Fake News. Alternative Facts. Turns of phrase that just two years ago meant nothing are now the words on everyone’s lips. Is your Facebook feed a sanctuary of honesty or full of made up memes with fake facts to sway your vote? Politicians have never been expected to be fully honest and the criticism of politicians’ ideas and policies is nothing new, but the kind of defamation they now receive has taken Western countries by storm.
Political parties stand for a particular belief, with the hope that their representatives can persuade the public to vote for them. We see Labour and Conservatives battle it out in the UK and Democrats and Republicans across the pond. However, when somebody starts out in politics there must be an incentive for them to get involved. People believe that they can change society for the better and it’s how they plan to do it which determines how they are separated from others the political world.
The lack of diversity in politics rightly attracts both attention and criticism. In a democratic society, a government should not simply be a wealthy group of aristocrats deciding how the public should be run without the input from the public. Surely a diverse nation such as the UK, or indeed the US, should expect a diverse group of people representing them.
Politics is a funny old game, though. And unfortunately for minorities, it’s a game where white men take the role at the front of the grid, whilst those representing BME, and disabled communities are forced to start in the pit lane. Diveristy in the House of Commons’ is definitely improving, but the severe disparities leave communities without a strong voice. In 1979 there were three women MPs in Parliament. Now we have our second female prime minister and a record number of 192 women sitting in the iconic green seats. But the fact that they still only make up 29 per cent of Parliament is worrying
It is worth noting that minority representation has increased. 6 per cent of MPs are from an ethnic minority background, while the number of female BME MPs doubled from 1.5 to 3 per cent between 2010 and 2015. However, there’s a long way to go until we get a political diversity jackpot. Out of the 650 MPs, 32 classify themselves as LGBT+, while just two, Robert Halfon and Paul Maynard, have a disability. Religious diversity has also improved but is still badly underrepresented in proportion to the population.
Between the last two elections, eight new Muslims were elected, but make up just 0.2 per cent of the Commons, while Muslims make up 4.5 per cent of the UK. And some faiths, such as Sikhism and Judaism, suffered terribly in the last election. Although Sikhs make up 0.8 per cent of the population, they have no representation in the Commons for the first time since 1992, after none of the 20 Sikh candidates won.
Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish MP, who criticised Jeremy Corbyn on policy, received hate messages because of her faith. One anti-Semitic comment from a fanatic threatened to hang her “from the gallows.” And we wonder why minority representation is scarce? Last year Bernie Sanders said: “One of the greatest tragedies that we face today politically is that most people have given up on the political process. They understand the political deck is stacked against them.”
While it’s refreshing to see women lead in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Germany, the difficulty of getting into that position must not be underestimated. Only one female ran for Student’s Union President this year. A sign of the times, one could argue. The UK Youth Council’s push for increasing diversity has seen the gap close, though. Just over half of the MYPs are women while 29 per cent represent the BME community.
Recent voter turnouts highlight the importance of enfranchisement within politics. A lot of minority groups believe their vote won’t matter or do not have the motivation to vote, because even if their representative is elected the likelihood is they would be a minority in government. In the UK the first MP from an ethnic minority background was elected in 1892. Little progress was made until 1987, when four Labour candidates – Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Keith Vaz and Diane Abbott – were elected.
In Tottenham, it is easy to see why the importance of BME diversity within UK politics is so significant. Labour MP David Lammy grew up, like so many in the area, on an impoverished council estate and has served the constituency for 15 years. His childhood encouraged him to work hard and speak up for those who he felt he could connect with in the future. Lammy became the first ever black Briton to study at Harvard University and went on to achieve first class honours. Last year, after he spoke of equality being the heart of democracy in a speech at the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Centre, Lammy headed a Government-commissioned report into racial bias within the justice system.
Tottenham’s population is predominately made up of Black Caribbean and Black African backgrounds who statistically earn less, which Lammy acknowledged in his speech, telling the story of his single mother working two jobs a day to bring up her children. It also has the fourth highest youth unemployment in the country, and it’s important for people from that area to not only see themselves represented politically but also to know that they can follow in Lammy’s footsteps. It is then perhaps unsurprising that since his by-election triumph in 2000 Lammy has never received a share of the vote below 52 per cent, so far ahead of his rivals that they need binoculars to spot him.
It may be easy to only think of political representation as the number of minorities sat in Parliament or Congress, but the importance of a familiar voice is key to bridging the gap. When Obama spoke the truth as he saw those who felt like they were strangers in their own neighbourhoods saw their perspective reflected back to them. Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention told a tale of a young boy from Chicago, bullied at school because of his colour and shut out of sports teams due to the way he spoke, a story of slaves around a fire singing freedom songs, the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores and the idea that a mill-worker’s son could defy the odds and become President.
Social and racial injustice in the US has largely been stamped under the carpet from where it was 100 years ago, but many minorities, especially Latinos and Hispanics, feel stereotyped as people who cannot have a shot at the American Dream. The Arizona SB1070 law, passed in 2012, allowed law enforcement officials to stop and search anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. In response to this, The White House concluded that, “no American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.”
Just like in the UK, many believe that the minority inequality gap in the US is improving, but Clinton’s loss to President Trump in last year’s election raises new issues. The fact that 95 per cent of Black women and 70 per cent of Hispanic women voted for Clinton while 62 per cent of white women voted for Trump speaks volumes of the gravity of the US’ diversity problem. Clinton embraced the idea that the woman should not be afraid to express themselves. She made jokes out of her iconic pantsuits and appeared in Vogue, essentially telling the American people that this is who she is and if they don’t like it then don’t vote for her.
Her defeat to Trump raises questions. Was her failure because of her campaign or because of her gender? Will there ever be a female US President? In 2020 it is highly likely that the Democrats may choose one of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand or California Senator Kamala Harris to go forward as the candidate against Trump. The newly elected President’s cabinet contains just two women, Betsy DeVos and Elaine L. Chao. But the Supreme Court’s three females, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, preside over the rule of law. Only time will tell if the US is ready to see a woman ruling the Oval.
Women holding positions of power are now more frequent in the UK Government. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Justice Secretary Liz Truss and Education Secretary Justine Greening preside over three of the most important offices of state, while across in Japan the new leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Defence Minister and Tokyo’s governor are all women. So women reaching levels of power whilst not unprecedented, is unfortunately still noteworthy.
How can both the UK and US, improve political representation and diversity? Diversity is a prerequisite for representation. The more often that politicians can connect their story to the people they represent, the more forceful and meaningful the message and the greater the chance of voter interest and turnout in elections.
In Rwanda, there are legislated quotas at every level of politics, which at the last election resulted in a lower house in which women occupy 51 of the 80 seats. Labour have embraced women only shortlists and currently have almost double the number of female MPs than the Tories in Parliament. Quotas for LGBT+ and BME candidates is another option.
While the political environment has changed over the 50 years, representation and diversity have tried to adapt but failed to catch up at the required speed. As societies continually shape themselves, many minorities worry that stereotypes may haunt their lives.