Why is it so important to have visible politicians from diverse backgrounds that are representative of the general population?
Much is made of debates on whether a politician looking like a particular group means that he or she will necessarily represent that group’s interests. Whilst it is true that no group is completely homogenous and politicians will have their own beliefs and interests, it is important to continue to push for governments and political parties that look like the population, as there is much less chance of interests being represented by politicians who do not even have the same experiences. For women and ethnic minorities, having political representatives that look like them brings a sense of empowerment and possibility: the possibility of more cracks being added to the glass ceiling, and the idea that someone like them can make it to the top, despite institutional obstacles. Whether a person from a minority background agrees politically with a politician is not as important as simply acknowledging that there is a person who has made it to the highest echelons of government. Someday, there could be multiple politicians from the same minority background, so that there is someone who both looks like and agrees with a person he or she represents, instead of being the token female or black politician at the table.
In the US, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016 showed generations of young women and girls that a female president was possible, and made it completely normal for a little girl to aspire to be the president when she grows up. It also brought the possibility of actually including a female perspective on debates on issues such as sexism or abortion. Kamala Harris’s status as the new Vice President marks the first time a woman of colour has ever been on the presidential ticket. She is also the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. Even just the prospect of potentially having the “first female, the first black and first Asian-American vice-president” caused great excitement, as this represented the possibility of attention (finally) being brought to some issues that affect people of colour. Whilst political alignment and substantive representation is ideal, this also represents hope, and a sign that institutional obstacles against women and BAME candidates holding political office are slowly being eroded away.
In the UK, the House of Commons is still far from representative, but the current cohort of MPs is the “most diverse” thus far. Examples of prominent female or BAME politicians include Yvette Cooper, Diane Abbott, Sajid Javid, David Lammy, Rishi Sunak, and Rosena Allin-Khan. They all bring their own lived experience of life as a person from an ethnic minority or a gender that still faces societal oppression. There is also the hope that having a more diverse parliament will bring about change on societal prejudices. According to a 2020 investigation, 90% of ethnic minority MPs who responded said that their ethnicity had been an obstacle to becoming and MP, and 81% had been subjected to racism by the electorate. Diane Abbott, in particular, owing to her long political career and the intersection of being a black woman, is subject to vitriolic abuse on social media. As much as we should celebrate having more diverse politicians because it represents hope and real representation of minorities, we should also celebrate women and BAME politicians for the simple fact that they have persevered despite major societal and institutional obstacles, and having not had the same support that later generations will have.
Diverse representation in politics symbolises empowerment, the shattering of glass ceilings, and more experiences and concerns being brought into government. For many, it brings hope of change, that society will bring more possibilities. Importantly, there are only politicians if there are candidates. Children can see political leaders that look like them, and aspire to be the same in the future.
At JAN Trust, we understand the importance of empowerment and representation. We work to provide women and BAME individuals with opportunities to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in society, and fight for the issues, such as extremism that matter to them. Minority interests can only truly be represented if they are involved in the discussions. Slowly but surely, we can shatter through the glass ceilings.