The Conservative Party & Race

Diversity at the top does not always lead to equality at the bottom.

Following his 2019 election win, Boris Johnson was praised for the racial and cultural diversity of his cabinet. Even following Chancellor Sajid Javid’s resignation and replacement, three-quarters of the Great Offices of State are still held by ethnic and cultural minorities. This includes Home Secretary Priti Patel, who also is the first female holder of a Great Office to be an ethnic minority in the UK, and Dominic Raab, whose Jewish father sought refuge in the 1930s. However, in the current political climate, representation at the top does not always equate to equality and inclusion at a grassroots level.

Whilst these figures were appointed by Boris Johnson, it is important to note he has not personally contributed to the diminishing of racism and cultural intolerance from the Conservative Party. Infamous for his racist remarks about black people and muslims, he has caused offence with his careless language. This has done little to alleviate the valid accusations of ignorance and discrimination held against his party. Furthermore, he displayed little sympathy following anti-racism protests, criticising the “sense of victimisation” felt by those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Despite impressive representation at the highest levels, the Conservatives struggle to appeal beyond their party base in terms of support from BME communities. Historically, they have struggled to purge racism and prejudice from within, which has arguably translated to a difficulty in condemning it beyond party lines. In particular, Islamophobia has become a shameful issue, with over half of the party’s members believing Islam to be a “threat to the British way of life”. It is therefore no surprise that a primary deterrent for Muslims from the party is their intolerance of those from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The lack of support from ethnic minorities is manifest in elections. Only 20% of the BME electorate voted for the Conservatives, with Labour receiving three times their share. Clearly, many BME people feel that the Conservatives do not represent them or stand for their values. Furthermore, there are lower levels of political engagement from BME communities, with electoral registration being particularly low. This is evident as only 66% of those from Black African backgrounds are registered to vote, very low compared to the 91% of white people. This may be due to the belief that the elitist and traditional government does not represent their values in a modern United Kingdom, and the lack of government proactivity in encouraging registration prevents restricts access to a vital part of our democracy.

Consequently, the Conservatives have attempted to appeal to ethnic minorities, but remain relatively unsuccessful. David Cameron’s renewed ‘Big Society’ and ‘one nation’ approach has extended throughout 10 years of Conservative governance, yet has struggled to evolve into a truly inclusive concept. Under the current succession of Conservative governments, race-related hate crimes have doubled, suggesting that they have failed to protect ethnic minorities. In following elections, the Conservatives will have to seriously prioritise the needs and wishes of BME people if they want to govern modern Britain, which is an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation.

With the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests highlighting the government’s shortcomings on racial inequality, Johnson has promised a “cross-governmental commission” to investigate discrimination of BME people in insitutions such as the justice and education system. However, many groups feel these promises are inadequate and don’t reflect a genuine commitment to equal rights. The 2019 election has so far done little to advance the position of ethic minorities, despite the resultant Parliament being the most diverse on record.Struggling under the shadow of the Windrush Scandal, the Home Office is viewed as a hostile force against immigrants and refugees, especially of BME identities. 

BME candidates are struggling to break through consistently across the UK . For example, there are no BME MPs outside of England despite all four countries of the UK having thriving and expanding BME communities. The Conservative party, who achieved a majority 365 seats, only have 25 MPs from non-white backgrounds themselves,hardly setting the standard for other parties and minority representation in the UK whilst being the incumbent party. Mainstream parties must provide the resources and platforms for ethnic minorities to empower themselves and their communities.

Nonetheless, the face of the Conservative Party is changing. Whilst its senior leadership is still composed of the white, wealthy, elite, more and more BME figures are rising and voices are being heard. The current Parliament has a record number of  ethnic minority MPs, and Johnson’s tenure has seen several BME figures rise to power and be vetted for senior positions. Next year, will see two ethnic minority candidates – incumbent Sadiq Khan and Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey compete in the London Mayoral election. This positive show of leadership, however, is undermined by the fact that all 21 of Conservative seats in London are held by white people, demonstrating that successful ethnic minority politicians are still low in number.

The Conservative Party certainly still has far to go in terms of adequately representing ethnic minorities, but having key cabinet members from a diverse set of backgrounds could indicate a more inclusive and progressive future for the party.

Diversity at the top does not always lead to equality at the bottom.