British politics and Rishi Sunak’s new Government offers little hope for minority communities
By Kazim Ukka
Recent years have seen considerable progress in the representation of ethnic minorities within British politics. At the last General Election in 2019, 65 MPs from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were elected to the House of Commons, marking a fourfold increase compared to a decade earlier whereby there were just 16 BAME MPs. Furthermore, 6 of the 11 candidates in the recent Conservative Leadership contest were from minority ethnic backgrounds. Then, earlier this week, Rishi Sunak became the UK’s first British-Asian Prime Minister. This would seem to indicate advancement in a party that has traditionally represented the interests of predominantly white middle and upper classes. However, such diversity is futile if the issues and interests of minorities and marginalised groups are not actively represented. It is apparent that the exclusion of ethnic minority groups within the UK’s two largest political parties persists and, in turn, that genuine representation has yet to be achieved within British politics.
British BAME politicians often performatively represent a group identity but not its genuine interests, frequently leading them to support or implement policies that adversely impact marginalised communities from which they hail. This may be attributed to a lack of class-based representation among MPs, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds – a particularly pronounced issue within government. Indeed, over 60% of the members of each of the last three Conservative cabinets and 65% of Rishi Sunak’s new cabinet were privately educated, in contrast to just 7% of the UK population. As such, while these cabinets have been ethnically diverse, they are unrepresentative of the country on measures such as socio-economic background.
Sunak is of Indian origin, his parents having immigrated to the UK from East Africa. While he is quick to emphasise his “humble beginnings” (though he attended the exclusive Winchester College and Oxford University), he and his wife have a combined fortune of £730 million, making him the richest MP in the House of Commons. Thus, the group Sunak primarily represents is the wealthy, which is illustrated by a recent video where he discusses diverting funding from “deprived urban areas” to affluent towns such as Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Historically marginalised communities, including BAME communities, tend to be among the most socio-economically disadvantaged in society, so it is difficult to see how the selection of Sunak as Prime Minister will benefit them.
In addition, Sunak has proposed a continuation of many previous government policies discriminating against minorities and other marginalised groups. As but one example, in line with his reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, he has pledged to push forward with the scheme to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and to establish similar partnerships with other countries, which has drawn condemnation from organisations such as Amnesty International. As well as capping immigration numbers, Sunak has gone so far as to say he would tighten the grounds for claiming asylum, withhold aid from countries refusing to take back refugees, and even house migrants in cruise ships to save money. In leveraging his family’s immigration story to appeal to ethnic minority and working-class Conservative voters, he has arguably sought to detract from his racist policy proposals. He also argued that “no option should be off the table” to facilitate such inhumane methods, including withdrawing the UK as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Although Sunak’s appointment may breed optimism, especially among British-Asian communities and minorities, more widely, it is evident that he will not act in their best interests but rather, pursue policies that will directly disadvantage them.
In fact, Sunak’s newly-appointed Cabinet raises significant concerns vis-à-vis minority communities. Braverman has been re-appointed as Home Secretary, just days after resigning over breaking the Ministerial Code. She has openly called for the UK to leave the ECHR and demonstrated toxic levels of cruelty at the Conservative Party Conference in stating that it is her “dream” to see a flight of asylum seekers take off to Rwanda. Moreover, her attempts to ignite culture wars against “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” demonstrates a politics built on division and exclusion, rather than engagement and understanding.
Meanwhile, having regained his role as Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab will inevitably resume his mission to dismantle the UK’s human rights framework by repealing and replacing the Human Rights Act with the so-called British Bill of Rights. By making it harder for victims of human rights abuses to access justice, the bill will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in society, including racial and religious minorities.
Furthermore, Michael Gove, who has returned as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, has been described by journalist Peter Oborne as the “unsung commander-in-chief of the Islamophobes inside the Conservative Party”. As Education Secretary, Gove manufactured the “Trojan Horse” affair, which alleged an Islamist takeover of schools in Birmingham, in an attempt to securitise Muslim communities and in turn, pave the way for the introduction of the statutory PREVENT duty across the public sector.
This reaffirms that this Government, despite the Cabinet’s relative diversity, is bent upon a policy agenda that discriminates against minorities and other vulnerable groups.
