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Is Trevor Phillips right about this?

November 9th, 2008

How long until a BME PM?

Trevor Phillips, former Chairman of the Comission for Racial Equality, now a Labour member of the GLA and head of the equality watchdog, claimed yesterday in a Radio 4 interview that “institutional racism” would prevent a black or Asian politician from reaching Number 10. He was particularly damning of the unions and the left-leaning think-tanks for supporting the notion of ethnic minority candidates, whilst (in his view) the systems and structures of political parties would never actually facilitate their becoming Prime Minister.

He went on to say that although 13 out of the 15 BME MPs were in the Labour party (of which he is a member), and that his party had “led the way”, that the Conservatives had done more to accelerate the rise of candidates from ethnic minorities. This was rebuffed immediately by Tooting’s Labour MP Sadiq Khan, who predicted a black or Asian PM within his lifetime, and that such a candidate would likely be from the Labour party.

This article in the Guardian sums up clearly the direction and speed of the three main parties towards ensuring greater BME representation in Parliament, and I do not share Mr Phillips’ pessimism. I think he correctly recognises that the British public would have very little problem with a non-white Prime Minister (though I suspect that some sections of society might be more wary of voting for a practising Muslim in Number 10), but I think he overplays the strength of the party structures in deciding who reaches the top. If a viable BME MP were to run for the leadership, I think it would be very difficult for them to be stopped by the Unions or the think-tanks in the full glare of the media. The issue is getting ethnic minority candidates in winnable seats to begin with.

As long as the number of BME candidates and MPs continues to grow (however slowly) it is surely only a matter of time before the media find the person they will inevitably crown as ‘Britain’s Barack Obama’. Once the possibility becomes real, I suspect it may become irresistable. It struck me as interesting that so many European (and, in fairness, American) papers asked after the Iowa caucus whether ‘America was ready for a black President’ – the answer was ‘yes’, but few pointed out that America actually has a much better record of ensuring BME representation than almost any major European democracy, including the UK. The problem is not the impediments to the leadership of the UK parties, but rather the obstacles to becoming an MP in the first place.

For that reason, I wonder if we will see, by way of prelude, a black or Asian Mayor of London before we see a black or Asian PM. My current bet for the next Mayor of London is David Lammy MP (Tottenham) priced by Ladbrokes at 33/1. Sadiq Khan, one of the hardest-working MPs according to colleagues, should also be tipped for higher things if he should successfully defend his seat at the next election. The other name that comes to mind from the Labour benches is MoJ minister Shahid Malik.

The Conservatives have comparatively few BME members in Parliament – only Adam Afriyie and Shailesh Vara – though they have increased the numbers of PPCs in winnable seats. If we can forgive the shudder-inducingly misguided Tatler photoshoot, Shaun Bailey and Kulveer Ranger could both have successful political futures ahead of them.

I think that a black or Asian Prime Minister is extremely likely to occur within the next two decades, but given how quickly Barack Obama rose to the Presidency, it is more than possible that we have never heard of the person who will inherit that place in history. It is often said that the next Conservative leader is almost certainly not yet an MP, more a reference to David Cameron’s meteoric assent to the job than any judgement about his expected longevity. I wonder if Trevor Phillips might just be pleasantly surprised after all.

Morus






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