Page last updated at 15:28 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

An Asian PM in our time?

By Perminder Khatkar
Producer: Ji Prime Minister, BBC Asian Network

Number 10 Downing Street
Ji Prime Minister is broadcast on the BBC Asian Network at 1800 GMT on 9 March
If Parliament is to reflect the face of modern Britain there should be at least 50 Asian and Black MPs. But today only 2% are from an ethnic background - just 15 from a total of 646.

At the current rate of change it could take 75 years to get anywhere near a representative amount, so what are the chances of Britain ever getting its own Asian prime minister?

Ashok Viswanathan, from Operation Black Vote, said: "It's conceivable that we could have a prime minister who's African, Asian or Caribbean in the next 25 to 30 years."

But could this optimism become a reality?

Ali Miraj was 23 and a part-time DJ when he was elected as a Conservative councillor in Ruislip Manor, Hillingdon, north-west London.

This gave him the experience and the appetite to go further - so he went on to contest his first seat in Aberavon, south Wales, at the 2001 general election.


He knew he had no chance of winning.

Four years later, at the general election in 2005, he was again selected as a candidate for Watford, a marginal seat.

However, what Mr Miraj had not bargained for when he was canvassing was this response: "We've always voted Conservative but we can't vote for you because you're a Muslim."

He came third behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Iraq war had taken place in 2003 and by the 2005 election, Mr Miraj felt, it was still a raw and prominent issue.

Shahid Malik MP
Shahid Malik is optimistic there could be a Muslim prime minister

Perhaps if it had not been for this he would have stood a better chance?

Mr Miraj went on to try to secure a safe seat. He felt that, with two general elections behind him, he had proven his commitment and dedication.

But it was here, he says, that he faced more unanticipated hurdles - and this time they were not from the public.

"Three MPs in the Conservative Party who were retiring and I was applying for their seats were saying to me... effectively you are not going to get it because your face doesn't fitů

"So I went to the selection committee in this constituency and made a joke of it saying 'I hear you're not going to pick me because I'm not a white middle-class male but I don't believe you will, which is why I'm here'."


Mr Miraj was not chosen and then blogged about his experience in on a Labour Party site in 2007.

He went on to have a very public row with Conservative leader David Cameron - who said Mr Miraj had asked for a peerage shortly before going public with his criticism - which eventually led to the end of his political career.

Shailesh Vara MP, who is shadow deputy leader of the Commons in Mr Cameron's front bench team, did not want to comment on Mr Miraj's case.

But he told the programme the Conservatives were selecting their best candidates regardless of the ethnic make-up of constituencies and said this showed "the fair mindedness of the British people of electing individuals to Parliament irrespective of their ethnic background".

Nasar Meer, of Bristol University, says he has found that parties can be reluctant to put up ethnic minority candidates in safe winnable seats because they think the public will not vote for them.

He goes one step further: "There are a number of factors outside the political arena which will make it harder for Muslim candidates.

"There's a general anxiety around terrorism, general anxiety (around) extremism, about Muslims not being committed to gender equality, for example."

This applied pressures which other ethnic minority potential candidates did not have to face.

They had to demonstrate they were patriotic, non-violent and believed in gender equality.

Next election

"These cumulatively amount to a great number of hurdles they have to clear, " said Dr Meer.

He concludes that it is highly unlikely the UK will see an ethnic minority prime minister soon and believes it is even more implausible that there will be a Muslim prime minister.

But not everyone agrees.

Justice minister and Dewsbury MP Shahid Malik said some people told him he would never get in as an MP "as this town wasn't ready to select a Muslim".

But he did so and now he is the first Muslim to become a junior minister.

He is optimistic that before long the UK will see an ethnic minority and even Muslim prime minister.

Priti Patel
Priti Patel is to contest the next election for the Conservatives

And many believe that the next general election is one to watch out for.

All the main political parties say they are fielding Asian and black candidates and there are a number of Asian MPs - like the Conservatives' Priti Patel and Labour's Rushanara Ali - who are strong contenders.

So this, along with the on-going Speaker's Conference, which is dedicating a year to looking into how to get more Asian and Black MPs, could be the turning point .

Ayesha Hazarika, special adviser to Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, said: "As far as I'm concerned there's never been a better time to get involved in politics."

Does she think the UK can ever expect to say 'Ji' (yes) prime minister? "In the words of President Obama: 'Yes we can.'"

Here is a selection of your comments:

We should not take steps to make the racial mix of MPs match that of the population unless we are willing to take that step more generally. Our first past the post electoral system reduces the number of MPs representing any minority group, for example the number of Green Party MPs does not reflect the percentage of voters who vote for them. If we had proportional representation, then we would naturally have a profile of MPs that matches that of the population (assuming members of ethnic minorities were willing to put themselves up to be voted for by people of the same ethnic minority).
Steve, London

I don't forsee it happening in Britain any time soon - this country is so constipated when it comes to change.
Hamish, Scotland

Politics should be fought on the issues involved and the ethnicity and skin colour of somebody should not affect it at all... whether it helps them or hinders them. A person should not have any more right to become a "high-ranking" politician if they are Asian, just as they should have no less right to either.
Kyle, Kent

I think the first issue should be when is the PM likely to be from the English working class... We have too many family business politicians i.e. children and grandchildren of MPs and Peers in politics and too many members of the legal profession, let's sort this out first.
Ron, Suffolk

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