Beyond representation

In the 1990s I was an established equality practitioner and the term diversity had just been coined. My livelihood depended on my work; family to feed, mortgage and bills to pay and the like. As a paid-up member of the Labour Party, there was a time when I wondered if the Tory Party came calling for advice whether I would sell my expertise to them. This was when they had selected a Black candidate for the blue seat of Cheltenham.

Taylor was the son of Jamaican Christian immigrants, settled in Birmingham. His father was a professional cricketer and coach for Warwickshire and his mother was a nurse. Taylor attended Moseley Grammar School where he was head boy and later attended Keele University where he studied English Literature and law, followed by Inns of Court School of Law in London. So, the right material for a future Tory Member of Parliament! This was not to be. The safe seat was lost to the Liberal Democrats, for the simple reason the electorate could not stomach a Black candidate.

I remember thinking at the time that if the Tories sorted their racism they would do well given the many potential candidates like Taylor amongst the ethnic minorities. That was then. The Tories did manage to get there, without my advice. In fact, alongside the women-only shortlists which brought many women into Parliament for the Labour Party benches, the conscious way the Tories set out to bring in ethnic minorities to arrive at their current position offers an example of good equalities recruitment practice. So, you would think that those of us who campaign for ethnic minority representation would be pleased. Whether we are or not depends on our politics. What the exercise has told us is that representation is not the only thing matters. We are (and should be) also concerned with what the representatives do once they get there. We are even learning that some ethnic minority Tories are even worse than White because of their use of their own ethnicity as a weapon to bring in even nastier policies.

The problem is not just in Parliament. After years of campaigning when I recently reported that a particular education board in Birmingham was no longer 100 percent White because of its three ethnic minority candidates someone raised the point: let’s hope they are the right ethnic minorities.

Well before the highly ethnically diverse Tory leadership list, the education campaigner Rosemary Campbell-Stephens advised us to go ‘beyond representation’ (in the Colin Diamond Birmingham Book 2022). In her view representation alone was not enough. We should also ask: leadership for what purpose and in whose interest?

  • Does having a more diverse leadership in itself change anything?
  • What difference does it make if the training and the professional socialisation that Black and other Global Majority educators receive, the institutional culture of which they become a part and the systems and processes they operate are identical to their white counterparts?

Representation matters but is never sufficient on its own. We have to look beyond to assess the behaviour of the representatives and the positive difference they make to addressing inequalities. To quote Lord Simon Wolley, we need “principled, all community serving politicians who won’t pander to prejudice to elevate themselves” ; “ethical leadership, not just ethnicity”.