In March, Trevor Phillips wrote an extremely critical piece on Barack Obama. In response to questions about why Britain couldn’t have an Obama, he gave a multi-faceted reply. Firstly, he pointed out that the UK and US have very different demographics with the black population in America making up a bigger proportion of the population. More importantly, Phillips argued that, ‘Black Britons can’t bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations.’
After dividing prominent black people into either ‘challengers’ who guilt white people into policies such as affirmative action and ‘bargainers’ who agree not to point out America’s racism if America isn’t racist towards them, Phillips ended with the following. That rather than ushering in a post-racial America, Obama’s ‘charm, skill and ruthless cynicism’ was more reminiscent of Bill Clinton than JFK.
Now, it seems that Mr Phillips diagnosis for why Britain couldn’t have its own Obama isn’t demography or white guilt, but the institutional racism within the Labour Party which prevents outsiders from breaking through. I think he has a point but that he’s over-stating it so lets break it down.
It’s the Math, Stupid
Ethnic minorities make up less than 10% of the British population. On the other hand, minorities make up between 25% and 35% of America’s population depending on how you classify white Hispanics and Latinos.
Now that racism is less of an issue in America (although the Deep South and parts of Appalachia aren’t included in that), its not surprising that given the numbers, they were likely to be first to elect an ethnic President. Also lets not forget that Colin Powell may have achieved this milestone in 2000 if he had decided to run, so despite his talents Obama wasn’t the only person who could have achieved this.
The Democratic Coalition
Matt Yglesias made a really interesting point about how non-white, non-christians now form a plurality of the Democratic party.
There are, of course, white Christian Democrats. But most Democrats are black, Hispanic, Asian, irreligious, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or (like me) several of the above…So a JFK, an Obama, is very exciting â€” not only to black voters (or, in the right moment, Catholic ones) but really to all members of the pluralist coalition. Itâ€™s a reaffirmation that we, too, are all Americans and not some kind of second-rate hangers-on who need a white (ideally southern) Christian to help shield the public from our ickiness.
I would add women and gay people to that list, but on the whole this makes a lot of sense. This isn’t to say that this coalition won’t break apart if the Democrats don’t govern well, but it helps to explain why an ethnic candidate might find it easier to get to the top.
In the UK ethnic minorities don’t really form a part of the core coalition of any of the three parties. As far as I can tell Labor is a coalition of the working class and professionals who moved to it in 1997 but may be moving back. The Conservatives are a coalition between rural folk, middle England and the prosperous South and the Lib Dems are also a largely middle class, southern party (2005 election map). Again, part of this is demography and it isn’t anyone’s fault. Indeed you might say that this is a better state of affairs than one in which the ‘other’ is all concentrated in one party.
The Institutional Problem
â€œMy point is a very simple one – the political system is to some extent closed to outsiders, to people who are not of a particular stamp. This is not just about race, this is a wider point that our leadership class is really basically white, male and professional. It is very hard for women to break in and very hard for working-class people to get to the higher reaches of parties.”
This part of Trevor Phillips argument actually makes sense to me. Control of who gets selected as a ppc depends on either local constituency groups which are horribly outdated or central command which has its own agenda. I’ve argued before that having primaries to select ppc’s would be a very positive thing. Apart from forcing candidates to connect with voters in order to get nominated, it would also hopefully lead to mp’s having more independence when they got into parliament.
I don’t think that Britain needs to feel bad that we haven’t had a minority prime minister yet. However, it would be nice to see some institutional change in how mp’s are elected. I think the black conservative mp Adam Afriyie has it right when he says,
“I do not believe we will see a black prime minister in my lifetime. In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain itâ€™s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.â€
I think whether or not there will be a black or asian prime minister is pure speculation. However, the ‘outsider’ problem he mentions in the second part is more important to resolve even if it doesn’t lead to an ethnic prime minister.
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Filed in: Election News,Party politics,Race politics