In a recent Commons debate for Black History Month, the Tory MP Bim Afolami caused quite a stir when he said, in response to a jibe about his Eton education: “I reject the idea that if you are black or you are non-white then there are certain places you are not able to go.” It was a well-intentioned intervention into a good-natured debate, and he went on to concede: “I have had advantages that certain black people from working-class backgrounds may not have had.”
However, his subsequent article in the Mail on Sunday in which he described “patronising nonsense disguised as liberalism” as one of the “principal racist barriers holding back black people in this country” cannot be interpreted so charitably. Afolami argues that the left’s “virtue signal[ling]” conceals paternalistic attitudes towards black people and suggests that the real barrier to racial equality is the left’s low expectations.
On one level, it’s easy to object to this. Labour enjoys the support of the majority of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters in part because it has historically devoted more effort to combating racism. You’d also expect Labour’s economic offer to appeal to black voters at a time when nearly half of black African Caribbean households are living below the poverty line.
Still, it would be a grave mistake to entirely dismiss Afolami’s argument. Contained within his takedown of the “regressive left” is a warning that Labour and other progressives would do well to heed. Too often, the British left’s language when talking about race comes across as impersonal and assumes a degree of poverty and hardship that isn’t an intrinsic feature of black life.
For now, Labour can continue to count on the black vote but cracks may start to deepen in their coalition in the years to come. (According to the Runnymede Trust, there was a small but “statistically significant” increase – from 11% to 14% – in the proportion of black Africans who voted Conservative in 2017 compared to 2010.) Afolami’s intervention is a timely reminder that broad statements about how black people have been “held back” or “left behind” don’t always resonate with the experience of individuals. Yes, redistributive policies are badly required to address long-standing issues such as the ethnic pay gap, but the left shouldn’t be afraid to highlight individual success stories if they help to convey a more empowering message.
This is something the Tories have intuitively understood and tried to exploit for decades. In 1983, the Conservatives ran an election poster featuring a besuited young black man alongside the words “Labour say he’s black. Tories say he’s British” – their argument in favour of ensuring equality of opportunity strikes a chord with many, regardless of the colour of their skin.
The difference now is that the Conservatives can point to minority ethnic success stories from within their own ranks – and the idea that it’s the Tories who attract Britain’s brightest black talents is politically seductive, even if it’s empirically dubious. If Labour continues to focus on the ways in which black people are disadvantaged or takes their support for granted, it might one day look up to find its lunch has been eaten by a new breed of Tory party that not only talks up “opportunity” but has a number of ambitious black spokespeople who embody its case.
It could even be argued that Afolami and his Conservative colleagues James Cleverly, Kwasi Kwarteng, Kemi Badenoch, Darren Henry and Helen Grant are as representative of the diversity of background and opinion across black Britain as their Labour opposite numbers. It is now a much more diverse community than a few generations ago, particularly as successive waves of west African migration have likely expanded the number of socially conservative voters in urban areas.
Of course, no community’s political affiliations should or can be solely explained in terms of skin colour; other factors such as socioeconomic status, educational background and regional geography play an important role – but Badenoch’s strident dismissal of “critical race theory” provides a recent example of how the left can ill afford to underestimate the power that black Tories have to undermine its messaging. All these recent interventions go to show that the left cannot be complacent.
Ultimately, it makes strategic sense for a more visibly diverse Conservative parliamentary party to focus on what it is possible for black people to achieve in our society instead of what is probable. Rare and individualised examples of black success stories can be used to muddy the waters and reframe the debate in terms that are unhelpful to the black community as a whole. For instance, black people with university degrees earn on average 23% less than white people with similar qualifications – this shows how systemic discrimination holds black people back, regardless of their endeavour.
It is also why we should be suspicious of those whose privilege grants them faith in the existing system. You don’t have to have gone to Eton to reach the upper echelons of British society but, black or white, it certainly helps.