Diversity at the top—what can Labour learn from the Tories?

It is now certain that our next prime minister will not—unlike 13 out of the last 15—be a white man

July 19, 2022
Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are competing for the Tory leadership. Credit: Alamy
Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are competing for the Tory leadership. Credit: Alamy

And then there were three. We know for sure that the Conservative Party will not be making a white man prime minister. Tom Tugendhat, who bowed out of the Tory leadership fight on Monday night, was the last white man standing—the last representative of a demographic from which 13 out of the last 15 PMs, across parties, have been drawn. Kemi Badenoch was also knocked out this afternoon, after a creditable performance.

The remaining candidates—Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss—are battling to be the final two names put to party members. If the Tories don’t choose the first Asian person to enter No 10 Downing Street, they will choose a woman. The score for female prime ministers would be 3-0 to the Conservatives. Getting a woman into Downing Street once or twice could have been a fluke—Theresa May’s ascent had an element of circumstantial luck, and maybe Labour’s Barbara Castle could have been the first female PM if the Tories’ Margaret Thatcher hadn’t got the job. But to do it three times looks like a pattern.

This may be challenging for progressives in politics. It may discombobulate those in other sectors too, where there is an increasing commitment to the importance of equality, but where anxious conversations about diversity deficits are not always delivering effective action to close them. Intuitively, the British Conservative Party might not have the image or reputation for being a pace-setter in this area, but it may be useful to consider what has changed and how they did it.

The Conservatives have a long party tradition of pioneering meritocracy, from Disraeli being the first ethnic minority prime minister in 1868 to Thatcher’s victory in 1979. But the modern party was shaped in response to Labour’s far better record on diversity. When David Cameron became an MP in 2001, he joined an all-white Conservative parliamentary group, containing just 14 women out of 165 MPs. The party seemed to be going backwards: Cameron was part of an incoming cohort consisting of 37 white men and one woman. Labour had all 12 of the non-white MPs in 2001, and 95 women among the 118 female MPs across the House.

David Cameron decided to make changing the face of his party a central piece of his modernisation project. The acceleration of progress under his leadership was unprecedented. On New Year’s Day in 2010, the Conservatives had one black and one Asian MP; by December 2019, they had 22 ethnic minority MPs. The number of Conservative women more than quadrupled, from 17 to 87.

A more meritocratic Conservative politics did not happen by chance. Rather than quotas, there were significant, softer interventions—inviting more people into the party, showing that diversity could widen opportunities, and especially ensuring that there were more balanced shortlists so that local party members would consider both male and female candidates whenever they were voting to replace a retiring Conservative MP. 

Cameron contested Labour’s dominance of the ethnic minority vote. He wanted to show that his party decisively rejected the historic baggage that had created a strong allegiance and identification between first-generation Commonwealth migrants and Labour, the party which had countered the “send them back” politics of Enoch Powell with anti-discrimination legislation and, eventually, an ethnic minority presence in national politics after 1987. 

Cameron’s success in changing his party, however, hasn’t attracted significant support from minority voters at the polls. The most recent representative survey of minority voters, in February this year, showed a Labour lead of three to one, 58 per cent to 21 per cent. The Conservatives have advanced modestly with Indian voters but gone down from an already low base with black British and Muslim voters.

Labour still has a stronger overall record than the Tories when it comes to both gender and race in political representation in parliament. Today, half of Labour MPs are women, compared to a quarter of Conservatives. One in five Labour MPs are black, Asian or mixed race, compared to around one in 15 Conservatives (six per cent). Labour led the way in changing the image of what an MP looked like—particularly with the large intake of women in 1997. But it struggles to reflect this strong support at the top.

The party was slow to build on the progress in parliamentary ethnic diversity that it made in 1987, with only limited advances in the New Labour era. Just two per cent of the party’s 1997 intake were non-white. In Labour, as in the Conservative Party, diversity improved after 2010—but the geography of ethnic diversity in the party is narrow. Apart from exceptions such as Lisa Nandy in Wigan, almost every ethnic minority Labour MP represents an area of above average ethnic diversity, while very few of the ethnic minority Conservatives do. This may present hurdles for future leadership contenders, if party members regard potential candidates like David Lammy or Sadiq Khan as “too metropolitan.”

So, the cultural question is whether Labour has a narrower, more cautious, and safer archetype of what leadership, competence and electability look like. The left can undoubtedly learn something from the right, at least when it comes to leadership. It is an embarrassment to Labour that every other party in British politics—across all of the nations of the UK—has now had a woman leader, while Labour has not. 

In an inversion of the usual institutional pattern, the Conservative Party gets more diverse and more gender-balanced the higher up the hierarchy you go. This shows that leadership catalysed this cultural change. The Conservatives have successfully shifted assumptions at Westminster about who is ready to lead. Labour has not. 

Conservative women were three times as likely as men to run for the top job this time—with four of the 88 Conservative women among the eight candidates on the ballot, along with four out of the 270 men. Across different strands of party opinion, there were several men who supported a female candidate instead of running themselves, such as Michael Gove championing Kemi Badenoch’s campaign, or Steve Baker nominating Suella Braverman. This pluralism matters—once different female candidates are running in the same contest, with different politics and views from each other, it is much harder to typecast them as “the female candidate.”

It is important to be clear about what diversity in political leadership does and does not do. Diversity at the top does not automatically lead to wider opportunities for others. Thatcher’s gender did not prevent her from getting the top job—but she did not focus on helping other women up the ladder: John Major inherited an all-male cabinet. It took New Labour and then Cameron to build on Thatcher’s individual achievement to change the prospects for female candidates in politics a generation later. 

It is an advance for equality if those with the right educational credentials and professional networks have a fair chance at leadership—no matter their gender or ethnic background. But that does not deal with the knottier question of how to extend equal opportunities irrespective of social class and educational status. The Tory leadership contest shows that the stereotype of who becomes an MP has largely been banished, at least in terms of race and gender, if not class. Yet the Commons does not have a 50-50 gender balance. The practical time and cost pressures of pursuing selection at Westminster still present higher hurdles for women than men, especially parents of young children.

The fact that a third of MPs, across parties, are now women may create a tipping point to deepen changes in the Westminster culture. Yet it was striking that, after the resignation of Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons, a senior Downing Street official criticised those colleagues who challenged his behaviour both privately and publicly, arguing they should have put party loyalty first.

If we do have a third female prime minister, it will show that female leadership has become an accepted part of British politics. Thatcher’s premiership was a surprising early breakthrough, ahead of its time. The fact that Labour’s historic lack of a female leader is now considered abnormal shows how much expectations have changed.