chapter  10
20 Pages

Presence and behaviour: Black and minority ethnic MPs in the British House of Commons


Introduction Britain has a long, if interrupted history of minority ethnic representation in Parliament: The first non-white candidates were elected to the House of Commons in the 1890s and 1920s: Dadabhai Noaroji, Liberal MP for Finsbury Central (1892-1895), Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, Conservative MP for Bethnal Green (1895-1906), and Shapurji Dorabji Saklatvala, elected as Labour MP for North Battersea (1922-1923) who sat as a communist between 1924 and 1929. After 1929, however, it took nearly six decades for another member of Britain’s black and minority ethnic (BME) groups to be elected to Parliament. The general election of 2005 saw 15 members of BME groups returned to the House of Commons. Despite this increase in descriptive BME representation in recent years, it has not kept pace with the growth of the UK ethnic minority population: Just over 2 per cent of all Members of the House of Commons elected in 2005 belonged to a ‘visible minority’, whereas the UK Census of 2001 found that the percentage of ‘people in ethnic groups other than “White” ’ in England, Scotland and Wales amounted to a share of approximately 8 per cent. There is a widespread belief among the UK political elite that a more descriptively representative Parliament is necessary. In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain (CM 7170), the Secretary of State for Justice noted in 2007: ‘Representation of minority ethnic communities in the Houses of Parliament remains very low . . . the government is anxious to see this increase’ (Ministry of Justice 2007: 44). A consultation paper issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2007 even invites views ‘on whether to allow wider scope for positive action than is currently allowed in this area to target the selection of candidates from minority ethnic communities’ (Ministry of Justice 2007: 44). Prescriptions of this type are based on the implicit assumption that improved ‘descriptive’ representation (a more accurate reflection of the UK composition of the population in the House of Commons) will lead to a stronger ‘substantive’ representation of BME concerns in the UK Parliament. This chapter seeks to make an empirical contribution to this discussion focusing on the UK case. So far, rigorous empirical research in this area has been scarce as far as

European democracies are concerned. Although we have some comparative data on variations in the descriptive representation of BME politicians at various levels of political systems (for a summary see Messina 2007: 213-19), empirical findings on the behavioural effects of the enhanced descriptive representation of visible minorities in parliaments and legislatures have remained patchy. Normative theoretical work (e.g. Judge 1999; Mansbridge 1999, 2004; Phillips 1995; Pitkin 1967) has vastly outpaced empirical studies. Empirical evidence on the career patterns and behaviour of representatives from visibleminority backgrounds has tended to focus on the United States (for a study of political careers see Zweigenhaft and Domhoff 2003). Taken together, the findings of such studies on the United States have remained inconclusive. Some authors found few discernible differences between minority and non-minority representatives (e.g. Swain 2006). Others discovered some striking patterns (e.g. Whitby 1997). In comparative politics, research has focused on the unevenness of the political participation of immigrants and their descendants resulting from variations in political opportunity structures (e.g. Ireland 1994; Koopmans and Statham 2000). For the UK, Geddes (1998) examined the political opportunity structure facing candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds with an emphasis on obstacles to political recruitment rather than legislative behaviour. Norris and Lovenduski’s (1995) study of political recruitment in the UK includes a very brief section on legislative behaviour (pp. 219-23) with a focus on role orientations. At the time of that study, the number of BME parliamentarians available for study was too small to warrant a more extensive analysis. The same is true for Nixon’s (1998) qualitative work, which is based on unstructured interviews of the small sample of six minority MPs available at the time. As in Norris and Lovenduski’s study, Nixon’s focus is more on attitudes than behaviour. This chapter offers a novel empirical account of the legislative behaviour of the 15 UK MPs with a BME background in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament. The study is based on a quasi-experimental design, contrasting these parliamentarians with a stratified sample of non-BME backbenchers (see below). Based on behavioural data, the analysis seeks first to establish the minority MPs’ revealed preferences (not all minority MPs see themselves as representatives of BME communities) by observing their behaviour in an institutionally relatively unconstrained environment (their presentation of ‘self ’ on personal websites), before moving on to assess the constraining or enabling effects of parliamentary institutions on behaviour.