The ‘most desi’ Cabinet in British history

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak poses with the Budget Box as he leaves 11 Downing Street before presenting the government's annual budget to Parliament. — AFP file
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak poses with the Budget Box as he leaves 11 Downing Street before presenting the government's annual budget to Parliament. — AFP file

How ethnic diversity has claimed political centre stage in the UK

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 9 Apr 2021, 12:09 AM

2020 is a year many would like to forget, but it also saw the UK reaching a new high in its political history, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson formed his government in January following the December 2019 general election. As the then Conservative party chairman James Cleverly remarked at India’s Republic Day event at the Guildhall, Johnson had put together “the most desi government” in British history, reflecting a milestone in the representation of ethnic diversity in politics.

Four MPs of Indian origin were appointed to key cabinet roles: Rishi Sunak (chancellor), Priti Patel (home secretary), Alok Sharma (business secretary), and, as the attorney-general, Suella Braverman attends cabinet. Sharma has since been moved to the cabinet role of COP26 president and is replaced by Kwasi Kwarteng as the business secretary. Junior ministers in Johnson’s government include Ranil Jayewardena, Nadhim Zahawi, Kemi Badenoch, and Tariq Ahmad. The Opposition Labour has also appointed several of its ethnic minority MPs to key roles in the shadow cabinet, including Lisa Nandy and Rosena Allin-Khan.

The December 2019 election returned the highest number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds: 65, or 10 per cent of the strength of the House of Commons. Given that ethnic minorities comprise 14.4 per cent of the UK’s population, parliamentary experts believe if the ethnic make-up of the House of Commons were to reflect that of the population, there would be 93 MPs from minority backgrounds. The record of 65 MPs nonetheless represents something of a landmark not only for the participation by ethnic minorities in politics but also for the policies of multiculturalism and initiatives by the three main parties to encourage non-white representation. Of the 65 ethnic minority MPs, 41 are Labour, 22 are Conservatives and two from the Liberal Democrat party; more than half (37) are women.

Challenges around race and racism remain in wider British society, but in the realm of politics there is a sense of growing acceptance and near-mainstreaming of MPs from the minority communities. Several of the 65 MPs won from constituencies that do not have large number of voters from minority communities. It is no longer rare to see Sunak batting for the Conservative party or the government and Labour’s Nandy countering him in widely-watched mainstream news programmes. Sunak and Patel have been lauded and pilloried in the British news media just like any other politician.

Progress, however, was slow initially over most of the 20th century. The first three Indian-origin MPs elected to the House of Commons were Parsis: Dadabhai Naoroji (elected in 1892, Finsbury Central), Mancherjee Bhownaggree (1895, Bethnal Green North-East) and Shapurji Saklatvala (1922, Battersea North). Parliamentary records say that after Saklatvala lost his seat in 1929, 1987 is the year when the next ethnic minority MPs entered Parliament: Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Paul Boateng (Brent South), Bernie Grant (Tottenham) and Keith Vaz (Leicester East), all representing Labour.

Since then, the number of ethnic minority MPs increased at each general election, most notably from 2010 onwards: 1987 (4 MPs), 1992 (6), 1997 (9), 2001 (12), 2005 (15), 2010 (27), 2015 (41), 2017 (52) and 2019 (65),

The increase is partly due to efforts by parties to field more candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds in successive elections, and partly the result of campaigns by groups such as Operation Black Vote (OBV) that encourage participation in politics through voter registration, leadership and mentorship programmes, besides lobbying parties on the benefits of representative bodies. Several individuals who joined OBV’s programmes over the years went on to be elected to various bodies, including parliament and local councils.

Labour Friends of India, a lobby group within the opposition Labour party, has launched a ‘Mahatma Gandhi Future Leaders Programme’ to encourage greater participation and representation of the 1.5 million-strong Indian disapora. The programme covers modules such as community engagement, communications, social media, campaigns and leadership.

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