Rishi Sunak is the UK’s first Prime Minister from a non-white ethnic minority. Did this happen by accident or were the Tories working towards this day over the last 20 years?
A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by an Australian journalist Latika Burke argues it was the latter. This is well worth reading because it goes into some depth about what the Conservatives did to get to this position. When I combine this article with what I have said before about closing pay and representation gaps, I consider the Conservative party to be a valuable case study for any employer who wishes to close their gaps.
How the diversity of Conservative MPs changed between 2001 & 2019
All election and diversity data shown in the 2 charts below come from the House of Commons Library (who source ethnicity data from Operation Black Vote). You can download a PDF file and a spreadsheet both of which contain a section on the personal characteristics of MPs. For ethnicity, I added a line showing the percentage of the population from ethnic minorities in the seats won by the Conservatives in each election which is derived from the 2011 ONS Census by parliamentary constituency.
- In 2001, there were 166 MPs of which 14 were women and 0 were from ethnic minorities.
- In 2019, there were 365 MPs of which 87 were women and 22 were from ethnic minorities.
- In the 365 seats won by the Conservatives in 2019, 6% of MPs were from ethnic minorities which is slightly less than the 7% of the population being from ethnic minorities in those seats
- Between 2001 & 2022, there have been 8 party leaders, 5 men & 3 women culminating in Rishi Sunak.
- The Conservative party’s vote share steadily increased from 31.7% in 2001 to 43.6% in 2019.
3 Key Points from Latika Burke’s article
In her Sydney Morning Herald article, Latika listed 3 reasons for the change in diversity.
- Widening the Candidate Pool – David Cameron instituted the A-List after he became leader in 2005. It was the scheme whereby central office searched for candidates from a wide variety of sources and backgrounds, interviewed them and then approved them as potential candidates for contesting elections.
- Local Parties Decide – Local party associations are the ones who choose the candidate for election as MP but they can only select from the A-List. No quotas are used. Vacancies are advertised to all candidates on the A-list who can then choose to apply.
- Champions and Allies promote – Sunak’s predecessor William Hague (Party leader in 2001 general election) supported his application and championed him to his local party. Central office also did the same with other local associations.
4 Points I would add to the article
- Changes in diversity will take a generation – It took 21 years for the Conservatives to go from no ethnic minority MPs in 2001 to the UK’s first ethnic minority prime minister. The two articles I refer to demonstrate such timescales are typical of how long it takes to effect change even if all discrimination is removed going forward from today when recruiting new employees. At every election between 10 & 20% of Conservative MPs leave (due to retirement or losing their seat) and so it is only in their replacements where changes to diversity can occur.
- Growth is an opportunity to deliver significant change – The best way to accelerate progress in closing gaps is to go all out at moments of significant growth such as 2010 when the Conservatives gained 108 MPs. In that election, the number of MPs who weren’t white men jumped from 19 to somewhere between 55 & 60 (see intersectional tables later on). At the same time, the number of white men also jumped from 179 to around 250 so white men didn’t lose out whilst diversity was increasing. This is the equivalent of doubling your bet in Blackjack when the card count is favourable. A smaller opportunity occurred in 2019 which resulted in slower progress.
- Changes have to sustain themselves as leaders & strategy change – There have been 7 leaders since William Hague in 2001, major changes in policy, upheaval and turmoil due to political events like Brexit and still the diversity of the party has continued to improve. That tells me whatever the Conservatives are doing has embedded itself in the party process and is resilient to major changes in leadership and strategy. When it takes a generation to effect change, such a state of affairs is essential.
- It’s not just MPs – MPs are the most visible face of the Conservative party but for a representation gap to truly close, the changes need to be seen at all levels of the party including junior ministers, cabinet, and prime ministers. This has clearly happened with the Conservatives at the top but it is also happening at levels below MPs. The Conservative party reports their gender pay gap and in 2021, the median woman was paid 95p for every £1 paid to the median man. This is a change from 2018 when the median woman was paid £1.16 but the reason for that is that 36% of staff are now women compared to 31% in 2018 with most of the changes being seen in the lower pay half.
Points made by other people
There have been a number of articles written and I may add to this list but these two are definitely worth reading.
- David Cameron (leader from 2005 to 2016) – the link takes you to a twitter thread by Cameron plus a link to an article he wrote in The Times.
- Sunder Katwala (CEO of British Future) – British Future is a think tank focused on racial integration in the UK. I have always found Sunder’s views very thoughtful and like me, he believes there are lessons to be learned from the changes the Conservatives have achieved that other organisations can learn from. His comments can be found in these links –
- An excellent twitter thread listing a number of pieces of evidence that demonstrate that gender and ethnicity are no longer a factor in senior leadership roles in the party.
- I retweeted that thread here to point out that Sunder’s arguments are equivalent to saying there is the no pay gap among Conservative MPs.
- An article in Prospect magazine which also looks at the Labour party (I plan to write about Labour’s diversity at some point).
- An interview with the Guardian which also compares Labour and the Conservatives.
Conservative MPs are not Intersectional either
Intersectionality is the trendy term used for what statisticians describe as the Interaction between gender and ethnicity. For example, women make up 24% of Conservative MPs today but does that percentage differ for white and ethnic minority MPs?
Unfortunately, the House of Commons Library data does not break down MPs by gender and ethnicity so instead I used the photo listings provided by the House of Commons (2015 intake, 2017 intake, 2019 intake) to count the number of Conservative MPs that appear to be female from an ethnic minority. Once counted the other breakdowns can be worked out. Of course, it is possible I may have made errors doing this so please let me know if I have. As you can see I have been unable to locate data for the 2010 intake.
