—around 200,000 people who are older, wealthier and whiter than the rest of the British electorate as a whole. According to statistics both from the U.S. and the U.K., 87% of British citizens are white. This compares to 76% in America.
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Do Brits feel comfortable having a Prime Minister of a racial minority?
The answer among pollsters, politicos and academics is emphatically “yes.”
A key voting bloc for the Conservative Party—people who voted Conservative at the last election but for the Labour Party previously—answer “overwhelmingly” in focus groups that they would be comfortable with a Prime Minister from a racial minority background, according to Gabriel Milland, a partner at the strategic communications firm Portland.
“It shows that attitudes toward people from migrant communities in this country have changed a lot,” Milland says. “Now, that is not to say we are no longer a racist country … but things have changed a great deal.”
The same is likely true for the card-carrying members of the party who will actually decide the next leader, according to Tim Bale, an academic at Queen Mary, University of London, who has carried out research into the party’s membership. “I think in the end, they’ll be more bothered about whether that person can win an election and deliver them what they want in terms of policies,” he says.
The Conservative Party’s diversity efforts
This is why so many ruling party members are of racial minorities backgrounds.
Just two Conservative Party members (out of the 198) were from a racial or minority background ten years and a quarter ago. At the time, the party was not in power and realized it needed to rebrand itself to be successful long-term. The party’s new leader, David Cameron was elected in 2006. He introduced measures to help the party better reflect the nation that it desired to lead. Cameron was elected Prime Minister and introduced shortlists to prioritize racial minority candidates as well as women in the electoral seats it knew would be won by large margins.
The policy worked, and resulted in an influx of new lawmakers—some of whom have now risen to the highest ranks of the party. They were promoted by successive leaders keen to scrap practices that prioritized white candidates over talented racial minority ones, while also ensuring that the party’s top leadership reflected the country as a whole.
It would be wrong to say that the Conservative Party is more diverse because it has overcome so many barriers at higher levels of government regarding representation. Even though the Labour Party never elected anyone from a racial minority background or a woman to its leadership, 41 Labour Party members are minority legislators. This is despite having fewer parliament seats than 22 Conservatives. The Labour Party also receives the lion’s share of votes from Britain’s minority communities, at roughly 64%, according to pollster Ipsos MORI.
Comment has diversity impacted the Conservative Party’s ability to function?
The increase in representation in the top ranks of the Conservative Party hasn’t been met with an increase in acknowledgement of structural racism. Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who was knocked out from the contest on Tuesday, had written that Britain is “falsely criticized as oppressive to minorities.” She and the other candidates have said they support the U.K.’s controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Badenoch’s leadership bid had been endorsed by Britain First, a far-right fascist party that campaigns against multiculturalism and immigration.
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“One of the key things that we see the Black and Brown candidates doing is mobilizing their own identity in order to tell a seemingly progressive story of British meritocracy and hard work, whilst concealing their own class position and economic power,” says Liam Shrivastava of the Institute for Race Relations, a British think tank, who is also a local councilor for the opposition Labour Party. “Rishi Sunak is a multi-millionaire but this allows him to tell a compelling, aspirational story, and it can be framed as progress.”
“In doing so, those candidates can evoke liberal notions of ‘lived experience’ whilst pushing a reactionary politics that dismisses concepts of institutional racism and demands for justice as ‘woke rubbish’,” Shrivastava adds. “This appeals to Conservative [lawmakers] and members as whilst they may support greater diversity and be against overtly racist bigotry, it relieves them of having to do anything about the racial inequality that is hardwired into society.”
— With reporting from Eloise Barry / London
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