Is the diverse Tory leadership race a good thing?
It's the most diverse field of candidates ever to compete to lead the country. But don't expect the next PM to usher in a new age of inclusion, warns Gemma Doswell
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Of the five candidates left in the running to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, only one is a cis white male. It should feel like a moment of progress. Yet somehow, it… doesn’t.
For those who’ve consistently called for greater diversity and inclusion in politics, the lack of inspiration to be found on the shortlist is confusing. But in a searing guest post today, writer Gemma Doswell argues we shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of comfort to be found on the Conservative ballot. It’s simply about understanding the difference between optics, identity politics and true representation…
You’d be forgiven for thinking Boris Johnson reached rock bottom long before last week’s cabinet mutiny.
But whether it was partygate, wallpapergate or Pinchergate that did it for you, one thing is certain – the events that marked BoJo’s personal nadir also left us with a leadership race on our hands. And what a line-up!
In total, twelve MPs made their initial bid for the top job. Four withdrew before the first ballot, and three have been eliminated in the first and second round votes leaving us with the five who took to the debate stage for the first time on Friday. But the biggest surprise of the contest so far?
No, not that they all support the Rwanda policy. *sighs with despair*
The biggest shock for many has come from the line-up’s apparent diversity.
I say apparent because we’re talking about optics, of course. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at the contenders – the original line-up consisting of Suella Braverman, Rehman Chisti, Grant Shapps, Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch and Nadhim Zahawi.
In terms of diversity, these cis male and female, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Black, former refugees and second-generation immigrants represent a wide(ish) spectrum of socio-economic upbringing.
As The Spectator noted this week, it’s “curious that it’s the Conservatives who are so ethnically diverse.” And it’s true. Just look at the Labour shadow cabinet in comparison which, whilst fairly balanced in terms of gender, is much less so in ethnicity. The big question is, why is this seen as so “curious”?
Representing from the right
Pre-mutiny, the Tory cabinet was widely viewed as the most right-wing we’ve seen in decades. Unashamedly so. Johnson’s team took no small pride in departing from David Cameron and his cosy kitchen interviews, his desperation to show that despite being posh, he was one of us, “an old country boy at heart”.
Just look at the recent record of Johnson’s cabinet. Tax hikes that critically impact the population’s poorest. Brexit. The policing bill. The Race Report. Rwanda. Discussion of withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights. Then there’s the focus on identity politics and immigration, which have become two major dividers between right and left, particularly in the wake of Brexit.
On the surface then, it is fair to describe it all as curious. The right being much more representative of identities that, by their own admission, they do not represent? Something is rotten.
So, let’s drill down into the problem with this apparent diversity, starting with frontrunner Rishi Sunak. Sunak was first described as a multimillionaire in his mid-twenties. He went to private school, studied PPE at Oxford, went on to work at Goldman Sachs and then to set up a private investment partnership with an initial fund of £536 million. His wife is richer than the Queen.
This, of course, isn’t a bad thing. He’s allowed to be a second-generation immigrant and simultaneously rich and posh and privileged. But it’s important not to forget that these lived experiences also seem fairly aligned with his white, male Conservative peers.
So, should we expect him to advocate for his visible identity? Well, why should we? I think that assumption is a major part of the problem with optics-based diversity – and it leads me neatly onto Cruella De Vil… sorry, Suella Braverman.
There’s something about Suella
Something I’ve felt my whole life is that you are not obligated to be an advocate for what you present as. You are allowed to be a mixed-race woman and not be an activist for Black and feminist rights. That doesn’t make you anti-Black or a misogynist. It simply means that while you don’t have a choice in being visibly Black or female, you do have a choice in where you put your attention. This is really relevant, I think, to Suella Braverman.
Braverman, who is also privately educated and a second-generation immigrant, began her campaign telling her fellow MPs: “Don’t vote for me because I’m a woman. Don’t vote for me because I’m brown.”
Reading that instruction made me feel deeply uncomfortable – but also very sad. I’ve since found it hard to articulate the problem. Is my discomfort the result of the echo chamber I operate in? Perhaps her preference grates on me, or goes against my own attitude, to the extent that I don’t really know how to process it?
Increasingly, I think my upset lies in the framing of her ask, the suggestion of pity or weakness. Braverman both implies that it would be silly to vote for someone because of their identity (which is realistically why we vote for most people, isn’t it?), and simultaneously suggests a deep insecurity about her own profile.
As an ethnic minority existing in a white space, there are discriminatory presumptions that can weigh heavily on you.
When I was at school, my mostly white peers seemed to think that I’d be more attracted to Black men simply because I am mixed-race. This triggered an internalised racism, a desperation to fight against this expected outcome, and as a result, I spent years trying to convince myself that I actually didn’t find Black men attractive. I’ve since met lots of people who’ve had similar formative experiences and have spent the last 20 years unlearning things they forced themselves to swallow.
Braverman’s attempts to distance herself from identity politics feel not dissimilar to this. No matter how fanatical her ideas, she’ll struggle to be seen outside the initial lens of her gender or ethnicity – and for this, I do sympathise.
We don’t all have to be activists
So, should we be rejoicing at how diverse the Tory leadership race appears? Personally, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing – at least it’s a move away from the binary assumption that white male Tories are terrible and female and/or ethnic minority Tories probably aren’t as bad. For me, the candidates’ universal support of the abhorrent Rwanda deportation policy makes them all awful, unfortunately. What we need to question is our own surprise about that.
Because having a visible identity that you don’t advocate for is OK. Uncomfortable for some, yes. Disappointing, even more so. But that’s not our business.
Take Priti Patel as an example. For me, she’s a totally unforgivable person. But in a similar way to Braverman, I hear a lot of discourse about how Patel’s policies actively work against her community, usually expressed with shock that she seems so callous. For me, there’s a nasty, racialised twang to it. A hint of ‘doesn’t she know how lucky she is to be in her position?’
But not every brown person needs to be an advocate for being brown. Not every immigrant needs to advocate for immigration. Not every woman needs to be a feminist. The truly inclusive approach here is to allow all of these candidates to be awful, irrespective of their visible profile.
Because let’s face it, that’s the only word for all of them. Awful.
Gemma Doswell is a mixed-race writer from Birmingham, based in London, who writes regularly about racism and equality. She has volunteered for World Afro Day, an organisation fighting to end afro hair discrimination in schools, and is currently working on her debut novel for young adults.
It interests and heartens me that it's more diverse and representative of different ethnicities who live in the UK, though I'm not a Tory supporter. It makes me ask where the Labour Party is going wrong on this front? A bit puzzled by 'only one is a cis white male': who are the trans gender candidates? I honestly had no idea.