The rise of racial bias against Asians, Blacks and ethnic minorities, especially after the EU Referendum in June 2016, is a constant and consistent reminder of the existing inequalities in every day British life. A survey of 1000 people by Guardian from ethnic minority last year found that they are more likely to have faced negative everyday experience- such as racism, than their white counterparts. Even political parties seem to be embroiled in rows over prejudices and racism. While political parties are keen to catch up, people have their bet on Change UK, to bring about much awaited 'differences’ in the political scenario, while others have an anticipatory close eye on Nigel Farage's new Brexit party as against his old one- UKIP. But it is not just in-party and cross-party biases. Asian MPs and local politicians are also increasingly at the receiving end of 'abusive and intolerant' public.
Nusrat Ghani, Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport and Assistant Government Whip, who has been made the new patron of the Conservative Friends of India, recently faced racial abuse from an elderly member of public- where she was sent Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech- a clear event of anti-immigrant sentiments. While public discourse has become increasingly abusive and divisive, Nusrat feels we all have a responsibility to fight against it- wherever and whoever it may come from. In an exclusive interview, she told Asian Voice, “Democracy thrives on debate, but the abuse and intimidation that has entered our politics in recent times has no place in public or political life.”
Though Nusrat has not faced institutional racism herself, especially representing a party (Conservative) that has been embroiled in Islamophobia controversies, she told the newsweekly how 'misogyny' has been a bigger challenge. “My gender, race, and faith have never been the biggest issue,” she added. “It’s being working class, and coming from a background where interactions with politicians were limited and tended to be negative. Like most people who have entered a career previously alien to them, I have just had to crack on, and forge my own way.
“I have voted Conservative all my life because the Conservative Party supports opportunity for all, regardless of their background and heritage. It believes in family, community, and country, and are focussed on progress and prosperity for all. When Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) has been made aware of cases of discrimination of any kind they have acted to suspend or expel those involved.
“For me, it is important that we are an open and inclusive party. However, like any large, voluntary, organisation, there will occasionally be a small number who join who fall short of the standards of behaviour we set ourselves in the Conservative Party. Where people are identified, action is taken.”
With more than 3.17mn Asians in this country viz. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, we only have 26 Asian MPs representing us. It is well known that Asians are much more conservative regarding their professional choices. Any parent from the community would choose a white collar career option for their child- more monetarily rewarding and socially stable, as opposed to venturing into politics. They naturally fear the biases in a public service job, which are statistically higher. But there is a steady increase in Asians breaking the mould, trying to enter the political arena, though much less proportionately to the UK's Asian population. However, local governments have seen a massive increase in number of Asian councillors, though one cannot say the same regarding Parliamentarians. Obvious questions arise if institutional racism or prejudice is one of the key reason behind it or if parties are doing enough to have positive intervention, trying to increase ethnic minority in winnable seats.
Speaking about the importance of local government and its influence at politcal level, Nusrat said, “We must never underestimate the impact of decisions made in politics at a local government level. These decisions impact us all, they are very important, and must be recognised as such. We should encourage and celebrate work done by Councillors across our country.
“It is an enormous privilege to be selected and elected as an MP, and the Conservatives have fantastic mentoring programmes in place, especially for women as evidence suggests women candidates need greater support before putting their name forward in comparison to men. There are only 650 MPs to represent 66 million people in the UK: it’s a competitive job!”
But she acknowledged that politics isn't for everyone- more importantly she highlighed how lack of Asian women as role models as well as long working hours can make life more challenging. “The robust nature of discourse and the impact of social media abuse, coupled with unique working hours of Parliament is off-putting to many people, including those from Asian communities,” she said.
Nusrat further added, “I am concerned that women, not just Asian, may be put off going into politics because of a current lack of representation, and the long hours which can make family life more challenging, but that is the same for many other careers.
“It is also important that people from our minority communities believe they can go into politics. When I was growing up nobody instilled that belief in me and at times some of those we looked up to in our community would just direct people how to vote. That is why defying low expectations has shaped my political outlook.
“There has been an increase in women and BAME candidates, and MPs from diverse backgrounds, and I am keen to support and mentor, in particular, people like me from working class backgrounds to get involved with politics, whether on a local or national stage.
“I want to do all I can to ensure that the basic Conservative value of equality of opportunity continues to be championed for all women within the Conservative Party. We have a great track record delivering for women and I am a proud feminist and Conservative.”
BAME representation and 'de-risking' controversy
Labour party MP for Feltham and Heston, Seema Malhotra who has been been in the political arena for longer than Nusrat, recenty celebrated Sikh History and Awareness month in Parliament, and was applauded by the Prime Minister Theresa May herself. She told Asian Voice, "I don’t think enough is being done to increase BAME representation in UK politics. There are people of different backgrounds representing people, and we need to make sure it is sustained. I also think we need to increase representation of Asian people in politics according to our population. There will be traditional biases and prejudices. But Labour party has a positive intervention program in place to increase BAME representation in winnable seats, though we need to do more."
Speaking about 'winnable seats', it brings us to the other elephant in the room. There are many unconscious biases such as 'class' that affect how members of parties and electorates see potential candidates. But in ethnic minority candidates the problem is their limitation to 'safe and winnable' seats, as compared to their white counterparts such as restricting minority candidates to areas with more minority ethnic voters. But in December 2018, Labour MP for Kilburn and Hampstead, Tulip Siddiq, told the Guardian that “problems with unconscious bias began in senior members of her own party’s structure.” Even though she had grown up locally, some party members felt the area was not “ethnic” enough for her to stand a good chance in. She was taken aside and asked whether she “would be better off running somewhere else”.
Bilal Mahmood was in the heart of such a 'de-risking' controversy in Chingford and Woodford Green, where he stood as a Labour candidate in the last two elections (2015 and 17) and slashed Iain Duncan Smith’s majority from 23,000 to 2400, but was told he he was unable to re-run as candidate because Labour imposed an All Women Shortlist to the seat.
Interestingly, Sajid Javid MP, who is Britain's first ever Asian Home Secretary, in an interview on Nick Robinson's Political Thinking podcast said he faced abuse daily on social media from 'far left' including Asians, because he was “not brown enough”. On the other hand he also received daily racial abuse from the far-right because he is from the ethnic minority background. He said, “They don't like me because of my colour.”
Even with such controversial and de-motivating biases in political arena, it has only driven Asians in politics to work harder, to prove their 'worth' better. Home Secretary, Mr Javid is one of the frontrunners to success Mrs Theresa May as the next Prime Minister. According to Daily Telegraph, he said, “I think in Britain anyone who's capable, regardless of whether they're Muslim or Hindu, for that any other religion or no religion, can be Prime Minister.”
Similarly, Wealden MP Nusrat Ghani is not lack of optimism and hope. She feels even among many prejudices, Britain could also see an ethnic minority Prime Minister, following the footsteps of America's President Barack Obama and London's Mayor Sadiq Khan. “I still remember staying up all night to watch Barack Obama elected president: a remarkable outcome considering his heritage. I never believed growing up that someone of my heritage could be an MP, let alone Prime Minister. But, as Nelson Mandela said, everything seems impossible until it is done,” she added.
“Democracy thrives on debate, but the abuse and intimidation that has entered our politics in recent times has no place in public or political life.”