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Sunder Katwala: Late diversity selections surge ‘will increase Commons numbers’

 Former Commons speaker John Bercow (centre, in blue suit) with ethnic minority MPs in 2017
Former Commons speaker John Bercow (centre, in blue suit) with ethnic minority MPs in 2017

Director, British Future

WHEN the class of 1987 saw Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Keith Vaz become the first black and Asian members to enter the Commons in the post-war era, that breakthrough quartet accounted for one in every 165 MPs.

Even a decade ago, only one in 40 MPs was from an ethnic minority background, with just 15 ethnic minority MPs making up 2.5 per cent of parliament.

That looks set to rise to around one in 10 MPs when the votes are counted in December’s general election. It took a late ‘diversity surge’ in candidate selections in the fortnight before nominations closed, but British Future’s analysis suggests there should be a significant advance on the 52 ethnic minority MPs elected in 2017.

Fifty of those who sat in the last parliament will seek re-election, except for Keith Vaz, who ended 32 years as an MP under a cloud; and Seema Kennedy, the immigration minister, who made a surprise announcement of her departure after just four years.

With 67 ethnic minority candidates running for a party that won the seat last time, 19 or 20 new ethnic minority MPs have a good chance of being elected. Labour will make the largest contribution to the diverse class of 2019, having faced internal criticism after selecting just seven ethnic minority candidates in its top 100 target seats. The rush of late selections, however, saw no fewer than 14 ethnic minority candidates nominated in seats where
the MP had retired, defected or been deselected.

Minority candidates were selected in more than a third of the candidate selections for seats that Labour won last time.

Eleven of the Labour candidates inherit Labour majorities of over 10,000, while three candidates are defending marginal seats in the West Midlands.

Ibrahim Dogus, founder of the British kebab awards, was selected to replace former deputy
leader Tom Watson, while Taiwo Owatemi and Zarah Sultana face tough battles in two of the Coventry constituencies. Meanwhile, Sultana has apologised for some social media posts, expressing anti-Semitic views, while she was a student.

The new ethnic minority candidates defending Labour-held seats include 11 women and three men. That is set to guarantee that there will be more ethnic minority women than men in the new parliament. This is a remarkable shift over the last decade, especially given that no Asian woman had been elected as MPs until 2010, when half a dozen Asian women, including Priti Patel and Rushanara Ali, made it into the Commons.

The Conservatives will contribute a more gradual increase in 2019 than the rapid advance under David Cameron, who had just two non-white parliamentary colleagues when he became party leader. Some 19 non-white Conservative MPs were elected in 2017, but that looks set to nudge forward to around 21, or perhaps up to 24 this time around.

Claire Coutinho will defend a 20,000 majority in East Surrey after Sam Gyimah’s defection to the Liberal Democrats; while Gagan Mohindra, taking on David Gauke in South-West Hertfordshire, and Darren Henry, seeking to regain Broxtowe from Anna Soubry, have the unusual task of running for the Conservatives against incumbents who have left the party over Brexit.

Imran Khan was given a last-minute opportunity to gain the target seat of Wakefield because former candidate Anthony Calvert stood down over sharing Islamophobic and sexist content on social media. The Tory party has made little progress on committing to an inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice secured by Sajid Javid during the leadership contest last summer. Those who believe a post-Brexit party can continue to modernise and broaden saw party members in the safe seat of Meridien choosing Saqib Bhatti over former Downing Street chief of staff Nick Timothy as a hopeful indicator.

Bhatti, the youngest chair of the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, co-founded the Muslims for Britain pro-Leave campaign group ahead of the 2016 referendum.

The growing diversity of British politics has been overwhelmingly an English affair, so there is more work to do across the nations of the UK.

Scotland will not have any ethnic minority MPs in the next parliament, with none of the parties having any candidates in winnable seats. SNP minister Humza Yousaf has said that his and other parties must do better – and embark on a forensic examination of the barriers to progress.

No Welsh constituency has ever elected an Asian or black MP to Westminster. Conservatives Sanjoy Sen in Alyn and Deeside and Mohamed Y Ali in Cardiff North, who came as a refugee from Somalia as a child, hope to achieve that landmark.

The Northern Irish party system, largely structured around the Catholic and Protestant communities, has more barriers still to minority participation.

The next parliament will reflect the society it governs more closely than ever before. The late surge saw both parties playing catch-up – but suggests that a deeper cultural change is needed for the parties to be as diverse at the grassroots as they now are at the top.