The Class 2015 will be the most diverse ever in the history of British Parliament…writes Sunder Katwala of British Future
A record number of ethnic minority MPs have been elected to the House of Commons – 41 non-white MPs enter the new 2015 parliament compared to 27 at the last General Election, according to British Future’s analysis of the constituency results. All 27 ethnic minority MPs in the last Parliament stood again at this election – with 25 retaining their seats.
Labour’s Anas Sarwar was defeated by the SNP in Glasgow Central, while Conservative Paul Uppal’s defeat in Wolverhampton South-West means that the new Commons will not contain any British Sikh MPs, for the first time since 1997.
Those returned to serve again were joined by sixteen newly elected non-white MPs: eight for Labour, seven for the Conservatives and the first non-white SNP MP to represent the party at Westminster.
Labour retains its lead in the House of Commons overall, with 23 non-white MPs to the Conservatives’ 17, though the 2015 intake captures an increasingly competitive ‘race for representation’ between the two major parties. The surviving Liberal Democrat rump party are an all-white group of MPs, but that was true of the 57-strong Commons group before the election.
With approximately one in ten voters being non-white, the House of Commons remains less ethnically diverse than the electorate it serves, but there has been a rapid acceleration of progress.
Four black and Asian parliamentarians became the first post-war ethnic minority MPs in 1987, but progress after that was glacially slow: it took four General Elections over a period of 18 years to edge forward from four ethnic minority MPs to fifteen by 2005. But progress has sped up considerably over the last decade. 2015 is the second successive General Election to see the number rise by over a dozen in a single Parliament, with a rise from 15 minority MPs to 27 in 2010, again matched by the impact of the new class of 2015 last night.
So why has progress accelerated?
Firstly, both the Conservatives and the Labour party now regularly select non-white candidates in winnable seats, breaking the pattern of a near-one-party monopoly between 1987 and 2005.
Secondly, the outdated assumption that ethnic minority candidates would only get a fair chance in highly diverse seats, because of voter prejudice, has been consistently disproven: voters in seats with a predominantly white electorate have not had any problem with non-white candidates representing them in Parliament.
Thirdly, broader social changes, with increased ethnic minority success in education and the professions, have seen an increasingly confident group of younger ethnic minority politicians come through, expecting to be able to succeed on their merits.
Each of these factors can be seen to be reflected in the varied biographies and perspectives of the newly elected MPs in the class of 2015.
So who are they?
James Cleverly (Braintree)
As a London GLA member since 2008, Cleverly was Boris Johnson’s youth ambassador. He is mixed race: his mother, a midwife, came to Britain from Sierra Leone while his father’s family hails from Wiltshire. Privately educated, he has served in the Territorial Army for over two decades, rising to the rank of Major. Cleverly has written that he favours ‘evolutionary’ change towards a more liberal approach to immigration. He was elected by the Essex voters with a majority of 17,000, a moderate increase on that he inherited from former MP Brooks Newmark.
Suella Fernandes (Fareham)
Elected in Fareham with a majority of 22,000, up 5000 on the last election. Born in Harrow, Fernandes’ parents came to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius: “My parents came to this country with very little in the 1960s, from Kenya and Mauritius. Mum was recruited by the NHS and was a nurse for 45 years and Dad worked for a housing association”, she has said. A Cambridge-educated barrister, Fernandes stood for the Conservatives in Leicester East in 2005. Along with Cherie Blair, she was co-founder of the Africa Justice Foundation, which promotes effective legal systems across Africa, and remains a Trustee of the charity. Her mother, Uma Fernandes, served as a Tory councillor for sixteen years, also running for Parliament in Tottenham in 2001 and the Brent East by-election in 2003.
Nusrat Ghani (Wealden)
Ghani is the first British Muslim woman elected as a Conservative MP. 400 people attended the open primary in East Sussex which selected her as the Parliamentary candidate. Ghani has worked for Age Concern and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, as well as for the BBC World Service in Afghanistan and Burma. Born in Kashmir, where her father was a schoolmaster, she came to Britain at a young age. “I am the daughter of immigrants and the first woman in my family to go to college and university,” she says. “Coming from such a background taught me the importance of education, aspiration and the work ethic to deliver the opportunity and social mobility to succeed”. She increased the Conservative majority from over 17,000 to nearly 23,000.
