There is hope, despite the divisive anti-migrant political rhetoric
Immigration is a big issue for all the political parties standing for the European Parliament elections in the UK. At the extreme right-wing end of the UK political spectrum you have the British National Party trying to defend its seat and the English Defence League trying to gain a seat, with a virulent racist rhetoric (you only have to look at the BNP leader’s Twitter feed @NickGriffinMEP to see racism alive and unchecked). Unfortunately most of the mainstream political parties have positioned themselves in favour of strong immigration controls. UKIP have commenced a poster and online anti-immigration (and anti-EU) advertising campaign that not only targets traditional right wing supporters but also places posters in left wing Labour heartlands.
UKIP, and in particular its leader Nigel Farage, has cultivated the image of an anti-establishment figure, a bloke who likes a beer and a debate at the pub and who appeals to the common man. Not a bad image change for a former stockbroker with a private school education who has been a MEP since 1999! As the UKIP candidate for Glasgow recently said “UKIP is colour blind, we just don’t want more immigrants”. And Donna Edmunds, UKIP’s candidate for the South East, said that “Business owners should be free to turn people away for whatever reason they choose – be they gay, black or a woman”. Despite facts about the positive contribution that migrants bring to the UK, immigration and the EU are blamed for the ills of the country. Opinion polls put UKIP in prime position to collect the most votes in the May elections. Following the UKIP lead, the other main parties - Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats - all advocate a tough line on immigration to varying degrees. Only the small Green party doesn’t. It is hard to find any mention of measures to tackle racism in the political parties manifestos or websites.
Yet 2.3 million non-British Europeans live in the UK and have the right to vote in the European Parliament elections. But will they register to vote and will the many Britons who feel disaffected by politics actually vote? Together a potentially large voting bloc.
The campaigning organisation 38 Degrees, Bite The Ballot, New Europeans and UKREN, amongst other NGOs, are all trying to mobilise voters. 38 Degrees members (and there are 2.5 million of them) are banging on neighbours doors with voter registration forms. Although Britain typically records a very low turnout for European elections, maybe the voter mobilisation campaigns will have an impact.
And if they vote will they stand up for a racism-free, pro-Europe and free movement agenda? The anti-racism rally in Trafalgar Square in London on 22 March saw 10,000 people attend. A good indication that many people do believe in an open society. As the organisers of the event said “The demonstrations were vibrant, positive, diverse and lively with a range of different communities including migrants from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, as well as Roma, Gypsy, Kurdish, Muslim, Christian and other faith communities. They joined trade unions, anti-racist, anti-fascists and social movements in a carnival of unity. The day was a magnificent display of our diversity, multi-culturalism and unity against racism and hatred.” There are also some good examples of how, when given the opportunity on their own terms, young people have a voice in what has become a divisive debate on race equality, immigration and Europe. The OpenGeneration project is one such example.
For those who believe in parliamentary democracy conducted in a racism-free environment, maybe all is not lost.
Alan Anstead, UKREN Coordinator