It’s a subject of pride and some boasting from centre-right conservative leaders, who seem almost dizzy, that their field is more diverse than previous contests within the opposition Labor Party, a centre-left movement seeking to empower minorities represented in Britain.
This year’s Conservative field is also far more diverse than the last Tory leadership contest, which Boris Johnson won in 2019. At that time, of the 10 candidates who started the race, nine were white. Now half of the applicants are minorities.
Whether Britain is evolving into a ‘post-racial’ society or remaining mired in institutional racism and colonialist attitudes remains an issue here, with evidence for all sides.
It is clear that this diverse field of candidates was not created by chance, but intentionally. It is the result of almost two decades of political recruitment and promotion efforts.
British demographers have traditionally used a kind of clumsy term to describe non-whites in Britain – BAME, for ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’, a catch-all term that has received considerable criticism and may soon be phased out.
The UK population is predominantly White (87 percent), with the second and third largest racial groups being Asian (6 percent) and Black (3 percent), according to the Office of National Statistics.
But four of the eight candidates who qualified for the leadership competition fell into the BAME category: Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Nadhim Zahawi. When the first-round votes were tallied on Wednesday, Sunak was in the lead and Zahawi was out – along with Jeremy Hunt, who ran and lost to Johnson in 2019.
Two other prominent Tories with ethnic minority backgrounds – Home Secretary Priti Patel and former Health Secretary Sajid Javid – decided at the last minute not to run.
Of those that are still around, all are clearly conservative – although they differ somewhat on tax cuts and social spending. All three minority candidates voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, despite a campaign largely fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment. And all three shy away from identity politics.
Braverman made her pitch in front of conservative activists and lawmakers, saying, “Don’t vote for me because I’m a woman. Don’t vote for me because I’m brown. Choose me because I love this country and would do anything for it.”
Braverman, who serves as Attorney General for England and Wales, was born in London to parents of Indian origin who emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s.
Announcing her bid for ITV, Braverman said she wants to cut taxes, cut public spending, stop migrants from crossing the English Channel illegally and also “get rid of that woke junk”. Sunak also criticized “awkward, gender-neutral language”. At the launch of Badenoch, supporters saw unisex toilet signs replaced with signs for ‘men’ and ‘ladies’.
This field of candidates can trace its political origins back to 2005 and the election of David Cameron as Conservative Party leader after Labor was defeated in the general election. At the time, the Conservatives had only two minority MPs in Parliament. In 2001, the Tories had none.
“Cameron was the modernizing leader of the Conservatives, a party then seen as traditionalist and narrow-minded,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “He was young, still in his thirties. Essentially, he argued that the Tories need to change their sales force.”
In the year 2005 speechCameron said he plans to “change the face of the Conservative Party by changing the faces of the Conservative Party”.
Bale said Cameron understood that many first- and second-generation immigrants were good targets for the party’s messages: They ran small businesses and were family-oriented, but wary of government and opposed to high taxes.
As a result, Cameron urged his party’s local associations to find and promote younger, more diverse candidates for parliamentary seats in safe Conservative Party constituencies.
Badenoch, 42, represents the Saffron Walden constituency, which has been considered a “safe seat” for the Tories since 1922. Bale described him as “old Tory and whiter than white”. When Badenoch was elected to Parliament in 2017, she praised the UK for giving her the chance to live the “British dream”.
Born in London to Nigerian parents, Badenoch spent most of her childhood in Lagos and the United States.
Tanya Gold, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote that the Conservative Party’s ethnic diversity “could be confusing and irritating to some leftists who think these people should be leftists because everything else is crazy”.
Labor still dominates as a minority voter. At the last general election in December 2019, age was the dominant predictor of preference, with older voters voting Conservative and younger voters Labour. Defining support by race and ethnicity is more difficult in the UK but is based on survey data from the survey group Estimated Ipsos MORI that Labor fared far better than the Conservatives among minority ethnic groups in 2019, accounting for 64 percent of all black and minority ethnic voters, while 20 percent voted for the Conservatives and 12 percent for the Liberal Democrats.
Still, the Conservatives note that they were the first party – and not Labor – to see a woman, Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister and then promoted another, Theresa May, to the highest office.
Of today’s six candidates for the post of Prime Minister, four are women – and so the Tories could put a third woman at 10 Downing Street by September.
For his part, Johnson continued the diversity push, appointing what he called “a cabinet for modern Britain”. The Economist observed: “Boris Johnson is such a vivid embodiment of white privilege that it’s easy to forget the diversity of his cabinet.”
Politics is politics, two of those different cabinet ministers – Sunak and Javid – initiated the exodus of the government last week, leading to Johnson’s resignation announcement.
Sunak, the former German Chancellor and Treasury Secretary, was born in Southampton, England, to parents of Indian origin who had emigrated from East Africa. He attended some of Britain’s most elite and expensive schools, including Oxford. He is married to British-Indian fashion designer Akshata Murty, a billionaire daughter of the founder of Indian IT company Infosys. The couple were the subject of a recent mini-scandal which revealed that Murty filed as a ‘non-resident’ UK resident, meaning she paid no UK tax on almost all of her phenomenal fortune.
At the moment, Sunak is a top contender to replace his former boss.