David Lammy, James Cleverly, Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Kemi Badenoch​​
From left to right: David Lammy, James Cleverly, Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Kemi Badenoch

When Will the UK Get Its First Black Prime Minister?

The UK trails behind the US for this historic first. So will it ever happen – and who might it be?
October 12, 2020, 8:15am

In a 2011 interview with The Independent, then-Shadow Business Secretary and Labour MP Chuka Umunna expressed his horror at being labelled “Britain’s Obama”: “You get lazy journalists and the odd blogger who’ll suggest that I fancy myself as ‘Britain's Obama’, and that I seek to encourage the comparison. It's never been something I've encouraged.” To Umunna’s embarrassment, it later emerged that a Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the UK’s Barack Obama” was in fact edited from a computer registered at his old law firm, Rochman Landau.

Though this patch in the long tapestry of Umunna’s epic fails could be dismissed as a humorous story concerning one man’s delusions of grandeur, the “Obama” template of a modern British leader who could dethrone the Conservatives was, for a long time, an attractive fantasy for British centrists. Handsome, a successful legal background, decoratively centre-left and Black – for those whose politics are reducible to aesthetic and vibe, a figure like Umunna was the answer to a question which only asks who could perhaps make the most fanciable leader. What remains a more interesting question is whether the “Obama” formula of winning from the centre could spell success for a future Black prime minister – if one emerges at all.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Diane Abbott’s historic contest for the leadership of the Labour Party, following the defeat of New Labour’s 13-year-rule in 2010. Though she ranked third place out of fifth in the combined Labour Party membership and affiliated membership vote, her low support among MPs meant that she was eliminated from the contest first. Abbott remains one of the most historically senior Black parliamentarians, having this month last year become the first Black MP to represent their party at PMQs, but so far, no Black parliamentarian has even come close to securing leadership of their party.

Other bids for the leadership from Black Labour MPs have met similar failure – Umunna pulled out of the contest in 2015 before nominations even began. Clive Lewis’s barely memorable bid for the leadership earlier this year saw him withdraw due to a lack of nominations from Labour MPs and MEPs. In the deputy leadership race, Dawn Butler finished in fifth and last place. Across the floor in 2019, then-Brexit minister James Cleverly and former Universities minister turned Lib Dem defector Sam Gyimah both withdrew their bids for the party leadership before the first ballot. In London, Black Tory candidate Shaun Bailey is fighting a losing battle to become mayor.

Diane Abbott at her election as first black woman MP, 1987. (Photo by: Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Diane Abbott at her election as first black woman MP, 1987. Photo: Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 2016, David Harewood presented a documentary for the BBC questioning if Britain would ever have a Black prime minister, noting that a Black child is 12 times less likely to make it to the highest office of state than a white child. Of course, those systemic barriers that make a Black premiership less likely are undeniable and obvious – they are the same barriers that impact access to other elite institutions.

But what do Black Brits make of the idea of a Black prime minister? Is it achievable, is it relevant and is it even desirable? To gauge more contemporary perspectives on this, VICE spoke to three politically engaged Black Brits – Conservative political commentator Dominique Samuels, PhD student in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and co-host of Politics Jam podcast Michael Bankole, and Maurice McLeod, the Labour councillor for Queenstown, Battersea.

Samuels, Bankole, and McLeod are united in the view that a Black PM in their lifetimes was more likely than not, but that this would neither be a silver bullet rectifying the problems that vex Black life in the UK, nor a figure they would support unequivocally merely on the basis of being Black.

“This does matter to me,” Samuels says, “because it is an indication that Black people can progress to the most powerful roles in the country. However, if there was a Black person running to be prime minister and they had ideas that I viewed as antithetical to my beliefs or the interests of the country, I would not vote for them simply on the basis that they are Black.”

Bankole tells me: “I would much rather a white prime minister with a policy agenda that seeks to enhance the lives of Black people in Britain, than a Black prime minister that subscribes to a repressive worldview and seeks to do the opposite.”

As for who could be that Black Prime Minister? McLeod believes that this may emerge from one of the younger Black MPs. “Rising to the top of a political party takes time, experience, and allies,” he explains. “This means that an MP might need to spend 20 years in Parliament before getting towards the tops of their parties. The networks needed are often harder for black people to build and so this process might take even longer for them. This means that any black politician who isn’t already in Parliament will find it hard to be PM in the next 30 years.”

