‘Labour doesn’t seem to understand how it’s happening’: meet the new Black Tories – The Guardian

The Conservatives are keen to boast about the diversity of their top team – but the party has never been seen as a natural home for Black voters. Can a small group of Black Tories change that?
History is unlikely to be kind to Kwasi Kwarteng’s 38-day tenure as Britain’s first Black chancellor. Almost overnight, his disastrous mini-budget tanked the economy, crashed the pound and sent interest rates soaring. Three weeks later, he was gone. But there is no denying the symbolic power of the brief moment last autumn when there were no white men occupying any of the four great offices of state.

Kwarteng, who was born in east London to Ghanaian parents was the fourth consecutive person of colour to hold the post of chancellor. James Cleverly, whose mother hails from Sierra Leone, became the country’s first Black foreign secretary. Suella Braverman, the daughter of a Kenyan of Christian Goan origin and a Mauritian of Indian origin, was the third home secretary of colour in a row, while Kemi Badenoch, who was born in south-west London to Nigerian parents, became trade secretary. Perhaps most notable of all was that this new era of diversity at the top of government had been delivered not by Labour, the party traditionally seen as the natural home for minority voters, but by the Conservatives.
In the wake of the fallout from his mini-budget, Kwarteng derided the opposition’s record on diversity. “If you look at the last 10 years, the Conservative party is much more ethnically diverse than the Labour party, and they lecture us on diversity. They lecture us on gender diversity when they’ve never had a female leader; we’ve had three female prime ministers,” he told the Mail on Sunday. “So, on gender, on race, on all of these things they think they own, they are failing and are backward, and the Conservative party is much more progressive.”
Now, a formidable cabal of Conservative change-makers are working behind the scenes to ensure that Kwarteng will not be the last Black Conservative to clutch that iconic red box. Enter the 2022 Group, with its mission to transform the party in the eyes of Black voters. The name is a conscious echo of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs who have the ability to determine a leader’s fate, and co-founder Samuel Kasumu, a quietly spoken but shrewd political operator who once worked as race adviser to Boris Johnson, hopes this project will be as influential and enduring. “Are we going to have future prime ministers come through this group? Are we going to be able to make sure that the Conservatives become a party of choice for British African and Caribbeans through this group? I think the answer is yes,” he says.

I first meet Kasumu 11 days before Kwarteng is sacked, at the launch of the 2022 Group. It is perhaps the liveliest corner of an otherwise bleak Tory conference. Economic turmoil, infighting and dire polling mean there is little to laugh about. But in this bland function room at Birmingham’s Hyatt Regency hotel, the exuberance is contagious, and even hotel staff pile on to the dancefloor as a DJ wraps up to Montell Jordan’s hip-hop classic This Is How We Do It. “Though there are difficult times ahead, this group was set up with the future in mind, so we have a lot to be optimistic about,” says Kasumu, 35.
For Kasumu, the challenge is ensuring that progress at the top of government is reflected at the ballot box. “If you’re African or Caribbean, at the moment you might feel like this party is not on your side, or you can’t quite relate to some of the Black Tories that you see,” he says. “We have to demonstrate that the Conservative party really is a broad church. You don’t have to agree with every single thing a prominent Black Tory says to find a home here.” Although Kasumu is reluctant to name individuals, some of the party’s most vocal MPs of colour, including Badenoch and Braverman, have faced criticism for their trenchant views on culture war issues.

Badenoch, 42, has railed against gender-neutral toilets and likened Black History Month to “racism history month”. Writing in the Daily Mail last year, she insisted that the way to deal with ethnic minority disadvantage is “not to get civil servants to read books on white privilege or worry about statues in Oxford colleges”. Meanwhile, Braverman provoked ridicule in October as she searched for someone to blame for the Just Stop Oil protests, saying: “It’s the Labour party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the coalition of chaos, it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption.”
By his own admission, Kasumu is not a culture warrior. He became Johnson’s special adviser for civil society and communities in 2019, embarking on the role with dreams of opening doors to Britain’s ethnic minorities. He worked on mental health reform, Home Office policy, the government’s response to the Windrush scandal, and the drive to boost vaccine take-up among hesitant groups. But things started to fall apart in February 2021 when he accused the government of alienating Black and Asian voters by pursuing “a politics steeped in division”. He quit two months later after a government Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities controversially concluded the UK does not have a problem with institutional racism.

