Saturday 5 June 2010

Are the Tories the real champions of diversity?

Yes, says Daniel Hannan, who is backing Diane Abbott for the Labour leadership, while insisting that the Conservatives can claim a much stronger record than Labour on diversity and representation:

"You see, in our unfussy way, we ghastly Right-wingers have ended up with a more pluralist and representative party than Labour".

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Let's take a closer look at the evidence behind Hannan's claims.

Well, bully for you, Diane. We elected our first ethnic minority MP 115 years ago.

Yes - but Hannan omits to mention that it then took the Conservatives 97 years to elect a second, and 110 years to elect a third, non-white MP.

And there was a cynical element to the Tory adoption of Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree in 1895: Next Left has previously staked his claim to be considered the first Cameron Conservative, though Hannan would surely find is pro-Empire views too robustly right-wing.

Labour's first black or Asian MP was in fact elected not in 1987, but in 1922, though few could challenge the importance of the 1987 breakthrough in post-Windrush Britain.

Next: the Conservatives as the pioneers on gender representation.

“Positive action by Labour has pushed the number of women in Parliament to a record level.” Yup: and it’s been more than 30 years since a female Conservative politician became Prime Minister.

Sure - but is Hannan really seeking to claim that Mrs Thatcher's singular achievement did a great deal for women in politics?

The Coalition government has come under fire for only having four women in a Cabinet of 22: few have noticed how that shows how much expectations have changed in a generation.

Indeed, there had never been more than two women in Cabinet in any previous Conservative-led Cabinet, or indeed in any pre-1997 Cabinet at all, whether Labour or Tory. (Prior to 2010, there had been a total of four Conservative women MPs and one Conservative female peer in Cabinet across half a century, though I would not advise David Cameron to make too audacious a claim to be a great equality pioneer on that basis).

That eighteen women served across Labour Cabinets from 1997 to 2010, compared to ten women before them in Britain's political history, played a large part a shift as to what is thought of as the norm.

Contrast the headache facing Mrs T's immediate successor, John Major, in November 1990, as his biographer Anthony Seldon reports:

Major was relieved by the speed and comparative ease with which the reshuffle locked into place. His selection came under immediate attack from two perspectives. Less damaging was the charge that its heavy preference for public school and Oxbridge ministers made a mockery of his talk of a classless society. More seriously, he had unwittingly appointed the first all-male Cabinet since Home's in 1963-4, which gave Labour its first chance to seize the initiative


The all-male issue stung Major. He told aides that with only seventeen female Conservative MPs to choose from, and no obvious senior woman minister in the wings, his legacy gave him little room for manouvere. Of all Tory prime ministers this century, he was perhaps the most convinced of the merits of equal opportunities".

It is remarkable that a Prime Minister could only, 20 years ago, "unwittingly" appoint an all male Cabinet, with this noticed in Downing Street only when there was a public and political reaction. Once Ministers of State Gillian Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley were promoted after the 1992 election, there was a sense that the issue had been sorted. (Though one should acknowledge that Major's Downing Street staff contained rather more women in senior roles than Cameron's does, including his head of policy Sarah Hogg and Judith Chaplin running his political office).


So Hannan's claims to Tory leadership on pluralism in representation don't run so deep. What is true is that the party has put a lot of effort into this area recently.

That is a good thing. I don't want a politics where ethnic and gender diversity are the property of one party. That's why I have been consistently supportive of Conservative efforts in this area. We have now begun to see much stronger cross-party progress than before. The Conservatives elected 37 white men and 1 woman to Westminster in their "class of 2001" group of new MPs - who will seriously defend that as a "meritocratic" outcome?

The reaction to that inside as well as outside the party that saw the Conservatives finally begin to get their act together.

Having elected four non-white MPs in their history, that they elected another nine new MPs in their class of 2010 is an important step-change for the party, and a welcome one. Indeed, now that Labour has broken down any "ethnic penalty" for BME candidates as a group when selecting new candidates (in an unsung way, which many expert voices seem to have missed), I have argued that only cross-party progress could give us fair chances and so sustained progress to what campaigners call "a Parliament that looks like Britain".

That 36 of the 148 newly elected Conservative MPs are women (24%) is not an astounding achievement, except that it compares favourably with the 13 women among the 158 Tory MPs who were re-elected. Labour elected 31 women (46%) in an intake only half as large as that of the Tories.

But why did the Conservatives place a much higher priority on trying to have a Parliamentary party which might begin to reflect the country in terms of a broader gender and ethnic mix? Hannan thinks it reflects an unfussy and long-standing commitment to pluralism on the right.

But why did a party happy to run along with fewer than 20 female MPs for decades suddenly think it imperative to try to elect 50 or more now?

Perhaps this graph offers a helpful clue?

Everybody knows that what finally motivated the Conservatives to prioritise becoming "a more pluralist and representative party" was the political imperative to catch up with Labour.

Its good to see Daniel Hannan happily celebrating his "pluralist and representative" party.

He might acknowledge that some of the credit at least surely belongs to a helpful nudge from his political opponents.

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