With Kwasi Kwarteng appointed to Liz Truss’s new cabinet as the first chancellor of African heritage, James Cleverly in as foreign secretary and Kemi Badenoch installed as international trade secretary, alongside a number of similarly highly placed Asian-heritage colleagues, male and female, it is tough to argue against the idea that the Conservatives are Britain’s only truly inclusive political party.
I publish the Powerlist, an annual guide that for the past 17 years has celebrated and profiled Britain’s most influential black people. My politics is progressive and pro-black – which, by the way, doesn’t mean I’m anti anything else. There’s no zero-sum game here. I mention it only to make the point that I’m neither a die-hard Labour or Tory supporter – so it pleases me to see the rise to prominence and power of people who share my heritage.
Nevertheless, the appointments throw up some fascinating questions. How did the black cabinet members get so far so soon? Why do they all seem to be cut from the same cloth? How will that play out with black voters who have traditionally voted for Labour in large numbers?
Black Tories will say it’s all about David Cameron, who introduced the Conservative A-list, a diversity policy he conceived in 2005 before he was prime minister, in a bid to make Conservative electoral candidates more representative.
When we launched the 2012 Powerlist at 10 Downing Street in 2011, Cameron asked me in which sectors I thought the lack of black talent was most obvious. He said the military; I pointed out the Tory frontbench. “Yes,” he agreed, “but we’re changing that.”
But while it’s undoubtedly the case that the colour and gender of the average Tory candidate has changed, has their politics, too? If it has at all, there’s been a shift to the right. Kwarteng, Cleverly and Badenoch exemplify this. So how representative can they really be?
Professor Nicola Rollock of King’s College, London, whose soon-to-be-released book, The Racial Code: Tales of Resistance and Survival, explores the hidden rules of race and racism, makes the point that many are quick to laud the Conservatives for the number of black and Asian people on their frontbench, but if those black and Asian ministers either do nothing to improve the experiences of people who look like them or, worse still – and as we have already seen – actively implement and support policies that are to our detriment, then “the cold reality is that the colour of their skin is of little significance”.
So are Kwarteng, Cleverly and Badenoch “white-man parrots”, as one woman described them to me? People whose failure to engage positively with any “black” issues such as stop-and-search disproportionality, the ethnicity pay gap, and the felling of statues that glorify old white racists and slavers, to name but three, have done more to turn off potential black Tory voters than even their ex-boss Boris Johnson, with his infamous references to “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”.
Or does their ascension mean the significant number of black Britons politically best described as being “conservative with a small c” now feel comfortable enough to become Tories with a big T because they see people in government they can relate to?
Some, like Nero Ughwujabo, former No 10 adviser on race to Theresa May, say the current crop of black Conservatives have a long way to go to be seen as voices of the black community in terms of placing issues that are of concern to the community on the public agenda. “Are they just black faces or does their appointment actually give voice to the demands of the communities from where they come,” he asks.
But others, such as Festus Akinbusoye, the police and crime commissioner for Bedfordshire – and a founding member of the 2022 club, an organisation set up by black Tories to improve the Conservative party’s relationship with black communities – see it differently. “A generation of black- and brown-skinned people in Britain do not see political parties through the eyes of their parents, but rather their own aspirations, which do not see capitalism, business or profit-making as dirty words,” he says.
Whatever the case, Labour now has a problem: the optics for it don’t work. How can the Tories be forging ahead in this regard? How can it allow lack of progress on equality at the top level to be weaponised against itself?
It has almost twice the number of minority-ethnic MPs as the Conservatives, but for some reason it is not offering them senior positions: David Lammy is the only black person in the shadow cabinet.
I think this new cabinet, with Tory minorities holding the key offices of state, has already made one thing inevitable. Labour will have to take a long look in the mirror. About time, too.
Michael Eboda, a former journalist, is CEO of Powerful Media Ltd