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The Rules of Representation

Author: Ruth Lucas

Editor: Shachi Gokhale

Political leadership in the United Kingdom is diversifying at an unprecedented rate. In the last year alone, the United Kingdom has had its third female Prime Minister, first Asian Prime Minister, and now its first-ever Asian Scottish First Minister. These appointments shine a light on a new era of inclusivity in British Politics, but also the increasingly tricky rules of representation.

Because of their historical exclusion from the political sphere, politicians from minority groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, have huge symbolic importance. They do not only act as politicians but become a voice for the previously voiceless. They act as figureheads to demonstrate these groups’ ability to lead. However, at the same time, they are told not to compartmentalise themself as just a voice on their group’s issues, but also prove themselves as just as able to act on a variety of issues that politicians are expected to. This leads some politicians from minority groups to dilute their differences to the majority group, inevitably setting them up to those they represent, as simply not good enough.

The complexities surrounding this rest on two different, but inherently related concepts - descriptive and substantive representation. Whilst descriptive representatives are those who look the same or have the shared experience as a group in society, substantive representatives are those that advocate for these groups’ interests. For example, a descriptive representative of a black voter would be black, but would not substantively represent them unless they represented black people’s interests within Westminster. This, of course, is hard to trace, and it may even be problematic to suggest that all black people have the exact same interests that need to be addressed.

This issue is referred to as essentializing; treating social groups as entirely homogeneous, and in turn, there being an ignorance towards different opinions and interests within groups. Of course, within a single individual is a complex intersection of factors that produce their identity; gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, age, and education, just to name a few. In turn, although some groups may have undeniable shared experiences, it is often too difficult to track what their interests actually are, and whether these interests are being championed by their representatives.

The tension between descriptive and substantive representation is something I continue to struggle with. It is easy to be lulled into seeing somebody who looks like you, or has the same background, and assume that they will act in your interests. Yet, of course, this often isn’t the case, as I argued in one of my previous articles. Discussing my lack of pride for the UK’s female Prime Ministers I argued that it was hard to support them when they come from a party I don’t support. This creates an inconsistency - as a feminist, I am proud that we have had three female Prime Ministers, but as socially liberal, I am not proud that they were Conservatives, whose policies I didn’t agree with. Further, whilst I cannot deny the progress that has been made in normalising the idea that a woman can be Prime Minister, I have inevitably judged them on how well they have represented women. But even if I think they’ve done a bad job, does this render their achievement completely useless?

Similar discussions took place following the appointment of Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister. However, Sunak’s multi-millionaire status and privately-educated background led some to claim that his achievement is “not a win for representation” of ethnic minority communities, and in fact, his policies may do more harm than good. Hashi Mohamed writes: “For people like us, Sunak’s ascension is tinged with bitterness…his hardline views aren’t exactly representative of who we imagined would be the first British leader with immigrant parents”. Again, an inconsistency arises: although the achievement of Sunak’s appointment does not go unnoticed, other factors almost cancel out some people’s ability to celebrate the symbolic nature of Britain’s first-ever Asian Prime Minister.

Does this make descriptive representation entirely unimportant? Although it may essentialise groups, it is undeniable that the symbolic importance of groups seeing people that look like them in positions of power is huge. Further, having a diversity of groups and voices contributing to decision-making gives political bodies greater legitimacy in the eyes of minority groups. We should be able to separate the historical achievement of minority groups entering positions of power. But, any discussion of descriptive representation unfortunately only scratches the surface: it is the first step, not the satisfying conclusion. Descriptive representatives can give a voice to the voiceless, but only if they actually listen.

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