At PMQs last Wednesday Member of Parliament after Member of Parliament stood up to commend the appointment of the first person of South Asian heritage as our Prime Minister. Conservative MPs rejoiced in Rishi Sunak as a proof of the country’s and the Tory Party’s commitment to diversity. Meanwhile, they have been reciting a litany of further abstract nouns: continuity, unity, delivery, stability, and even integrity, accountability and legitimacy. These await proof that they are more than just words as well as evidence of Tory compassion and belief in social justice.
Sunak’s appointment is symbolically important and in some ways a good sign. But why was the strikingly multi-racial membership of the Tory front bench not equally matched on the Labour side. Was the taunt true? ‘Labour talks a lot about diversity but the Conservatives act’.
Compared to the Labour Party, the Conservative Party has been ahead in appointing women as well as minorities to Shadow and Government high office. And they are proud of it. And it is a question for the Labour Party - though Keir Starmer now has a convincingly diverse front bench as far as women are concerned. But if you take a closer look at the current senior Cabinet Ministers from ethnic minorities they share - with the exception of Sajid Javid, a former Chancellor and Health Secretary - a privileged background. Kwasi Kwarteng is the son of wealthy parents and educated at Eton. Nadeem Zahawi’s grandfather was a government minister in Iraq, his father a businessman, director of Balshore Investments. Rishi Sunak was educated at Winchester College and is now the wealthiest Prime Minister in modern times. They join a resurgent Jeremy Hunt who was the richest man in Theresa May’s cabinet. The language of class seems to have disappeared from politics though the reality is alive and well in the UK. Identity politics have distracted us from divisions based on class and wealth.
People may simply reject Rishi Sunak out of envy, but they may also admire him and those who manage to get on in the world. Talent for climbing is assumed. Once having gained political power unwritten rules apply to women and ethnic minority politicians. But near the top of the greasy pole you must sound and perform as much like any other successful middle to upper-class Tory politician as possible. Mrs. Thatcher was a master at this. Famously indifferent to women’s issues, she chose an all-male cabinet, deepened her voice, and demonstrated military prowess by ruthlessly sinking the Belgrano, yet practised traditional house-wifely virtues by cooking for her favourite colleagues. Poor Theresa May wasn’t ‘man enough’ to counter Brexiteer extremism and the Ulster DUP (Democratic Unionists). And Liz Truss was, well, Liz Truss, trying to sound tough and looking weak. But at least she sacked Suella Braverman.
When it comes to ethnic minorities in top political positions, should we be looking at the significance of class rather than race? Surely both. My own perceptions are influenced by rearing a family in both Central and West Africa and observing awareness of race and class develop in children. When there is nothing minority about being black, and you are one of the few white kids, if you want to describe somebody, skin colour doesn’t help you identify who you are talking about. Here is a conversation in Africa that really happened.
“Why are Africans all poor?” that from a very young white child.
“Simon’s not poor. He’s got a sports car” (Simon was a black Zimbabwean)
“He’s not an African.”.
It was a class analysis of sorts.
Unless they are avid readers of Marx, today most people perceive class difference as cultural difference, different ways of living, different customs and manners of speaking. Living for two years in the mid-1960s USA in a New York apartment with a Colombian family crammed into the flat one floor above was difficult. The children played indoor football. The noise rarely abated as different shifts came and went to work. Their music was not to my taste. It wasn’t easy to accept and accommodate. But being anti-immigrant when you are a recent immigrant yourself is a stretch. Absence of sympathy for immigrants when you are an immigrant yourself, or the child of immigrants, does not come naturally even with the help of misinformation from an irresponsible Press. Yet Sunak, Braverman and Patel are remarkably adept at it.
Remember 65 year-old Gillian Duffy from Rochdale during the 2010 election campaign, and the notorious Gordon Brown outburst calling her a ‘bigot’, probably contributing to him losing his majority? In an early protest against ‘political correctness’ she said: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants… all the eastern Europeans what are coming in where are they flocking from?” She was not talking about immigrants who had been to Eton and/or lived in large detached houses in leafy suburbs, or had a well-paid professional occupation. She also happened to be a Labour Party supporter. You don’t have to look much further than this interaction to see the roots of populism and BREXIT along with their contribution to our current economic distress.
In Britain when it comes to opportunity the composite term ‘ethnic minorities’ hides more than it reveals. There are significant differences in social mobility within and between the different ethnicities. Even for example between different groups of Hindu immigrants. Those who came from East Africa, and that includes Sunak’s family, being notably successful. Ironically, the most disadvantaged today, those who fare worst at school, are white working class boys. It might be said they are represented on the Labour front bench by the eloquent Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting.
The Labour Party do have some ground to make up when it comes to who is available for, and chosen for, the top jobs. Talent is already there as Sadiq Khan, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves, for example - all products of a comprehensive school education - have demonstrated. But as Black Lives Matter insists – with good reason - there remain structures of discrimination and institutional racism in British society. The primary task is to remove them creating a society where opportunity is evenly spread between men and women, faiths and ethnicities, and social mobility does not mean climbing up a limited number of ladders out of poverty. A tiny number of those ladders may lead to high political office in each Party but they are no substitute for racial justice and genuine equality of opportunity.
See TheArticle 28/10/22