Politics, Intersectionality and Empathy: Representation at the UK General Elections 2015

By Kaammini Chanrai

I am what they call an ‘ethnic minority’. Although there are over 1 billion Indians worldwide, I am a minority in the country that I live in, which is also the country in which I was born. According to the 2011 census, British Indians make up 2.3% of the population, which equates to nearly 1.5 million individuals (although I imagine this figure has since risen). And yet I giggle, as when I try to search for how many Indians there are in the UK, Google tries to guess my search by correcting it to Indian restaurants.

I am also a woman. Not a minority by any means, women make up 52% of the population. Referring to the 2011 census again, there are over 32.2 million of us in the UK. And yet somehow, this idea of ‘the women’s vote’ still exists. We are once again homogenised into a single entity whereby our differences are overshadowed by the common feature of our vaginas. Well done, politicians. Well done.

I should probably also mention that I am a member of Generation Y. Or the ‘youths’ as they like to call us. Although this is not the first election I am able to vote in, I fit neatly into this category of individuals who prioritise cost of living, affordable housing and unemployment. It’s true – as someone currently in part-time, temporary employment in the non-profit sector, I do worry about all of those things. It all seems intuitively fair but, once again, I am treated as a group, not as an individual.

Let’s complicate things further. Almost a third of new parliamentary candidates were privately educated. But, then again, so was I. I attended an all-girls private school since I moved to London in 2003. However, let’s reflect on the fact that the annual salary for an MP is £67,060. Last year, it was reported that the average UK wage was £27,000 – I’ll let you do the maths. Whilst I will not disclose what I earn on the Internet, I can say that I get paid significantly less than our politicians – as do most individuals my age.

Finding the figures for this intersection – a British Indian female youth – is harder than you might think. After several Internet searches for this statistic, I stopped after repeatedly turning up with reports to do with child marriage and surprisingly, Mindy Kaling. And whilst I am a fan of the latter, this was not particularly useful.

So, with the UK General Elections just around the corner, is there an obvious choice of who I should vote for?

According to reports, as an ethnic minority I am more likely to vote Labour. According to further reports, as a woman, I am more likely to vote Conservative. And whilst the Liberal Democrats seemed to attract us ‘youths’ at the last election, it seems that this time, the Green Party and the Conservatives are more likely to receive our vote. Regardless, I will be the first to admit that listing these statistics is a pointless activity as I highly doubt that knowing how those like me are voting is going to influence my vote.

But that doesn’t stop the occasional manipulation by politicians. Call me cynical, but I feel used. My multiple identities are thrown around as political jargon in an attempt to sway me one way or another. I am not seen as an individual, I am seen as a ticked box. UKIP’s latest policy to scrap the Tampon Tax illustrates just that. If it weren’t for the fact that UKIP wanted to scrap paid maternity leave, legalise gender discrimination and scrap employment regulations against sexual harassment (amongst other things), I might actually believe that UKIP genuinely care about women.

This is just a pathetic attempt to get women on UKIP’s side, just as the Liberal Democrats did towards youths with their insistence that the rise in tuition fees has not deterred young people from attending universities. This is poor from Nick Clegg, who didn’t even have the time to attend election hustings in his Sheffield Hallam constituency – the most student-heavy ward in the UK. Sorry politicians but these attempts are not nuanced and tend to disregard intersection. If you’re going to isolate me through your immigration policies, don’t expect me to forgive you for citing me as an important individual. I will not be fooled.

***

When I watched the Leaders’ Debates a few weeks ago, I was largely disappointed. I was faced with seven representatives – those select few of the population who are meant to reflect all of us. They were majority men (an inaccurate reflection), they were all white (again, inaccurate representation), they were all over 40 (I’m not going to throw a fuss over this one) and they are all earning significantly more than the national average. None of these representatives came close to representing me.

I started to relate how I felt about this to the concept of empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. I was reminded of a passage that I read in a recent article in The Guardian:

“Dr Geoff Bird of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London shows us that our empathy for someone is critically affected by how much we identify with them. For someone within our “in group” our hearts may bleed, but for someone perceived as part of an “out group” we can be amazingly callous.”

I applied this distinction to the politicians on screen. As a 23-year-old, non-white woman, I found it next to impossible to identify with any of these political leaders. I continue to find it very difficult to identify with MPs in Parliament – unsurprising, considering how poorly they reflect the population.

More importantly, I question how any of them are able to identify with me.  As I stared at the four men and three women on screen, I doubted that any would truly be able to empathise with my position. How would they even try to identify with the needs of someone like me? Or, alternatively, the needs of someone who is nothing like me but equally, or more, underrepresented.

It shouldn’t matter that politicians don’t look like us and yet I continuously find that it does. Politics comes from the Greek: ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ I struggle to grasp how such a male-dominated, white, older generation of individuals can really be ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ When this lack of diversity is reflected in their political values, one can’t help but wonder if this inability to empathise is undermining our democracy.

What is more, this is also mirrored by who chooses to vote. In the 2010 UK General Election, the turnout for women voters was 2% less than male voters. More shockingly, 24% of ethnic minorities aren’t even registered to vote and this figure rises to 50% for those of African origin. Voting is a right, not a privilege – if we want to be reflected politically, this is certainly a good place to start.

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