Kasumu is reluctant to say much about the drama around his resignation, but he admits to becoming disillusioned by members of the government who exploited culture war issues for electoral gain. “Some people continue to feel that an easy way to win elections is through exploiting division, whether that is along the lines of transgender rights, or how people view or interpret British history and so on,” he says.
He left in the middle of the vaccine deployment drive, “and I was really in my element. It was very strange to leave at that point. I remember my last conversation with the PM, and he said: ‘You shouldn’t go, because this work isn’t done.’” Does he feel guilty about that? “Of course – this was people’s lives,” he says, adding: “Don’t make me be emotional.” He pauses for a few seconds and continues: “I mean, every day was intense working at No 10, but to be responsible for something like that probably made it more difficult for me to maybe handle things I would have handled in a different way.”

Some saw it as the end of Kasumu’s political career, but a pair of powerful Black Conservatives had other ideas. Festus Akinbusoye, 44, who became Britain’s first Black police and crime commissioner when he was elected in Bedfordshire in 2021, and Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, 65, the millionaire founder of the Black Farmer brand, which supplies sausages to major supermarkets, phoned him separately with a proposal. “They both said: ‘I know you’re a guy on a mission and the mission doesn’t stop because you left No 10. So what should we do next?’” Kasumu says. The trio conceived the 2022 Group in summer 2021, and their aims were endorsed at the top of the party. Cleverly attended the group’s first meeting at the Royal Automobile Club in London’s Pall Mall in September 2021, while Jake Berry, Steve Baker, Richard Fuller and Grant Shapps gave speeches at the launch.

The 2022 Group will create opportunities for people to meet, and provide mentoring schemes for those who want to get involved in public life. Kasumu insists the group is open to people of all backgrounds, including white MPs who represent diverse constituencies. “MPs and local councillors who are very interested in how we win in places like London and Birmingham have expressed interest in it,” he says. Kasumu argues that a new generation of Black Tories is rising up, unafraid to challenge established views. “Traditionally in politics, people think you should behave yourself, toe the line, and everything will work out,” he says. “But I’m not in politics because I want to climb the greasy pole. I’m here because I want to change the world. People don’t necessarily always get that, but Festus and Wilfred did.”

Akinbusoye, who stood as a Conservative candidate in West Ham in 2015, losing by 27,986 votes to Labour’s Lyn Brown, echoes Kasumu’s belief that the Tories have the potential to appeal to many more Black voters. He points out that the diversity at the top has been achieved without forced quotas. “You’re getting talented, articulate, ambitious people who happen to be Black, brown, Muslim, Sikh, whatever. They’re coming through the ranks. The Labour party doesn’t even seem to understand how it’s happening.”

It’s a view supported by Cleverly, who predicted in 2019 that the Conservatives would produce the first prime minister of colour. “That’s what freaks the Labour party out. They are realising there is a very credible chance that we will have had two female prime ministers and a Black prime minister – maybe even a Black female prime minister – before they’ve even had their first female prime minister,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. (Cleverly, Kwarteng and Badenoch were all asked to speak for this piece but did not respond.)
Born in Nigeria, Akinbusoye moved to the UK aged 13 after his politician father, Akinola, was ousted in a military coup. In Lagos, the family lived in a 12-bedroom house, had a chauffeur and sent Akinbusoye to a private school. When they arrived in east London’s Upton Park in 1991. Akinbusoye, his twin sister and parents were crammed into one room of a flat, while a family of four occupied the second bedroom. “It was a leveller,” he says. “As an immigrant, you start from the bottom.”

Akinbusoye says he owes his work ethic to his late father, who took on three cleaning jobs to make ends meet. He is overcome with emotion as he recalls how his dad lost his job after being diagnosed with cancer. From then on, he kept his illness secret. “He had to rely on me to pay the electricity and gas. He was very proud, so that really broke him. It was very difficult seeing my father cry,” he says, fighting back tears himself.
Kasumu also experienced tough times in childhood. He was raised in London by his British-Nigerian mother and what he describes as his “surrogate parent” – the local Black majority evangelical church. His parents separated when he was eight, and his mother, a charity worker, often went to Nigeria to look after family members, leaving Kasumu and his four siblings – a fifth would come later – to fend for themselves. He recalls that on one occasion a pastor stopped by the family home in Barnet, north London, and dropped off cans of corned beef and pasta so the children could eat.