Ranil Jayawardene (Hampshire North-East)
Jayawardene is the deputy leader of Basingstoke Council, and won his open primary selection with a pitch as the ‘local’ candidate, citing his ambition to represent the area where he grew up in Parliament. It was a shame that the constituency campaign was marred in the final week by a racist outburst from his UKIP opponent Robert Blay, who was expelled by the party for shockingly violent language, and for claiming that Jaywardene was “not British enough” to be an MP because his family had only come to this country in the 1970s. The Hampshire voters clearly did not agree, and settled the question rather decisively, as over 35,000 votes for Jayawardene gave him a super-sized majority of 29,916, having achieved a 5% increase in the Conservative share of the vote.
Seema Kennedy (South Ribble)
Born in Lancashire to a Persian father and an Irish mother, Kennedy went to live in Iran as a six-week-old baby, before her family were forced to flee Iran after the revolution in 1979. She spent her childhood in the Ribble Valley and went to school in Blackburn, proclaiming a lifelong allegiance to Blackburn Rovers football club. ” “I recognise only too well the enormous economic and cultural benefits, as well as the great British tradition of tolerance, which immigration has brought,” she has said. “The problem is that if immigration is unfettered, it leads to a strain on resources and tensions between different ethnic groups.” Labour entertained hopes of Ribble Valley being a long-shot target seat, but Kennedy secured a Conservative majority of over 13,000.
Alan Mak (Havant)
“We lived above the shop” says Alan Mak of his upbringing in York, perhaps evoking memories of Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. “My faith in Britain’s promise was shaped early on by my parents who fled Communism and dictatorship,” he says of his parents’ coming to Britain from China via Hong Kong. Mak, 30, studied at Oxford, the first member of his family to go to university, before becoming a corporate lawyer with Clifford Chance. Mak may be the first British Chinese MP elected to the Commons but he has expressed concern about “too much emphasis being placed on ethnicity” by the international media, or by British Chinese groups keen to celebrate this breakthrough. He describes himself as a born and bred Briton “who cares passionately only for his constituency, his party and his country”. Havant elected him with just over half of the vote, and a majority of nearly 14,000.
Rishi Sunak (Richmond)
Sunak’s selection to replace William Hague in the safest Conservative seat in the country was hailed by the Prime Minister as proof that the Conservative Party has changed, and would elect Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister. Privately educated at Winchester, Sunak studied at Oxford before becoming a Fulbright scholar. After working in business, he worked for the Policy Exchange think-tank, authoring thePortrait of Modern Britain report, which set out why the Conservatives need to broaden their appeal across ethnic minority groups. Sunak’s father was a GP while his mother ran a chemist shop, but his political career is already hitting the headlines in India, since his marriage made him the son-in-law of self-made Indian IT billionaire Narayan Murthy. Sunak’s marriage to Akshata Murthy was described in the Indian press as “Bangalore’s wedding of the year”
Dawn Butler (Brent Central)
Butler returns to the House of Commons, having represented Brent South from 2005 to 2010, before boundary changes saw two MPs go head to head in Brent Central in 2010, with Lib Dem Sarah Teather winning, which has now been regained by Labour, with a 29% swing, larger than any in previous General Election history in England, giving Butler a majority of almost 20,000. In her 2005 maiden speech she described her London constituency as a “shining example of integration at its best”. Butler was born in 1969 in East London to parents who came to Britain from Jamaica.
Thangam Debbonair (Bristol West)
Despite starting out as a professional cellist, Debbonair moved to Bristol two decaes ago to be Women’s Aid’s first ever National Children’s Officer, setting up support projects in refuges across the UK for children. Since then her career has focused on tackling domestic violence against women and children, as a researcher and campaigner. Debbonair, 48, was a council candidate in the Bristol City Council elections in May 2011, before her selection as a parliamentary candidate. She secured a majority of over 5,000 in a hard-fought three-way marginal, in which Lib Dem incumbent Stephen Williams finished third as the Greens competed with Labour to win.
Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton)
Huq succeeded in winning a Conservative seat a long way down the Labour target list – arithmetically, the 57th easiest seat to win – on a night when only a handful of blue seats turned red. Prior to entering Parliament, she has been an academic and writer, based at Kingston University. Her sister is the former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq. Rupa Huq hit the campaign trail headlines herself when challenging Boris Johnson on his visit to the constituency, and being physically prevented from doing so. She has combined academic writing on popular culture with spinning discs under her DJ name Dr Huq, once recording a jingle for John Peel in Bengali.
Imran Hussain (Bradford East)
A lawyer and the deputy leader of Bradford Council, Hussain was defeated by George Galloway in the 2012 by-election in Bradford West, but has now succeeded in unseating Liberal Democrat David Ward, securing a majority of over 7,000 with a swing of 9% from the Liberal Democrats. He was the first in his family to attend university and describes himself as “Bradford through and through – it’s where I was born, raised and still live now with my wife and kids”.
Clive Lewis (Norwich South)
Though he was born in London, Lewis grew up on a council estate in Northampton and was the first member of his family to attend university, studying economics at Bradford. Having been the BBC eastern region’s chief political reporter prior to entering party politics makes him a familiar face in the area. Lewis is mixed race: his father is from Grenada and his mother is English. Having joined the army reserves, Lewis served in Afghanistan in 2009. He has argued against renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Kate Osamor (Edmonton)
Osamar, a trade union activist and manager of a local GP practice, grew up around north London community activism and politics. Her mother Martha Osamor, born in Nigeria, was a Haringey Councillor and prominent left-wing activist with the Labour party ‘black sections’ movement in the late 1980s, whose high-profile campaign to be Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Vauxhall in 1989 was blocked by the National Executive Committee. Kate Osamar has said that her mother was considered ‘too radical and too opinionated’ to be an MP. “What happened to her in the Labour party – I’ll be honest with you – I wasn’t comfortable with that,” she says, while noting that “my mum stayed in the party, she never left’.
Naz Shah (Bradford West)
The battle between Shah and George Galloway was perhaps the hardest fought and most personal campaign of the election. Shah has written of her extraordinary family story, having spent 12 years campaigning alongside Southall Black Sisters for the release of her mother, Zoora Shah, who was jailed for murdering a man who raped and beat her. Shah’s formal education ended at age 12, when her mother sent her to Pakistan to seek to protect her. She worked as a social worker and chairs a mental health charity.
Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn)
Among the highest profile Labour members of the ‘class of 2015, thanks to the media profile of the fashionable north London constituency and a name that makes good headlines: London’s Evening Standard declared ‘Tulip Fever’ in their profile. Siddiq had a most unusual political apprenticeship, with family links to a Bangladeshi political dynasty. A 2013 photograph recently surfaced of Siddiq, then 30, meeting Vladimir Putin with her aunt, Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. “”I wasn’t part of my aunt’s delegation. I went because I don’t get to see her much”, she said. Having been selected to replace Glenda Jackson, with a majority of just 42 votes, Siddiq was defending Labour’s most marginal seat, but increased the majority to just over a thousand.
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil)
Ahmed-Sheikh may have the most varied CV of any newly elected MP, having been both a lawyer and a Bollywood actress. Born in Chelsea to a half-Welsh and half-Czech mother, Ahmed-Sheikh’s father, Mohammed Rizvi, was the first Asian regional councillor in Scotland, representing Edinburgh from 1986 to 1994 for the Conservatives. Ahmed-Sheikh herself stood for the Conservatives in Glasgow Govan in 1999 but left the party in 2000 over William Hague’s stance on asylum seekers, arguing that it was an “offensive appeal to base prejudice”. She has said: “We are now third, fourth-generation Asian – we don’t consider ourselves Asians living in Scotland, we consider ourselves Scottish Asians”.
(The article was first published in British Future – www.britishfuture.org)