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The Diversity Mirage and the Next Prime Minister

To truly achieve the political representation of disadvantaged and overlooked groups, a more nuanced and inclusive debate is needed, says Shafi Musaddique

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak walking up the staircase in 10 Downing Street. Photo: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

The Diversity Mirage &The Next Prime Minister

To truly achieve the political representation of disadvantaged and overlooked groups, a more nuanced and inclusive debate is needed, says Shafi Musaddique

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Over the next six weeks, we will find out whether the United Kingdom will have its first non-white Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, or only its third female leader, Liz Truss.

Whoever is confirmed as the new Conservative leader on 5 September will be lauded as a history-maker – and to some extent they will be. However, there are nuances here that the cries of jubilation will fail to appreciate.

Indeed, these milestones are a mirage, and we should all be cautious of the idea of a ‘British-Obama’ moment.

The Tory leadership contest has reflected the wider debate on diversity – governed by the ‘if you see it, you can be it’ school of thought. This has merit in a society where there is a glaring absence of public role models from marginalised backgrounds. However, it also brushes over the complexities of those who act as supposed role models.

The ‘people who look like me’ school of thought fails to acknowledge, or address, the deep fissures of the British class system – the social and economic inequalities that intersect racial inequalities.

Admittedly, should Rishi Sunak win and become the first minority Prime Minister, it will be a huge moment in British history. In their kitchen, my parents, the ones who dislodged their surroundings for a better life, will beam. However, after a few congratulatory moments, we must ask whether diversity is enough. Because when we seek diverse candidates for the top job, we must also ask whether they are inclusive of others. Of the country as a whole and not just a wealthy minority.

The ‘looks like me’ school of thought “obscures way too much about class, as well as access to opportunities and resources”, says Emma Dabiri, author of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ and ‘What White People Can Do Next’.

The Conservative Party will no doubt paint itself as a bastion for diverse Britain until the next general election, despite the fact that almost two-thirds of all non-white MPs elected in 2019 hailed from the Labour Party.

Still, the ethnic diversity of the Conservative Party’s leadership race has been eye opening. Of the 11 who publicly put their names forward, six are of black or Asian heritage. 

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Among them, Nadhim Zahawi spoke of fulfilling the “British dream” as a self-made Kurdish-Iraqi founding national pollster YouGov. 

As the Economist points out, their rise up the ranks is part of a Tory tradition of “inclusive meritocracy” that stretches from Benjamin Disraeli to Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, many of these candidates were first given an opportunity by David Cameron, who dedicated resources to diversifying the Conservative ranks.

But ‘diversity’ as a catch-all concept hides crucial distinctions that should inform our understanding of inequality and opportunity.

For example, new House of Commons research shows that people from white (3.1%) and Indian (4.1%) ethnic backgrounds have the country’s lowest unemployment rates, while people from Bangladeshi (9.3%) and black/African/Caribbean/black British (9.0%) ethnic backgrounds have the highest rates. The disparities here are pronounced.

What’s more, the Conservative Party has an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of structural inequalities.

“Racism, in the Conservative story, tends to be described as acts of individual hatred rather than a systemic phenomenon,” the Economist goes on to note.

The rise of the so-called diverse (but not inclusive) Conservative MP fits in with what Dabiri dubs as a “promotion of fictive kinships, and [distraction] from less ‘visible’ – but perhaps more aligned – commonalities of interest”. 

Diversity and Ideology

I am a second-generation British Bangladeshi, and I see my commonalities as operating along the lines of class. Some of my closest bonds have been forged with working-class folk from across the UK, or Irish men and women.

As the cost of living crisis lurches full steam ahead, pushing people into food banks and deeper destitution, such bonds are more relevant than ever. And so too the gulf between our new power brokers and the public at large. The Conservative Party’s inclusive meritocracy is in fact exclusionary – omitting those at the bottom of the food chain.

It is true that cultural commonalities bind people. The South Asian diaspora find common ground among food, music, parental expectations, and past experiences of colonialism and Partition.

But while these shared experiences and histories cannot be ignored, the commonality of class has been shunted from the diversity debate, to the future Prime Minister’s advantage.

Class is an invisible bind that unified people of different races in the 1960s and 1970s, when black Brits would march together with British Bangladeshis protesting against fascism, and for fair wages.

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Consider this: in 2019/20, 53% of British Bangladeshis lived in poverty, a higher proportion than any other ethnic group, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

Will the many Bangladeshis on the breadline in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the UK let alone London, identify with multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak, educated at one of the country’s poshest private schools? 

Some will, especially those of my father’s generation, who will see Sunak’s story as one of aspiration achieved. But most others, especially those who understand his levels of privilege, regardless of ethnicity, will not see Sunak as their representative in Downing Street.

At a cynical level, this is how the Conservatives will try to win over the very people who have been punished and scapegoated by their ‘hostile environment’ policies: the laws that have banged up immigrants in detention centres and packed them onto deportation flights.

These are the communities that will be among those bearing the brunt of inflation. In the popular politics of ‘being seen’, they – or should I say, we – stand to be deceived by a governing party that has no interest in tackling class-based inequalities. Its representatives fight against ‘woke’ activists yet mention their mother’s immigration story for a slick, presentable leadership campaign video. 

Would Rishi Sunak align his political agenda and interests towards alleviating the high rate of poverty among British Bangladeshis? A fool can only hope. 

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