15 June 2018

How ethnic minority women claimed their voice in parliament

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Last night’s Lewisham east by-election marks an historic shift in the balance of ethnic minority representation in parliament.

Won by Labour’s Janet Daby with a majority of 5,629, the contest also saw a big swing from Labour to the Lib Dems, who increased their vote share by 20% and leapfrogged the Conservatives into second place; and voters’ rejection once again of far-right politics, with ‘For Britain Party’ candidate Anne-Marie Waters losing her deposit after securing just 266 votes.

Less noticed is that when Daby, the child of Windrush migrants from Guyana and Jamaica, takes her place on the green benches of the Commons, the 53rd ethnic minority MP would mean there are 27 women and 26 men among the ethnic minority MPs – with more BAME women than men in the House of Commons for the first time ever.

A century after women got the vote, the increased share of voice of black and Asian women in national politics is something to celebrate. It reflects an important generational shift in voice and power within minority communities, with a generation of women mostly born in Britain in the 70s and 80s who expect an equal chance to play leadership roles, locally and nationally, in our public life. It has been important for integration that we have seen an acceleration of progress across genders and across the major parties in the last decade.

Until a decade ago, it was widely assumed that ethnic minority politicians would be mostly men. There was heated debate before the 2005 election, between advocates of greater gender and ethnic minority representation, because of the widespread assumption that female politicians would be white and hence increasing gender representation would exclude minorities.

When Diane Abbott was be elected to the House in 1987 she became the first of just two black women elected to the Commons in the twentieth century, with Oona King following her in 1997 and Dawn Butler in 2005. Only in 2010 were British Asian women elected for the very first time as MPs, with Rushanara Ali, Priti Patel, Yasmin Qureshi, Shabana Mahmood and Valerie Vaz winning seats.

The classes of 2010, 2015 and 2017 have been much more gender balanced. Labour now counts 20 women and 13 men among its ethnic minority MPs; the Conservatives have six BAME women and 13 men; and the Liberal Democrats have one non-white female MP in Layla Moran, the first UK MP of Palestinian descent.

Local government is lagging behind this progress in national politics, though change may be happening more slowly. The first Asian female councillors in Blackburn were elected in May after controversy about their exclusion.

More needs to be done to make sure women from minority backgrounds do not face additional barriers. Janet Daby’s election shows how they are taking their rightful place in our public life.



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