The UK isn’t ready for a black Prime Minister

The re-election of Barack Obama as US President has again prompted debate on whether the UK could ever elect a black Prime Minister. As a country with a diverse population, a black British Prime Minister shouldn’t be any more far-fetched than a black US President. Nonetheless, the UK isn’t ready for a black Prime Minister.

With America’s history of poor race relations, racial segregation and institutionalised racism as the legacy of the aforementioned, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 had once been near unthinkable. Prior to the primaries, and even during the election campaign, many opined that the American electorate would not elect a black man as the US President. Those who pointed out that Obama was actually mixed race seemed to miss the point — a president of colour seemingly wasn’t compatible with American history and society. Following the election, anyone who didn’t believe it could happen was proved wrong and the election of President Obama marked a watershed in American politics, history and society.

Some British media and commentators soon mooted the idea of whether a black Prime Minister could ever be elected. Most notable was Jeremy Paxman’s cringeworthy Newsnight interview with Dizzee Rascal (and Baroness Amos) where Paxman referred to his interviewee as “Mr Rascal” and was somewhat condescending throughout. As an aside, it was an inappropriate interview that smacked of bad journalism in Newsnight’s decision to interview Dizzee Rascal, purely on the basis of him being black and involved in youth culture.

The likelihood of a black Prime Minister being elected has been met with mixed views but some have remained optimistic. That’s probably contributed to by the popularity of President Obama outside of America (where he’s arguably more favoured than within his own country) in encouraging the perception that a similar feat could be repeated in the UK.

British political parties too would publically like to claim it’s possible and would point towards black MPs, and MPs from other ethnic minority backgrounds, within their respective parties. Both Labour and the Conservative party boast black MPs who if they aren’t already, are being groomed as frontbench material to show how wonderfully ethnically diverse the respective parties are. But the fact is, for now, said MPs aren’t going any further than that.

The reasons why the UK isn’t ready for a black Prime Minister lie in its political system and contemporary British society. In contrast with the US, that might appear odd as both countries share apparent similarities that might suggest the election of President Obama as a black man could be repeated in the UK with a black Prime Minister. But despite the similarities, the differences are crucial in explaining why it won’t happen just yet.

Within the UK, it’s the party machinery that decides the leadership of a party and a potential Prime Minister. Unlike presidential primaries in the US, the wider electorate in the UK has no say in the leadership of a respective party. Instead, the main political parties’ nominations for a party leader are made by party MPs and elected by the wider party membership. Chosen party leaders are therefore going to reflect who the party feel is most electable while carrying their principles and appealing to their core supporters and the all important floating voters. Alas, within the UK, that isn’t going to be a black person.

The unlikelihood of a party leader being black, let alone from any ethnic minority background, is compounded by the fact that the party machinery of the main parties in the UK is very much still an old boys’ club. Therefore it manages to reinforce the glass ceiling for all minority groups, ethnic or otherwise, from progressing within their party. Indeed, I’m far from a fan of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, but as a woman, and a woman of her time, she deserves credit for not only becoming leader of the Conservative party but also in becoming Prime Minister.

Diane Abbott throwing her hat into the ring for leadership of the Labour party in 2010 failed to make ripples in the leadership race. She was eliminated in the first round of voting with less than 10% of votes and previously struggled to even get the required parliamentary party support for her nomination. Nonetheless, even within Labour, a party that has traditionally been more progressive and done more for minority groups than any other party, being black would have contributed to a perception of Abbott not being electable. Had say David Lammy, a black MP who is more favoured by the party than Abbott, decided to run for the party leadership, would he have made the final two candidates? I doubt it.

Unlike US presidential elections, the link between the Prime Minister and the electorate is absent in the UK. The party that wins the most seats forms the government of the day with the leader of said party becoming Prime Minister. Furthermore, electors largely vote for the party they have always voted for or the party with the leader they want to become Prime Minister. And for many people that’s not likely to be a black person. Given the pivotal change a black Prime Minister would represent in the UK, a party with a black leader couldn’t be guaranteed of the support and votes of its core supporters either.

Some sections of British society are unlikely to want a black Prime Minister. While the black diaspora in the UK is established and highly visible in the UK, this is largely within major cities. Whereas overall, the UK’s black population is relatively small, leaving little interaction between non-blacks and blacks in many areas of the country. Compounded by the often negative image portrayed by the media, much of the country has little or no reference point with black people, let alone a positive one to the extent they’d want a black Prime Minister. For some people their reluctance would come down to prejudice born of institutionalised racism. For others it would just be a big ask to support the unknown.

Even amongst other ethnic minority groups who might be inclined to support a party led by a black leader (just as many Hispanics voted for President Obama), many such communities in the UK are fairly insular. They might even feel less of a connection to a potential black Prime Minister than many white voters in largely ethnically homogenous areas would do.

Other ethnic minorities have become just as established as the black diaspora within the UK but it’s difficult to say if they could have more success in producing a non-white Prime Minister. Other ethnic minorities are probably perceived more favourably than black people but the arguments against the likelihood of a black Prime Minister are similarly applicable.

A black British Prime Minister isn’t forever impossible. As British society becomes more ethnically diverse, politics and Parliament will hopefully reflect it. However, the party machinery in British politics will have to succumb to such a possibility and for now it doesn’t appear to be willing to facilitate that. Attitudes in the UK too will need to change as institutionalised racism and a lack of connection to black people would still play a role in deterring electors from seeking a black Prime Minister.

Thatcher famously said she didn’t think there would be a woman Prime Minister in her lifetime and six years later had assumed the position of Prime Minister herself. I suspect the advent of the window of change where a black Prime Minister becomes possible won’t be too dissimilar but that moment certainly isn’t here yet.

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