As Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to brandish the unwelcome prospect of an exit from the European Union with no agreed relationship to take its place, Runnymede Deputy Director Dr Zubaida Haque shifts the focus to black and ethnic minority communities in the UK. The 8 million BME Brits might have been at the sharp end of an increase in racist violence and abuse following the Brexit vote, but their collective voices are yet to be heard.
Vote Leave campaign posters of brown people apparently queuing to get into Britain is the only visible way ethnic minority people have featured in raging Brexit debates or negotiations. The various reasons black and minority ethnic (BME) people have for voting for Brexit, or voting Remain, and the implications of on them of any form of Brexit have been largely ignored by politicians and media alike. This despite the fact that the size of Britain’s ethnic minority communities is larger than the population of Scotland and Wales combined.
Ethnic minority voting patterns in the 2016 EU referendum are often simplified and misunderstood. While overall ethnic minorities voted Remain, it is significant that a third of British Asians voted Leave, and even this pattern varied across the regions. Meanwhile, in the three years since the Brexit referendum, a “mega poll” conducted by Survation and Channel 4 has shown that local authorities with high numbers of ethnic minority Leave voters would now switch to Remain if another referendum were to take place.
We already know that Brexit will have a negative impact on poorer households, but there are strong reasons for thinking that a 'no deal' Brexit will make it harder for vulnerable and lower income groups to weather the economic uncertainties. This includes many ethnic minority ethnic minority groups - a large number of whom are in low paid work, spend a large proportion of their income on rent and have very little disposable income for meals and other goods. Increases in the prices of food, which Michael Gove recently admitted is a very real scenario in the event of 'no deal', is therefore likely to have a much larger impact on ethnic minority families with lower incomes.
A 'no deal' Brexit would also mean that manual workers, such as those working in the clothing industry, or plant and machine operators, would be particularly vulnerable to job losses in the face of rising production costs, increased global competition and greater tariffs on exports. Notably Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are twice as likely as white British men to work in these sectors, and are less likely to have skills transferable to other sectors.
For anyone in part-time, temporary or zero-hour contract work - covering a disproportionate number of BME people and women - there are also serious concerns about what will happen to employee rights, safety regulations and guaranteed work hours. If the UK fails to secure a deal with the EU before the October deadline the UK will be in a weaker trade position, and countries like the US can demand whatever they want, including reducing regulatory barriers in trade negotiations.
Johnson’s threats of ending freedom of movement immediately after the October 31 is also likely to affect foreign BME workers. It’s not just a question of hospitals running out of necessary drugs in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit; it’s also about the fact that around 12.5% of NHS staff are foreign nationals, including 45,000 professionals from Asia and 21,000 from African countries.
What’s becoming increasingly clear is that Johnson’s Government have not even planned for an alternative deal, let alone undertaken any impact assessments on what a No Deal will mean for different sectors of the economy and groups of people with protected characteristics. And despite assurances from Boris Johnson that he will end “austerity-era restraints” there appear to be few plans outside of Brexit to buffer the crippling cuts to welfare and social security reforms in the last ten years.
Women, ethnic minorities and disabled groups have been hit the hardest by austerity cuts under the Coalition and Conservative Governments, but there’s little indication that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, will reverse and restore these cuts and lift working families out of poverty - as evident in the Chancellor’s announcements in this week’s Spending Review. Instead the Chancellor has released £100m to Boris Johnson’s “Get Ready” for ('no deal') Brexit campaign - a slap in the face for those just about managing, including nurses in the NHS, who have been told repeatedly that there is “no magic money tree”.
If the economic downturn projections about No Deal are accurate, we should also be concerned about increases in social grievances and resentment against minority groups in the face of scarcity. We already know that the politics of economic and cultural resentment drove much of the Leave vote, but a 'no deal' Brexit is likely to exacerbate the economic positions of these “left behind” voters and increase their resentment towards minority groups. What is worse is the revelation that No10 under Boris Johnson have been secretly polling “culture war” issues, such as transgender rights, in northern working-class towns in order to identify issues that they can weaponise against Labour in the event of a general election. This will be highly concerning for BME, Muslim and visible European groups who have already suffered the brunt of hate abuse and hate crime in the run up to and after the Brexit vote in 2016. Moreover, there is significant evidence to suggest that in the event of a general election, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party are more likely to court the populist vote (and right-wing Brexit Party vote) at the expense of moderate BME voters, given their lack of popularity with BME and Muslim voters in previous national and mayoral elections.
Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, removal of the whip from 21 senior MPs and threats to call a general election not only highlight a desperate Prime Minister trying to silence any opposition to his plans, but one still largely involved in an intra- Conservative civil war about the European Union. What’s obvious is that neither Johnson nor his Cabinet are too concerned about having a democratically-backed mandate for withdrawal from the EU, but what’s less clear is the harm that a 'no deal' Brexit could inflict on ethnic minority groups, women on lower incomes, and other vulnerable groups. This is why it’s more important than ever to avoid a 'no deal' Brexit and halt the worrying direction of travel towards Trump-style politics of division.
Dr Zubaida Haque is Deputy Director of the Runnymede Trust. She tweets at @zubhaque