By Oliver Gibson
It is often said of politics in many Western countries that democratic institutions do not adequately represent the different cultures and nationalities that make up a particular state. The West, as the world’s most democratic international community on the Democracy Index, should surely lead the way when it comes to democratic inclusivity and openness. But does it?
Barack Obama became the United States’ first ethnic minority President in 2008. Before that, he served as one of America’s few ethnic minority Senators in Congress.
It is now twelve years on from his first inauguration, and there is no doubt that America has progressed in terms of democratic inclusivity. The ‘Pew Research Center’ has named the current Congress as the most racially and ethnically diverse one in the history of the United States.
But the United States is by no means a spring chicken. It was formed in 1776, which was, needless to say, quite a long time ago. As a country founded on the basis of liberty and egalitarianism, this progress was a long time coming.
There is some debate as to who exactly was the UK’s first ethnic minority politician. Benjamin Disraeli was Britain’s first Prime Minister from such a background. However, John Stewart, a nineteenth-century conservative, was possibly Britain’s first mixed-race MP.
While Disraeli is listed as one of Britain’s most memorable and important PMs, Stewart’s ventures in business and politics have been largely forgotten – which is damaging to history considering his position as both a slave owner and an anti-abolitionist.
In modern Britain, the appointment of politicians from an ethnic minority background to the Great Offices of State, the highest echelon of Government, has occurred only in recent years.
Sajid Javid became our first ethnic minority Home Secretary in 2018, and then went on to become our first ethnic minority Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2019. Priti Patel became our first female ethnic minority Home Secretary in the same year.
According to the BBC, there are 65 ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons. Out of a total of 650 MPs, therefore, that means that exactly one in ten of our MPs are from an ethnic minority background. All of these MPs represent English constituencies. Roughly 13.8% of people in Britain are from an ethnic minority background.
At first, a representation of 10% appears to be quite close to 13.8%, but British society is not made up of 650 people, it is made up of 65 million. The difference between the two figures, 3.8%, represents roughly 2,470,000 people.
Alongside the United States, Britain is among the world’s oldest functional democracies. Surely, since the UK is such a country, our democratic institutions should reflect our diverse society in such a way that leads the world.
Is demographic representation a problem in Kirklees Council?
Kirklees, as a geographic territory, includes some 422,500 people, as of the last census in 2011.
According to the Office for National Statistics’ ‘Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011’ report, 79.1% of Kirklees’ population is ‘White’, 15% is ‘South Asian’, 1.9% is ‘Black’, 2.3% is ‘Mixed’ and 1.7% is described as being ‘Other’.
Of course, nine years have passed since the last Census. And according to the Examiner, 10,000 people from ethnic minority backgrounds moved to Kirklees from 2012 to 2018.
However, the Census is the best source for demographic information that currently exists.
Kirklees elects a total of 69 Councillors to its Council. According to Kirklees Council’s website, a total of 19, or 27.5%, of those Councillors are from an ethnic minority background.
The demographic terms used in the statistics earlier are helpful for their simplicity. They are also unhelpful in that they do not adequately represent Kirklees’ many different communities.
The term ‘White’ includes not only ‘White British’ people but also people who have moved to the UK, mostly from the European Union.
The term ‘South Asian’ mostly represents two large, independent communities that moved from India and from Pakistan.
The term ‘Black’ not only represents the people from Kirklees’ African-Caribbean community but also any person that moved to Kirklees from Africa.
The term ‘Mixed’ represents 9,718 people whose parents are from any one of Kirklees’ many communities.
The importance of adequately reflective democracy
There are a number of points of view on what it means for a democratic institution of a state to be reflective of its people.
On the one hand, it can be argued that a democratic institution is fully reflective of the demographics of the geographic territory it serves.
For Kirklees, this would mean that 50 of our Councillors would be ‘White’, 10 would be ‘South Asian’, 1 would be ‘Black’, 2 would be ‘Mixed’ and the final Councillor would represent various smaller communities previously described as being ‘Other’.
This system can seem a tad too cold and calculated, however. Kirklees Council isn’t a simple jury or ad-hoc committee, it is the elected local government of 422,500 people.
Democracy is more than a box-ticking exercise, even though that is how our officials are elected. Many people feel more connected to democratic institutions if they feel as though their community is reflected, listened to and valued by that institution.
The best way of fulfilling those three qualities is possibly found in democratic involvement and representation. It is perhaps for the best that that representation comes about naturally, as evolution is a natural process.
Next year, we will elect two years’ worth of Councillors to our Council. We will also partake in our third police and crime commissioner election along with the rest of West Yorkshire, and for the first time, we will together elect the very first Mayor of our county.
Turnout in local elections is far lower than it is in general elections. The BBC, in 2019, calculated that two-thirds of people do not vote in local elections.
If democratic representation is important to you, then it is crucial to get out and vote next May, no matter which party you choose to vote for.