Regarding Islamophobia specifically, the summer Conservative leadership contest further exposed the endemic nature of Islamophobia within the Government and the Conservative Party as a whole. In June, one of the candidates for the party leadership, Penny Mordaunt, was smeared in a Daily Mail article for meeting with the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Zara Mohammed. According to the article, Mordaunt “faced fresh questions over her judgment for meeting a controversial Muslim group – despite it being subject to a government boycott”. This highlights the Government’s policy of disengagement with mainstream Muslim organisations, including the MCB, which have been boycotted at various times over the last two decades.
Consequently, the Government has failed to tackle critical issues affecting Muslim communities in the UK and, in many ways, has perpetuated them. For example, it rejected the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia and recently removed its adviser appointed to draw up an alternative definition. This is despite ongoing cases of Islamophobia within the party, such as Nusrat Ghani being allegedly dismissed as a minister due to her “Muslimness”. At the same time, it has recently been revealed that the Conservative Party, a cabinet minister, and a senior MP accepted thousands of pounds in donations from an Italian businessman who has expressed virulently Islamophobic views, with donations continuing even after the party distanced itself from his “unacceptable comments”.
However, during his leadership campaign, Sunak ignored letters from Afzal Khan, on behalf of the APPG on British Muslims, requesting he pledge to combat Islamophobia were he to become Prime Minister. Instead, he has said he would shift the focus of the Prevent strategy away from the far-right and onto Islamist extremism – an ill-advised move that would exacerbate the targeting of Muslim communities.
Like the Conservative Party has been mired in instances of Islamophobia, so too has the Labour Party, as the concerning findings of the Forde Report and The Labour Files highlight. The Forde Report concludes that “there are serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the Party”, as evidenced by experiences of “racism, Islamophobia and sexism” among its staff and members. Some recalled being denied a prayer space at the party’s offices, being subject to a more strenuous recruitment process, or being passed up for promotion because of their ethnicity. The report also states that in its efforts to address antisemitism within its ranks, the party is “operating a hierarchy of racism or of discrimination”, due to which “Islamophobia is not treated with the same seriousness within the Labour Party as other forms of racism”. Prioritising one form of racism over another is discriminatory, in and of itself, and demonstrates the incompetence with which the party leadership has sought to combat racism.
This was followed by the release of The Labour Files, a documentary series produced by Al-Jazeera, which similarly uncovers a culture of racism within the party that has generated discrimination against Black and Muslim MPs, councillors, and members. It is unsurprising, then, that nearly half of the respondents to a poll by the Labour Muslim Network felt that Islamophobia has been dealt with “very badly” by the party (40%) and by Keir Starmer (46%). Hence, it is apparent that minorities such as Muslims struggle to find an inclusive political home in a party that once claimed to represent the working-class and other marginalised groups.
Despite recent improvements in diversity within British politics, including the first BAME Prime Minister assuming office, minorities and marginalised groups remain inadequately represented. Indeed, diversity does not necessarily equate to representation holding actual value. What is needed is for the issues and interests of minorities to be actively represented within policymaking, thereby helping bring about meaningful change for these groups. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour can claim to represent the interests of British Muslim communities, partly due to their failure to tackle Islamophobia within their respective parties. Those at the top of each party must urgently address this issue and in turn, create an environment in which policies truly representing the interests of the most marginalised are welcome. Only then would genuine representation start to be achieved.
Regarding Rishi Sunak’s Government itself, far from offering a government built upon “competence, compassion, and integrity”, Rishi Sunak’s appointment of a new cabinet indicates a further lurch towards intolerance and the marginalisation of minorities. We can, therefore, only urge the Prime Minister to reverse his previous positions on immigration, pledge not to reintroduce the Bill of Rights in any form, and state clearly the intention of his Government to avoid fuelling division and a damaging culture war.
About the Author:
Kazim Ukka is a Researcher at the Community Policy Forum. He holds a BSc (Hons) in International Relations and History, and an MSc in Conflict Studies, both from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is also Chair of the Islamic Unity Society, a registered UK charity seeking to empower British Muslims to grow, develop, and engage in the UK.