He was expelled from three schools in the space of a year, something he blames on a combination of bad behaviour – he could be disruptive, with a short attention span – and “limited parent supervision”. “When you’re a kid and you see stuff and you experience stuff, it’s inevitable that that will play out in your behaviour,” he says. But the church provided a source of stability. “I saw that there was a better way. This is why I didn’t end up selling cannabis, or walking around with a knife,” Kasumu says.
At London’s Brunel University, he fell into student politics while studying for a degree in business and management accounting. Kasumu says he was drawn to the Conservatives’ pro-business, pro-enterprise agenda, and its focus on law and order, but also that he struggled with what he calls the “Labour narrative that systems are against you”. “It doesn’t correlate with me,” he says. “But also, I don’t think it correlates with a lot of west Africans, to be honest. Culturally, I don’t think it’s how we’re wired – to just accept our lot.”

When, aged 19, he told his friends and family that he was joining the Conservatives, most thought he was joking. “I had a choice – I could go with a party that looked a bit more like me, but didn’t sound like me, or go to a party that sounded like me, but perhaps didn’t look like me. It’s not always easy taking the road less travelled, but it’s the road that made sense for me.”
In 2017, he stood as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Croydon North, losing by 32,365 votes to Labour’s Steve Reed. Kasumu, who lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two children, is now standing to be Conservative candidate for mayor of London, saying he will focus on housebuilding and investment funds for business owners from disadvantaged backgrounds. He has been endorsed by Richard Taylor, the father of murdered schoolboy Damilola Taylor.

I catch up with Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones on the phone in November, and he tells me that the group can reach ethnic minority voters by saying: “We’re proud to be Conservatives.” He adds: “There are a lot of people who assume that to be a Black Tory is odd. Black Tories have had to hide away in the past, and this group is about making them feel comfortable.” Emmanuel-Jones, who stood as a Tory candidate for Chippenham in the 2010 general election, losing by 2,470 votes, argues that the left tries to corral minority groups with idle promises of “we will look after your interests”. “I would like to remind Black people that it takes a lot of courage to leave your country of birth to give yourself and your children a better life. Those are really strong conservative values. That’s part of our DNA, rather than feeling like we are the victims of our society.”
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Emmanuel-Jones arrived in the UK from Jamaica at the age of four with his parents and eight siblings, as part of the Windrush generation. The family lived in a two-up, two-down terrace in Small Heath, Birmingham, and slept three-to-a-bed. “We were very poor,” he recalls. “I can remember my mother trying to feed 11 people on one chicken.” He had dyslexia and left school without any qualifications. “It was a dump,” he says. “It was one of those classic inner-city areas devoid of hope and opportunity, and a lot of people I went to school with ended up in prison or on society’s dustbin heap … The system was not there to protect or look after me. And being Black, all the cards were stacked against me.”
In his 20s, Emmanuel-Jones got a job as a runner at the BBC, rising up the ranks to become a producer and director on the Food & Drink programme. He then started a marketing company before realising his childhood dream of becoming a farmer, buying a 30-acre plot near Launceston, on the Devon-Cornwall border, where he still lives. His Black Farmer brand, which he launched in 2004, was once reported to have an annual turnover of £15m. Emmanuel-Jones says his success is down to “white individuals who went out of their way to give me a break. The greatest gift you could give someone is to inspire them in order to do it themselves,” he says. As one of the financiers of the 2022 Group, he believes he is putting his money where his mouth is.

