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In the News

The significance of black politicians in the UK

Mike McCartney

22nd October 2021

How well are BME communities represented in British politics?

Diversity in politics is important because representation matters. While it is not impossible for male politicians to speak for women, or for white MPs to effectively stand up for the rights of black constituents, there is an argument that the needs and wants of women and minorities are more likely to be heard, and more accurately expressed, if they are voiced by politicians from a similar background.

This is why it is worth considering the achievements at this time of the year, of those who broke the mould in British politics by being the first to overcome racial barriers.

That is why the clutch of politicians elected in the 1987 General Election are held in such high regard. This group comprised of Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, and Keith Vaz.

You can find mini profiles of these four here: The First Black Parliamentarians in our Times - Black History Month 2021

It is incredible to think that as recently as the 1980s that there were only four ethnic minority MPs. I can’t find exact numbers for black MPs, but the number of black and minority MPs now stands at 65, i.e. 10% of all MPs. This is, however, slightly below the proportion of ethnic minorities across the entire UK population.

According to British Future:

“This is, in no doubt, commendable progress. The number of ethnic minority MPs has risen at each of the last nine General Elections since the first four black and Asian MPs of the post-war era were elected in 1987. But progress was very slow for that breakthrough generation, edging up from four to fifteen MPs over several elections in the two decades between 1987 and 2005. The rapid acceleration in this decade is now helping to give us a more representative parliament.

However, growing diversity in parliamentary politics has been an English phenomenon, and it continues to be. When English MPs take their seats in the House of Commons, 12% will now be ethnic minorities. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland there are no ethnic minority MPs. Although England is more diverse than the rest of the UK, one in twenty people in Scotland and Wales are from an ethnic minority background. We should expect growing diversity to begin to be reflected by the time of the next General Election. All of the parties can look at what they can change to encourage that.”

See: 'Diversity milestone' as one in ten MPs now from an ethnic minority background. - British Future

Then we can pause to consider representation in government. The black first Cabinet minister was Paul Boateng (mentioned above), in May 2002, when he was appointed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Currently there are seven BME ministers seated around the Cabinet table. As of October 2021, these are Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng, Alok Sharma, and Suella Braverman. Bojo’s full Cabinet can be found here: Cabinet reshuffle 2021: Who is in Boris Johnson's new cabinet? - BBC News

An absolutely brilliant pedagogical device is the Colour of Power 2021 report by Operation Black Vote (OBV). This is a graphic representation of the gender, ethnicity, and colour of who OBV consider to be the most powerful people in the UK, and is not restricted to elected politicians.

It allows users to filter by the above categories.

What it reveals is quite astonishing. Have a go at filtering by female and black, for example...

See: The Colour Of Power

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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