News analysis

In and Out camps in Britain play race card

Campaign poster urging ethnic minorities to vote in next month's Brexit referendum riles anti-EU supporters

A hard-hitting campaign poster designed to encourage Britain's ethnic minorities to vote in next month's referendum on European Union (EU) membership has sparked a major political row, with those advocating Britain's withdrawal from the EU denouncing the poster as "disgusting".

The poster depicts a thuggish-looking white male jabbing a finger at a smiling sari-clad Indian woman seated opposite him on a see-saw.

It is issued by Operation Black Vote (OBV), a pressure group devoted to encouraging ethnic minorities to play a bigger part in Britain's political life.

"I want to engage people in all communities, but I'm afraid this poster is a really big mistake," said Mr Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a nationalist anti-EU movement which accuses the pro-Europe camp of "engaging in sectarian politics".

With less than three weeks of campaigning left, both camps are playing the race card, although neither can be sure of how crucial Britain's ethnic vote may be in deciding the outcome of the ballot on June 23.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage has blasted the poster released by Operation Black Vote, calling it a "big mistake". The pressure group, however, says all it wants is to encourage Britain's ethnic minorities to vote in the June 23 polls. PHOTO: OPERATION BLACK VOTE

Only a third of ethnic minorities registered to vote actually cast their ballots, underscoring the challenge.

OBV denies a preference for either side in the referendum campaign. It says its sole objective is to ensure Britain's estimated 4 million ethnic minority voters, or roughly 10 per cent of the country's total electorate, actually vote. "We need to show them that their voices matter," said Mr Simon Woolley, OBV's director.

The OBV poster campaign has grated on those advocating Britain's withdrawal from the EU, largely because it could be seen to imply that ethnic minority voters are either marginalised or intimidated by the referendum.

Mr Farage, whose UKIP movement has frequently been accused of racism, pointed out that neither is true and that although immigration is a major topic in the referendum debate, the campaign itself has been mercifully free of racial tensions.

  • Migration to UK nears record high

  • LONDON • Net migration to Britain reached its second- highest level on record last year, according to the final set of official data to be released before an EU referendum, in which the number of new arrivals from Europe has driven much opposition to the bloc.

    Total net migration, the difference between the number of people entering and leaving Britain, hit 333,000 last year, the second-highest level for a 12-month period since records began in 1975, the Office for National Statistics said yesterday.

    Net migration from the European Union was estimated to be 184,000 last year, up from 174,000 in 2014.

    In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to reduce the annual level of net migration to below 100,000 but he has failed to keep his pledge, partly due to the number of EU citizens moving to Britain.


Yet Mr Farage is only partially right on this point, for opponents of the EU have not hesitated to play the race card when it suited them.

One of the anti-EU camp's biggest electoral assets at the moment is Mrs Priti Patel, Britain's Employment Minister. The politician of Indian descent is an energetic campaigner and a useful standard-bearer for anti-EU voters, for her very presence deflects accusations that those who wish to pull Britain out of the EU are racist.

Mrs Patel, 44, stands for patriotism in its most acceptable form. Her wish is to take her country out of the EU not because she wants to "keep Britain white" but because she wants to keep Britain British, a point she is able to make credibly.

The Out Campaign, the official umbrella organisation for those arguing that Britain should withdraw from the EU, now plans to take matters further by tapping into the frustration many members of Britain's ethnic communities feel about the influx of East Europeans.

For most people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin in Britain, immigration restrictions are not history, but a daily trouble. Almost every family from those communities is battling Britain's Home Office to obtain visas for an uncle or a grandmother barred from visiting because of some draconian visa regulation. And yet East Europeans with no prior connection to Britain can come and settle at any time, without even needing a passport.

The resentment is palpable. "Why is it harder for a qualified doctor or software engineer from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh or the Middle East to come to Britain than it is for an unskilled worker from Poland or Romania?" asks a leaflet distributed by Muslims for Britain, an anti-EU organisation.

Businessmen are also irritated. Mr Pasha Khandakar, president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, rails against an "immigration double standard" that allows East Europeans to work in a curry restaurant, but does not allow a restaurant owner to import a chef from the Indian subcontinent.

British ministers who support continued EU membership are loath to engage in such sensitive ethnic debates.

Nevertheless, Mr Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Asia and the former British colonies, recently used an interview with newspapers in India to debunk hopes that an exit from the EU would somehow ease Britain's migration control. He said: "That simply wouldn't be the case, and I don't think that's the most responsible claim I've heard."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2016, with the headline 'In and Out camps in Britain play race card'. Print Edition | Subscribe