Is Britain ready for an ethnic minority prime minister?


Labour MPs Bernie Grant (left) and Diane Abbott (right) in 1988

When Labour MP Sadiq Khan was named London’s new mayor two weeks ago it was a significant moment in the history of British politics – a Muslim Asian had been voted in as the leader of the county’s capital city, one of the highest positions in British politics.

Particularly in the current sociopolitical climate – where immigration and terrorism are hot topics of debate, Islamaphobia appears to be on the rise and, (at the very last leg of the election build up) accusations of anti-Semitism have been launched against the Labour Party – Khan’s victory was no minor achievement.

Does Khan’s election signify that the UK may now be ready for an ethnic minority prime minister?

On the one hand, yes, Sadiq Khan’s election victory does suggest that a significant percentage of Britons are open to having an ethnic minority political leader and will not allow race or ethnicity to negatively influence their political preference.

Khan’s election marks real progress in race relations in Britain since the mid-twentieth century when the new mayor’s Pakistani parents first arrived in this country and offers hope that British politics will continue to become increasingly diverse in years to come.

Tottenham MP and fellow member of the Labour Party, David Lammy believes that Sadiq Khan has paved the way for a future black or minority ethnic (BAME) prime minister. Reflecting on the significance of a British-Pakistani Muslim being chosen as London mayor, Mr Lammy said: "If we ever get a prime minister of colour it will be because of what Sadiq Khan has achieved."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan with supporters during mayoral election campaign

But the beginning of Mr Lammy’s statement – “if we ever get a prime minister of colour” – is very telling and suggests that the Labour MP is not overly optimistic that Britain will be electing a non-white prime minister any time soon.

Indeed, a triumph for diversity at the mayoral level does not necessarily mean we should be preparing ourselves for the imminent election of Britain’s own Barack Obama just yet. Without detracting from the magnitude of Khan’s achievement it must be understood in context.

London is one of the most – if not the most – culturally diverse, liberal cities in the world and in many ways a positive example of multiculturalism and its benefits. In other words if there is one place in the UK where you would expect to find a non-white mayor and where the election of a non-white, non-Christian politician is in fact arguably long overdue, it is London. White Londoners are only just a majority of the capital’s population at 59.79%, with ethnic minorities accounting for slightly less than half of the population.

Elsewhere in Britain, particularly away from other big cities like Manchester and Birmingham, and the numbers are vastly different with ethnic minorities being a less sizeable percentage of the communities. Whilst white Londoners are barely a majority white Britons are a very significant majority, constituting 87% of the UK population. Translated into votes and voting power, that means the minority vote is strongest in ethnically and racially diverse places like London. The minority vote can greatly work in the favour of ethnic minority political candidates like Khan, who received the highest percentage of votes from boroughs with higher percentages of black and Asian voters. Although Sadiq Khan – nor any other elected British politician, white or non-white – was not voted in solely by minority voters, it does mean that where there are fewer BAME citizens more white voters need to be won over in order for a minority candidate to triumph.

In short, if Britain is to see a non-white prime minister it will depend on whether a sizeable majority of the white population is prepared to welcome such change. Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States in 2008, in spite of the well-publicised race issues which continue to plague America today, is welcome proof that this is possible as long as there is the right candidate. At the time of Obama’s victory, Sadiq Khan remarked: "What Barack Obama has done is destroy the myth that ethnic minority candidates are votes for losers. It is quite clear that voters looked beyond the colour of his skin" - words that are now true of Khan’s own election.

Aside from Sadiq Khan who else is a potential future BAME prime minister candidate and how diverse is British politics as a whole currently?

At the moment approximately 6% of MPs in the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords are BAME, a disproportionately small percentage when compared to that of the general British population which our politics should reflect, where ethnic minorities comprise 13%.

That said, there are reasons to be hopeful that diversity in parliament is on the up with the current percentage of minority members of parliament marking a sizeable increase since 2010 (4.2%).

Furthermore, the House of Commons has published a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which outlines plans to increase the presence of ethnic minority, women, disabled and LGBT people in politics by 2018.

There are a number of high profile black and Asian politicians – such as Chuka Umunna, Sajid Javid and of course Sadiq Khan, who are already well-positioned should Britain decide it is ready for a BAME prime minister.

Labour Brent MP Dawn Butler

Black female Labour MP Dawn Butler has not ruled out the possibility of a black prime minister in the not too distant future saying she “would hope to see a black prime minister in [her] working lifetime."

When Barack Obama was elected the first black President of the Untied States it was a tremendous civil rights milestone, grabbing the world’s attention. Not only that, it started debate about whether the same could happen in the UK. Now that London has an Asian Muslim mayor once again the question is being asked: When will Britain have a black or ethnic minority prime minister? The answer remains unknown but with the recent election of Sadiq Khan as London mayor and growing numbers of BAME Members of Parliament it certainly feels like we are moving closer to the day where Britain has an ethnic minority prime minister.

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