UKREN blog

Wednesday 27 January 2016



A report published by The Runnymede Trust in December 2015 revealed that a large amount of Asian, Black and minority ethnic people still feel that “discussions about immigration are about them, but that their views on the topic are not effectively or proportionally represented in British public or policy debates about immigration”.

A huge amount of focus within current debates about whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU is trained on the issue of migration. Specifically, attention is given to the impacts of immigration on Britain’s public services and benefits provision. Last month, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron announced his proposal to restrict in-work benefits and housing support for EU migrants until they have worked in the UK for four years. Marley Morris writing for the Independent notes that, “the reform would directly discriminate against EU migrant workers on the basis of their nationality, and [this] is opposed to one of the fundamental tenets of freedom of movement, enshrined in the treaties – the principle of equal treatment of EU workers”.

Freedom of movement has become a real hot potato within the EU debate- and not just because of Europe’s flaccid response to tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and thousands dying in the Mediterranean Sea every year (including 199 people dead or missing in the first few weeks of 2016 alone). A pamphlet produced by British Future- a non-partisan think tank seeking to involve people in an open conversation about their ‘hopes and fears about migration’- identifies a referendum voter demographic it terms the ‘anxious middle’.

According to British Future, the ‘anxious middle’ represents around half of Britain, which holds “pragmatic and nuanced views about immigration, and would seek to manage the pressures brought by immigration while securing its benefits too”. Clearly the rhetoric here is very much addressing a non-migrant population about the effects that ‘their’ migration has engendered, but to address the issue in hand- what are these ‘pressures’ and ‘benefits’?

Of the ‘losses’, Morris notes that “there is little evidence of benefit tourism on a significant scale and EU migrants tend to pay into the system more than they take out in terms of welfare”. The benefits are well-documented by the ‘stay’ vote campaigners- the business and economic case for immigration is strong, citing the positive impact of migration on the dependency ratio, as well as the benefit of an increased labour force, and the consequent rise in aggregate demand and Real GDP.

However, I’m loathe to delve into these arguments too interrogatively. It is odd and perhaps pointless to talk about a group of people in the abstract; without soliciting their opinions. It is vital in fact, to bring the debate in line with the reality that migrants and members of BME (‘black/minority ethnic’) communities who live in Britain are part of the discussion, not merely subjects of it. People who have migrated to Britain, whether from within or outside of the EU are not a homogenous group with a single joint perspective and agenda. Migrant populations are not necessarily broadly pro-migration; bear in mind that more than 25% of the eligible electorate in 2015 were born outside of the UK, and yet the country still ended up lumbered with a boldly anti-immigration Conservative government, giddy with plans to ramp up border security.

In its pamphlet, British Future states that “the way we talk about immigration in Britain should make sense to Britons of every colour and creed, rather than sharply polarizing people along ethnic lines in any direction”. In perfect illustration of this real need for change in the landscape of the debate, at a large-scale event organised this week by OpenEurope, which presented a mock-up of the Referendum negotiations, amongst the 13-strong roll call of representatives there was not a single person of colour.

On a similar note, how are the ‘diversity’ scoreboard looking inside the heated engine rooms of the ‘Leave’ and ‘Stay’ campaigns? Vote Leave, one of the fore-running campaigns for Britain to remain in the EU is described by Anoosh Chakelian, who wrote a break-down of the campaign groups for the New Statesman in October 2015 as, “pale, male and stale”.

Vote Leave’s promotional video showcasing British ‘heroes’ is unfortunately a broad whitewash in every sense. In classic style, the video hails the achievements of Florence Nightingale as the “inventor of modern nursing” with no mention of Mary Seacole, exalts the work of Emmeline Pankhurst with no mention of the working-class led, far more intersectional East London Federation of Suffragettes which was formed of members expelled from the WSPU by Emmeline Pankhurst herself. What about Sophie Duleep Singh, or Bhikaji Cama- both equally pertinent examples of women who played vital roles in the suffragette movement in the UK in the early 20th century? The video praises Alan Turing- a brilliant scientist who was persecuted by the British judicial system for his sexuality- an illegality now enshrined in the Human Rights Act- a valuable document codifying many sections of the European Convention on Human Rights, which many Eurosceptics are now suggesting that the UK should repeal.

