How BME voters see the EU referendum and why we need to hear their voices

A newly released Runnymede Trust report reveals differing public attitudes amongst ethnic minority Britons on immigration and Europe. In the coming EU referendum, addressing the prevailing concerns of BME voters would substantially shape the debate.

Guest post by Eviane Leidig

A newly released Runnymede Trust report reveals differing public attitudes amongst ethnic minority Britons on immigration and Europe. In the coming EU referendum, addressing the prevailing concerns of BME voters would substantially shape the debate.

Runnymede overall found that most BME people are ambivalent about benefits of the EU. They are less likely to participate in free movement activities, whilst some consider Europe in predominately ethnic or racial terms, and thus view EU borders along these exclusionary lines.

At the same time, BME voters tend to express pro-EU sentiments due to concerns of nativism in the UK. EU sympathies reflect a perceived form of protection from discrimination and also an internationalist outlook.

We need to consider three key areas of the BME vote in the referendum: voting patterns, immigration discourse, and the benefits myth. This could have significant impact in influencing the outcome.

The first point of concern is that BME Britons are less likely to register to vote, leaving a considerable political participation gap. When asked about confidence in the electoral process, BME voters express less trust than their white counterparts.

If we break down BME voters even further, there are significant differences amongst ethnic groups, with Asians the most confident in the electoral system.

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This lack of confidence in the British electoral system may be a major detriment in the much needed levels of participation in the referendum.

According to 2015 General Election surveys, BME voters are more likely to support the Labour party, which, as the latest data shows, favours the ‘Remain’ vote. Yet there are discrepancies within the BME vote according to class and geographical differences. Asians are increasingly shifting to the Conservative platform, a factor that should be considered as its party members are currently divided over the EU.

Secondly, immigration remains the defining issue of the British political agenda. But while over half of white Britons cite immigration as a top concern, according to a 2015 Ipsos Mori report less than a third of ethnic minorities share this sentiment. This is largely due to the way immigrants are portrayed as ‘good and bad’ in public discourse, shaping the debate on controlling EU migration.

BME voters feel like indirect targets of this narrative. There are, however, differential attitudes with older Caribbean and African voters and younger British born Pakistani and Bangladeshi slightly more resentful of EU migration. This may not be surprising, as British Future points out. Some BME voters could be naturally Eurosceptic, favouring links to Commonwealth values than the EU. But this does not necessarily translate to an ‘Out’ vote, as the Leave campaign prefers constructing a nostalgic image of Britain than its future.

Employment, as it relates to immigration, is the dominant concern for voters. Despite job anxiety amongst white voters, their BME counterparts do not view immigrants a threat to livelihood.

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Again, class and geographical divisions are crucial, as they reflect deeply rooted patterns of immigration history. More settled and/or more economically secure ethnic minorities may be willing to maintain Britain’s continued relationship with the EU.

The last area for consideration is the role of benefits and resources for EU migrants. Although UK nationals are much more likely to claim benefits, it is a divisive topic amongst BME voters.

Nonetheless, in terms of resource pressures, in particular to racial discrimination within council housing, white Britons view themselves as more likely to be treated worse than ethnic minorities. The discussion surrounding benefits should therefore deter away from exaggerated claims of EU migrants as recipients, and instead focus on issues of integration and diversity.

Overall, there is a pressing need to encourage more ethnic minority Britons to vote, reshape the national conversation on immigration to address its alienating effects on BME voters, and remedy the misrepresentation of EU migrants as benefit seekers.

How will BME Britons vote in the referendum? The latest data compiled shortly after the election suggests high levels of favouring an ‘In’ vote.

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But events during 2015 and in the immediate future could easily tip the scales. What is certain is that BME voters have immense potential impact in the outcome.

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