When I press Emmanuel-Jones on whether the Windrush scandal has tarnished the Conservatives in the eyes of Black voters, he says: “Everybody in politics messes up. My philosophy in business is this – you only learn and develop by the mistakes that you make in life. So rather than spend your time being beaten up for getting things wrong, it’s about how do you learn and develop.” Akinbusoye also argues that the Conservatives have owned their mistakes on Windrush, adding: “I think it’s being sorted out, maybe not as fast as it could be. But there’s been an apology, as far as I’m aware. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The Conservative party’s record on ethnic diversity goes back to 1868 when Benjamin Disraeli became Britain’s first (and only) Jewish prime minister. The first British Indian Tory MP, Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree, was elected 27 years later. But by the time David Cameron inherited the party in 2005, the Tories had just two ethnic minority MPs. In addition, his first shadow cabinet included more white men called David (five) than it did women (four). But Cameron was determined to modernise. He froze the selection of candidates and encouraged Conservative associations in safe seats to choose from his “A-list”, half of whom were women and a large proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It provoked a backlash from some associations that didn’t want candidates foisted on them. In south-west Norfolk in 2009, dozens of hardline, rural Tory activists, dubbed the “Turnip Taliban”, tried to deselect Liz Truss after accusing her of failing to disclose an extramarital affair. Some also saw Cameron’s reforms as “politically correct” and echoing Labour’s all-women shortlists of the 90s.

But what followed was a rapid acceleration of change. In 2019, a record 65 ethnic minority MPs, making up 10% of parliament, were elected: 41 Labour, 22 Conservative and two Liberal Democrat. While Labour has more MPs of colour, it has less diversity in its upper echelons and has yet to elect a leader who is not white and male. Labour’s Diane Abbott, who became Britain’s first Black female MP in 1987, pointed out this disparity in October. “An older generation of Black and brown voters gave the Labour party undying support,” she wrote in the Independent. “Younger people see it differently. The Labour party should stop taking the Black vote for granted and thinking that the answer to institutional racism is to revisit the race relations quangos of the 1970s. Black people are tired of warm words. They want respect and practical action.” When I ask her why the Tories have seemingly outpaced Labour on diversity, Abbott says: “It’s well known that Cameron had a big push on getting more Black and brown MPs. He had his A-list and those people who came in 2010, or even before that, were products of that crusade. They have that pool of people to choose from.”

However, diversity at the top table doesn’t necessarily win more votes. The Tories made the most gains in 2015 after Cameron’s interventions, receiving 23% of the ethnic minority vote, compared with Labour’s 65%. But this dropped to 19% in 2017, rising to 20% in 2019. The most recent poll, in February 2022, found that 59% of ethnic minority voters intend to vote Labour and 21% for the Conservatives. Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a thinktank focused on issues of race and identity, says this is unsurprising: “It’s an odd thing to think that people are going to vote on a candidate’s skin colour. On one level, people want to see diversity because it proves you are a fair party, but it’s also an odd thing to think that it would matter,” he says.

Neither has increased diversity in the cabinet trickled down to the Tory party’s membership. Research by Prof Tim Bale, of Queen Mary, University of London, found that 96.4% of members are white (Labour’s membership is 92.1% white). Katwala says Black and Asian voters’ allegiance to Labour was forged in the 1960s, in the heat of the Enoch Powell era. Relations weren’t helped by Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 speech in which she said: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit further inflamed things in 1990 when he said the loyalty of British Asians could be measured by whom they supported in cricket. Then came Windrush, and claims of anti-Muslim prejudice within the party. Katwala, who was at the launch of the 2022 Group, points out that the party “still feels very distant from Black communities”.
Simon Woolley, the crossbench peer who founded Operation Black Vote in the 1990s to increase Black participation in general elections, sees it as significant that a group of Black Conservatives are owning a space within the party. “They are proud Conservatives,” he says, “but they are not the type of Conservatives who say ‘racism doesn’t exist’.” Although he doesn’t mention names, Woolley is still seething about the government’s controversial racial disparity report, authored by Tony Sewell, who is now a Tory peer. He says many African and Caribbean people hold naturally conservative views on religion, education and work ethic, but the Conservative party still has work to do in making them feel welcome. “When you look at the Black and brown faces in very, very high places, the Conservative party is outshining and at times shaming Labour, but on policy, at times, the Conservative party are atrocious.” The government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is one such policy, he says.

The 2022 Group have no firm policy positions so far; Kasumu says they won’t take them unless there is a strong consensus, because they’re not claiming to be the voice of every Black Conservative. But they will work with policymakers behind the scenes to ensure government plans can be defended on the doorstep.