My problem here isn’t with the opinion that Britain should leave the EU, but more with what happens when a PR video is written and produced by a campaign which is failing to incorporate the perspectives of a broad range of people into its decision-making.

The main cross-party ‘in’ campaign- ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ fares better in the ‘diversity’ category, with a relatively good gender balance, and people in colour acting as both ‘champions’ and organisers. This ‘in’ campaign centres around three main issues- that of leadership on the world stage, the strength of Britain’s economy, and security. The messaging here is not entirely seamless (the ‘aggression of Russia’ gets an unexplained limelight), and perhaps unnecessary focus is given to Britain’s need to ‘shape the future’ and be a ‘leader’ on the world stage. These issues don’t translate to anything that particularly resonates with me, but the campaign’s mention of lower prices for British families and 3 million jobs being tied to trade with Europe seems to suggest that it is attempting to connect to a broad range of people with different interests which span beyond pursuing arbitrary prestige for Britain on the ‘world stage’.

The Runnymede report states that “Where BME people are concerned about levels of immigration, this is more likely to focus on the fairness of benefits, or the pressure on social welfare policies”. Social welfare policies are drafted according to the priorities of the government, and so I’d wager that what people in Britain are experiencing as pressurised social welfare services is unrelated to migration in the real sense. People are experiencing the impacts of a vastly specious austerity agenda- an agenda which makes cuts which sting the most vulnerable segments of society (as made clear by the powerful push-back from groups such as Sisters Uncut and Disabled People Against Cuts), and leave the wealthy upper crusts free to exit the scene in pursuit of their capitalist agendas.

On a note of capitalist agendas, Britain has profited handsomely from EU immigration in the past decade: between 2001 and 2011, European immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributed 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits. In David Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister reflected on Britain’s proud history of welcoming migrants and protecting refugees, and remarked that “In more recent decades, [Britain] has played its part in tearing down the Iron Curtain and championing the entry into the EU of those countries that lost so many years to Communism”. Yet, migrants from these exact Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries, whose taxes have significantly contributed to the financing of public services, bear the brunt of anti-migration sentiment when Cameron talks about specifically Polish people ‘abusing’ benefits.

The Runnymede report comments that, “Some [BME communities] view Europe in explicitly ethnic or racial terms, identifying ‘Fortress Europe’ as a way of keeping out non-white immigrants while allowing significant levels of European migration”. The afternoon session of the #EUWargames event explored the need to shed what former Chancellor of the Exchequor Norman Lamont (representing the UK) referred to as, “an awkward partner gumming up the works and objecting to everything all of the time”. Lamont’s description of the EU as a partner ‘gumming up the works’ is likely to imply that Britain seeks more control over its borders, rather than more free movement across them, through leaving the EU. Writing for the Guardian in September 2015, Hugo Dixon notes that “the argument that we should leave the EU because of the refugee crisis is riddled with flaws. For a start, we never gave up control of our borders in the first place. We didn’t sign the Schengen agreement, which removed border controls between 22 EU countries and four other non-EU countries”.

My own opinion about reifying the concept of nation states aside, it is evident that the discussion around this topic of Britain’s membership to the EU needs to be so much broader. The people leading the campaigns around the referendum have a duty to represent and speak to the populace of Britain- to speak to everyone, not just high net worth business leaders who have a lot to gain, but families and communities whose labour power is a key asset to Britain, and who have a more to lose through any decision to join or leave the EU. Government decisions and policies will continue to bolster the agendas of those at the top, unless the voices of those people most affected by them are centred in the debate.


By Leah Cowan


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