But given the speedy trajectory of current South Asian Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was only elected to Parliament in 2015, Black Conservative MPs might expect to rise the ranks of the party structures when it is most politically expedient. Samuels names James Cleverly, someone she believes has “common sense ideas”, as a potential contender as Tory PM.

Back in 2016, Harewood’s documentary relied heavily on the idea of a saviour-like Obama figure, one who will “put everybody at ease and make everybody excited”, as he put it to the BBC. But our current political landscape differs dramatically from one where anyone genuinely believes that a “magical negro” in a suit will charm his way into upsetting the status quo. Not only because we’re engaged with more honest assessments of how the Obama years did not spell prosperity and security for African Americans – after all, the polluted water crisis in Flint and the police brutality that sparked Black Lives Matter both happened under his watch – but also because it looks increasingly likely that electoral success for a Black leader may not come from the centre or left of the political spectrum, but from the right.

I have reservations around whether the first Black prime minister would emerge from the political centre, as would be the case for an MP like David Lammy, principally because the Tories hold a monopoly over ministerial firsts as the more electorally successful party. As Stephen Bush points out, these include the first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher; the first British Asian to run for prime minister and hold two great offices of state in Sajid Javid, and so on.

Though Bankole names David Lammy as a potential successor to Keir Starmer, he is also quite solidly of the view that the first Black PM will be a Tory: “The Conservative Party excel at winning elections and this gives them a good chance of producing the country’s first Black prime minister. I often refer to the Conservative Party as the chameleons of British politics, they are able to adapt to changing circumstances and trends better than any other party in this country and that helps partially explain their success.

“It would be no surprise to see the likes of Kwasi Kwarteng or Kemi Badenoch rise through the ranks of the party in the coming years in a similar fashion to Sunak and Patel, and they are likely to be joined by more black politicians in 2024.” (That said, there are still no Black cabinet members, whilst both David Lammy and Marsha de Cordova are shadow Secretaries of State.)

What may be crucial to consider when it comes to the electoral viability of a Black party leader, is that Black Conservative MPs, who tend to occupy majority-white seats, know how to appeal to white constituents, and win a majority white setting. This often requires making certain concessions to reassure white Britons that their election will not endanger their interests.

“Black Labour MPs tend to represent inner city areas with large majorities, whilst Black Tories are often in largely white seats outside of the big cities,” McLeod argues. “Black MPs seem to get elected in Labour’s inner city seats partly because of their race, for the Tories they seem to be elected despite their race.”

Unfortunately, the question of which party or political leader could protect and advance the interests of Black Brits isn’t actually particularly relevant to the question of who could be elected. Our political currency as Black Brits is dissimilar to that of African Americans in the US; electoral success may depend on which Black leader can prove themselves the most inoffensive to whiteness.

Fact is, for Black politicians to ingratiate themselves to a white audience they often need to be seen as berating their own communities – a strategy that even David Lammy once employed.

Kemi Badenoch, whom some have argued could be the new face of the Conservatives, is one I’m keeping my eye on as a potential future leader. While Black Tory MPs don’t go as far as denying the existence of racism in the UK, Badenoch has repeatedly undermined Black Lives Matter here by insisting that Britain is “one of the best countries in the world to be Black”. She has also rejected claims that systemic racism leaves ethnic minorities at closest proximity to death in light of the disproportionate number of Black people who have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other ethnic minority Conservative politicians have also become increasingly attuned to consolidating their interests while deflecting accusations of institutional racism within the Tories. Priti Patel has been astute at reminding the opposition that despite the atrocity of the Windrush scandal, current legislation used to deport non-British residents was passed by the New Labour government, and voted in favour of by Black politicians like David Lammy.

“Labour,” Bankole points out, “have a more chequered history with race and racism than some would have you believe.” Black Brits, who are increasingly losing faith in Labour due to the public abuse of their own Black MPs and the redirection of the party post-Corbyn, may begin to see no difference between the major parties, and feel forced into voter abstention. Without a political platform that makes significant concessions to Black Brits, which neither party look likely to prioritise as they compete to be the most pro-police and pro-prison, the only likely changes to the Black vote may be divestment from Labour, abstention, and a potential slight increase for the Conservatives from an emerging, prosperous Black middle-class.

So sure, a Black PM may occur in our lifetimes – possibly even sooner than we think – but they will likely be of no consequence to the prosperity of Black Brits. In fact, we may be of absolutely no relevance to them getting elected in the first place. After all, given the state itself is the very agent that often makes Black life unliveable, claiming its highest office might just be incompatible with advancing our interests.

@jasebyjason