What does he say of the controversial deportation scheme? Braverman recently stated that it was her “dream” and “obsession” to have the migrants who arrive in Britain on small boats shipped off to Rwanda, while Badenoch defended the scheme by saying, “Rwanda is not the country it was 30 years ago. It is actually a place people go to on holiday.” “If I was home secretary, I would probably be deeply uncomfortable with this type of policy. I would not be celebrating anybody being deported,” Kasumu says. He believes most people, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds, have a nuanced position on immigration and recognise the need to tackle Channel crossings. “But at the same time, you cannot be angry at people for being in search of a better life, because essentially that’s how you and I ended up here, right?”

In recent years, the Conservatives have been dogged by accusations of Islamophobia. Does Kasumu think they have a particular problem with the Muslim population, and have they done enough to reach them? “Obviously, there’s plenty more to do … If we believe that as a Conservative movement, we have policy positions and an offer for the British public that makes the most sense, then we should have the courage to say that, well, maybe there are groups that need to hear it a bit more than they have. Or maybe there are reasons why there is a shortfall in support among certain demographics.”
Five weeks after the launch, I meet Kasumu at the Institute of Directors’ Grade I-listed Georgian headquarters in London’s Pall Mall. Since we last met, Kwarteng has been sacked and the Tories have replaced Truss with the nation’s first prime minister of colour, Rishi Sunak, a British Indian and practising Hindu. We sit in a grand lounge with high ceilings and gleaming chandeliers, and I ask him if he thinks race played a part in Kwarteng’s dismissal. “I don’t think anyone can say for sure,” he says. “Outsiders have the potential to add unique value in many situations. They can challenge commonly held orthodoxies, they can help to broaden one’s appeal, they can inspire others, they can stand out. But when you are an outsider, when pressure is on, then sometimes your outsiderness shows.”

Sunak’s ascent to the highest office in the land is a more welcome development. “I would say that to a very significant majority of the country, it is something that feels relatively normal, even though it’s new – and that probably points to the evolution of the country over the last few decades,” he says. “For most people, the thing that they’re most interested in is whether or not a leader is the most competent person for the job. And I would argue that most people would agree that Rishi is probably the right man for this moment.”

Despite their optimism, Kasumu, Emmanuel-Jones and Akinbusoye are realistic about the challenges ahead. Akinbusoye tells how, when he was running for police and crime commissioner, a woman messaged him to say: “You are a traitor to your people.” Emmanuel-Jones has faced plenty of what he calls “stereotyping”. Recently, while sitting in his black Lexus hybrid outside his flat on the Thames in south London, a woman jumped in the back seat assuming he was a taxi driver. When he goes to meetings at major supermarkets where his products are stocked, people often assume he’s there to pick someone up. “You could understand that if you’re Black and you don’t have my privileges, that sort of stuff could eat away at you. You can understand why these young people just get really angry,” he says.

The party is also facing an exodus of disillusioned MPs who fear a general election wipeout. But Kasumu is unconcerned: “I’m extremely hopeful for the future because I’m preparing for it now.” He says the group needs to be unashamed about telling the truth to effect change. He glances around the Institute of Directors’ lounge, its walls adorned with gold-framed portraits of white men in military garb. “People say, ‘Why are you a member of the IoD? How many people here look like you?’ Well, that’s the point. The people who are able to really change the world are disruptive.” But he admits the party needs to modernise to survive. “You’ve got to confront the brutal facts, which is that there are some groups who are less likely to vote Conservative right now,” he says.

What should a modern Conservative party look like? “It’s being able to explain policy positions without being so polarising. It’s maybe being a bit more humble about how you engage with people you don’t agree with. It means broadening your appeal to groups that are growing demographics.”

Again, Kasumu returns, obliquely, to his disdain for culture war rhetoric. “There are people who are in government today, who, frankly, in the not too distant future, will be the past. They were the future once, but they’re not the future now. And so we’re going to let them have their movement. But a lot of the things that they have done or said are things that we’re going to have to try to fix or repair.” Who could he possibly be referring to? “I’m not going to name names.”