Britain set for most ethnically diverse parliament ever

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain, April 15, 2024. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain, April 15, 2024. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

July 4 election projected to bring unprecedented representation, with about 14% of lawmakers coming from diverse backgrounds

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, a non-partisan think-tank which works on integration, immigration, identity and race

Regardless of who wins Britain’s general election on July 4 one thing is sure - a record number of ethnic minority MPs will win seats creating a parliament that will for the first time come close to reflecting the country’s diversity. 

It has been a long time coming, but Britain is now narrowing the gap between the diversity of parliament and its population much faster than anyone thought possible - and more rapidly than other western democracies. 

A record 66 ethnic minority MPs were elected in the 2019 election. That is now set to jump to at least 88 MPs and could even rise to 100 if the opposition Labour Party were to win a landslide victory, according to analysis by British Future.

Consider that when Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was born in 1980 every post-war MP had been white, and when he graduated from university in 2001 the country had still never had a single Black or Asian cabinet minister.

But by the time he became prime minister in 2022, there was strikingly little public discussion of his Asian ethnicity or Hindu faith. This lack of comment has been mirrored across the UK’s devolved nations following the recent appointments of a Black Welsh First Minister, Vaughan Gething, and - briefly - a Scottish Asian First Minister, Humza Yousaf.  

Yet Britain’s growing ethnic minority population had no parliamentary presence for over four decades after 1945. They were the subject of heated debates about immigration and race relations, with no public platform to respond.

The election of three black MPs and one Asian MP in 1987 began to change that – but the pace of change remained slow, rising from four to 15 ethnic minority MPs over four general elections in the next 20 years.

Race equality advocates noted gloomily that an increase of 2.5 MPs every parliament would mean waiting 75 years for a parliament that reflected Britain’s ethnic diversity.

The 2024 election will see as big an advance in one night as was made across those two decades.  Change accelerated sharply after 2010 due to long-term social changes – the educational and professional advance of ethnic minority Britons born in the 1970s and 1980s – combined with political leadership.

Conservative leader David Cameron decided his party’s long-term future, in a more diverse country, depended on challenging the Labour Party’s near-monopoly on minority representation and support. This also broadened the geography of representation, disproving fears among party selectors about whether white areas could vote for minority candidates.

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The UK and Canada have been pace-setters in ethnic diversity becoming a “new normal” in public life, across the party political spectrum.

Britain’s 650-seat House of Commons - parliament’s lower chamber - is set to have about 14% of MPs from an ethnic minority background, which would match the 14% share of the electorate. Canada saw 53 visible minority MPs elected in 2021– almost 16% of its House of Commons, compared to 20% of the electorate there.

The UK has some comparative strengths in how it thinks and talks about identity and citizenship. British ethnic minorities, particularly from Commonwealth backgrounds, have staked a distinctly strong claim to British identity, doubling down on this whenever it has been challenged, from the Windrush generation onwards. 

There are lessons for others too. The UK has strong anti-discrimination laws and, crucially, strong ethnicity data to track progress – something that is taboo in other major democracies such as France.

Ethnic minority representation in national politics depends on social norms – on pushing back overt and casual prejudices. Those from minority backgrounds can hold leadership roles once party leaders, members and voters realise that Black and Asian politicians are equally capable of representing everybody, rather than being seen primarily as spokespeople for minority communities.  

But progress on ethnic diversity has not been matched in other areas. If Labour wins an overall majority, as polls predict, women will only account for 39% of MPs compared to 51% of the electorate. Parliament will also remain very much the preserve of the middle classes.  

A diverse parliament is important because it brings different perspectives to its work, which can lead to more effective policy-making.  MPs from diverse backgrounds can also be role models, inspiring more young people to vote and get involved in politics.  

Britain still has polarised debates about race and identity. But the growing share of a minority voice in national politics is something to celebrate – as long as we understand it does not do the work of policy and social change on its own.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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