After the 2019 election, 24% of white Conservative MPs were women and 23% of ethnic minority Conservative MPs were women. In other words, the percentage does not appear to vary by ethnicity and therefore a statistician would say there is no interaction between gender and ethnicity. In modern trendy language, we say they are not intersectional and this was also the case after the 2015 and 2017 elections. A simple 2×2 Chi-squared test for independence between ethnicity and gender shows no sign of any intersectionality.
What can employers learn from the Conservatives?
The Conservative Party has changed over the last 20 years from one that was overwhelmingly white male to one with essentially no gender and ethnicity pay gap. As I have repeatedly explained in my blogs, a pay gap exists when a certain gender or ethnicity is more likely to be found in either the lower or upper part of the pay scale. The 2 female and 1 Asian leader out of the last 7 leaders since 2001 is reflective of what is also seen in the cabinet and MPs (and party staff) so gender and ethnicity are now irrelevant in terms of the likelihood of how far an MP can climb the greasy pole.
When it comes to overall representation, Conservative MPs are almost representative of the ethnicity of their seats. I specifically focus on the seats won by the Conservatives which are more likely to be outside of city centres so as to treat the party as an analogy for an employer based in predominantly rural areas say. Such areas and seats tend to be whiter so given this is where the party actually “works” in the sense of MPs representing their constituents, the 6% of MPs from ethnic minorities is not far off from the 7% ethnic minorities found in those seats. From the chart I showed at the start, you can also see the seats the Conservatives hold today are slightly whiter than those held in 2010. Like an employer who moves their operations out of their city premises, the Brexit realignment effect (largely driven by class and education) has seen the Conservatives lose seats in cities but more than gain them in small towns and is demonstrated by the PCA map below which is explained in my article “Keir Starmer’s train to Downing Street“.
There remains an overall gap with women who only account for a quarter of MPs. However, progress is still going in the right direction and it is worth noting this progress has been achieved without the use of all-women shortlists used in the Labour party. One thing I think the Conservatives have got right is allowing the local party associations to make the final decision on who is their candidate. That increases ownership of the whole process by the whole party and means the diversity drive is not just some purpose washing by head office which goes nowhere and ends up making things worse. As I said before, the progress has been sustained despite major changes in leadership and strategy.
Of course, a factor helping with widespread party buy-in is that improved diversity among MPs was accompanied by electoral success. Since 2001, the number of MPs has more than doubled, the national vote share is up 12 points and the Red Wall was smashed in 2019 with the party winning seats that have never had a Conservative MP. All this means the increased numbers of female and ethnic minority MPs has not been at the expense of white men. Given the historical highs in vote shares the Conservatives had in 2019 and the very bad opinion polls as of today, the Conservatives are likely to lose a lot of seats at the next election. That will be a big test of the diversity strategy followed by the party, will such losses be accompanied by a fall in the percentage of MPs that are women or from ethnic minorities? Will some people blame the losses on the diversity strategy?
Is it possible for employers to replicate what the Conservatives have done? The most interesting idea for me is the A-list concept which might be possible to replicate in some employers. The equivalent would probably be a head office function whose sole job is to compile lists of potential candidates who are diverse and representative and to make all of them aware of any vacancies arising. The hiring managers would then only recruit from that list and would have the knowledge that a lot of the pre-screening and admin details have been taken care of. I think ideas like this already take place internally e.g. a graduate fast stream, but this would extend the concept to an external pool. You might argue that recruitment consultants could be doing this for their clients but I wonder if a central function within an employer focusing on maximising the diversity of the pool of potential candidates is a better way as it could be more resilient as leaders and strategies change. So far, it’s clearly working for the Conservatives.
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— Why I write these case studies —
My case studies explore good and bad practice with gender pay gap analysis and highlights what can be learned from them. Closing a national pay gap can only happen if change happens within individual employers in the first place. In the front line of such change will be the HR department who in my experience find basic statistics a struggle and so I hope they find these case studies illuminating.
- “Life on Mars“, – I work out how much variation in gender pay gaps can be expected by chance. I then show that the variation in pay gaps across the 4 UK subsidiaries of my former employer Mars UK was within the bounds of chance and that in effect they had no gender pay gap. Based on my experience of working there, I explored some of the reasons why Mars did not have a pay gap.
- “The good, the bad and the Unilever“. I looked at the two legal entities of Unilever who are required to report their gender pay gap and noticed that the year on year changes between 2017 & 2018 looked odd. I used them as an inspiration to explain how one can spot if year on year changes are plausible or not.
- The effect of Samira Ahmed winning her equal pay claim against the BBC and what impact it would have on their gender pay gap. Confusion abounds over the difference between unequal pay and gender pay gaps and I showed that the impact of Samira winning the case could be to widen the pay gap instead.
- “What is the gender pay gap at Novartis UK“. Novartis perfectly illustrate the hazard of Simpson’s paradox when analysing pay gaps where employees simultaneously work for an employer with a gender pay gap favouring women and a gender pay gap favouring men.
- “Why Ryanair’s gender pay gap report is my favourite“. I explore the 6 purposes of an employer’s pay gap report and show how Ryanair mostly fulfill these in less than half a page despite having the largest verified gender pay gap of all employers and a dodgy bar chart!
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