By Sunder Katwala
I cast my first vote just eight days after my 18th birthday, a coincidence of the timing of the April 1992 General Election. I was keen enough to stay up until 5 am on election night to find out whether John Major or Neil Kinnock would be elected.
One topic to get little airtime on the BBC was the ethnic diversity of the new parliament. Blink and you could have missed it. There were three black and three Asian MPs out of the 650 people elected. Five were Labour, while the sole Conservative, Nirj Deva, was the first British Asian Tory MP since 1906. No British government minister had ever been black or Asian.
Jump forward 18 years to 2010, when those born in the year that I first voted were themselves coming of age. The pace of change had been slow. On the eve of the May 2010 election, all of the MPs in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet were white. The Conservatives had edged forward to two ethnic minority MPs – one black and one Asian – rather than one, with 15 non-white MPs across the House, compared to 52 now a decade later. A young British Asian female first-time-voter was helping to elect a House of Commons which had still never seen a single British Asian woman MP elected – when new home secretary Priti Patel first became an MP in May 2010, alongside four Asian women MPs for Labour.
So Boris Johnson’s first Cabinet reflects a remarkable acceleration in ethnic diversity as a new norm in British politics over the last decade, with as much ethnic diversity around the top table as under the last four prime ministers put together. From having two ethnic minority MPs a decade ago, the Conservatives have a British Asian chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary, among half a dozen non-white MPs around the Cabinet table.
Boris Johnson might seek the credit, he has inherited David Cameron’s successful effort in the 2010 and 2015 intakes to challenge Labour’s near monopoly on ethnic minority representation. The cross-party progress is a story of social as well as political change. Alok Sharma, the international development secretary, born in Agra in 1969, came to Reading as a five year old with his parents. Like his British-born colleagues, his trajectory reflects how this generation have stronger expectations than their parents of their prospects in public life.
The diversity of the Cabinet sparked a fractious social media debate. In our democracy, anybody should criticise any politician for their political views. But those labelling the new Cabinet ministers as “tokens” went too far. This singled out ethnic minority ministers for additional criticism because of their race. This patronised a generation of politicians who had to break new ground in Conservative politics, as their Labour peers had done a generation earlier. It is an ugly intolerance which feels entitled to castigate ethnic minority progress if people do not hold a narrowly prescribed set of political views.
Not every ethnic minority Cabinet members share the social mobility story of Sajid Javid or Priti Patel. Some attended top private schools. Chief secretary to the treasury Rishi Sunak was educated at Winchester College. Kwasi Kwarteng is the first black British Old Etonian to sit around a Cabinet table, serving under the 20th prime minister to attend the same school.
In the Britain of 2019, we should stop talking about ethnic minorities as if they were monolithic blocks. Millions of individuals have different experiences – by generation, in education and social class, in the public and private sectors. Nobody should be surprised if British Asian voters disagree on whether to prioritise tax cuts or public spending, or hold the full range of views on Brexit.
Labour earned a strong reputation with ethnic minority voters in the 1970s, passing race discrimination legislation in the era of Enoch Powell. Labour could win support from the next generation too, but will have to earn it, not inherit it. Nor should the Conservatives expect to win British Asian votes simply by appointing a British Asian chancellor and home secretary. Who expects old people to vote Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is aged 70? The ethnic diversity of British politics is possible precisely because few voters switch their votes based on candidate ethnicity. The reshuffle shows that British Asians can expect to be key target voters in the next General Election. The power of democracy depends on all of the parties wanting to compete for voters from every background.
After 2019, the ethnic diversity of future Cabinets may never be as newsworthy again – if seeing governments come closer to reflecting the ethnic diversity of Britain today becomes a new normal. This reshuffle was a step forward for equal opportunities in politics – though newspaper editors might usefully ask themselves why the media and the Westminster lobby is so much less ethnically diverse than the Cabinet it is covering.