Caught in the headlights: Labour, race and the referendum.

Author:Lone, Amina
Position:Notebook - Column
 
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23 June 2016: the EU referendum result is one of those moments that will be forever etched in my memory. Like the death of Princess Diana, it is a marker in time. I was working for Stronger In, the official Remain campaign, when the result came through. The rejection felt personal. It was a rollercoaster ride. The Leave campaign won, by the slightest of margins, but with a stench of toxicity that was more keenly felt if one was off-white like me.

I was the national communities lead. My job was to go around the UK, engaging everyone who wasn't a politico or part of the mainstream media, showing that this vote mattered. Reaching out to non-white people was a priority. This was confirmed when I received feedback from community members that Europe was a 'white man's problem'.

One could be forgiven for thinking the referendum was more about immigration than it was about the UK's relationship with the European Union. Immigration has become the scourge of modern political, social and cultural discourse, even if the issue we are discussing is health, defense, or the economy. The Remain campaign's central message was a familiar one: 'It's the economy stupid'. Received wisdom states whoever wins the money argument, wins the election. For general elections this is true. The EU referendum put forward a choice; a seemingly simple one, should we remain in the EU or not? Presented as a binary yes or no, with scores of chorus boys and girls on opposing sides, this was clearly false. Too much was at stake. Most ordinary people understood that this was an internal Conservative party schism, a colossal thorn in its side, taken to the country in a reckless act of 'democracy'. Throughout the campaign, many of us sighed and shook our heads at Cameron's folly. To take such a gamble without putting parameters in place was naive at best, political suicide at worse. As we know, the house didn't win and the croupier resigned.

Nobody really knows what this means in reality. How do we exit a decades-old relationship? Who will ultimately benefit remains (no pun intended) to be seen. One thing is clear. The social, cultural, legal and economic chaos that has been unleashed should serve as a warning to the elite and future political leaders. In an unpredictable and often volatile world, poker games should be left in the back room. The main architects of Brexit walked away, cushioned by their privilege while, in ordinary communities, the realities are slowly being felt.

Two Tribes

The first conversation I had with Stronger In included how they were going to engage Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) voters. At that time, December 2015, it wasn't seen as a major issue; more, to my mind a tick-box exercise, albeit one to be completed in pen, not pencil. Initially employed to be the West Midlands regional director, (a role subsequently filled by the formidable Conservative machine that is Simon Jevon), by March we knew we needed a 'proper' campaign to engage communities. The tick box wasn't quite delivering, and in a referendum as tightly fought as this, every vote really did matter. My initial observations of the Stronger In campaign being white, middle-class and London-centric changed somewhat over time as Director Will Straw and other key allies on the board realised the importance of the BME vote. But those London-centric white voices dominated the campaign internally and externally even when their ignorance was harmful.

Knowing that immigration was going to be a major issue, I raised this at my very first meeting. Campaigning in marginal England, you would have to have your head buried in the sand not to know this issue was going to raise its head. We didn't have a credible answer, and the dividing line was drawn on economic stability. It was understood that the Remain campaign could not win on immigration. Which politicians have been brave enough to be honest about it? This wasn't going to change any time soon. Yet from the inception, that was the multi-coloured elephant in the room. Over the last forty years there has been a persistent rhetoric interlinking race with migration. This campaign was no different. The immigration bogeyman keeps coming back centre stage.

Vote Leave were quicker off the mark in recognising that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters could not be taken for granted. Constructing their campaign on the basis of voter apathy in white working class communities, they were perhaps better attuned to the nostrum that 'every vote matters'.

Stronger In, too, recognised that Remain needed to engage with all communities and pro-actively set out to do so. Working with the field team, I produced a Communities Strategy, campaign activities, nuanced messaging and a communities press programme.

But while I wrote a strategy document laying down some of the foundations and pushing for a seamless air campaign, vote Leave were wooing the masses. My first conversation with a prominent online Chinese magazine disclosed a plentiful financial offer had already been made from the Leave campaign. They were serious and understood BME communities in the UK are not one homogenous monoculture. Contrary to popular belief, just because one is of an ethnic minority background doesn't mean we welcome new foreigners with open arms. Surprising to some, anti-immigrant sentiment was turning out to be as much as an issue in BME communities as it was elsewhere.

The strategy entailed us to getting out into inner city communities, taking the campaign to ordinary people in places where they felt familiar and comfortable. An ambitious plan was drawn up (even if we didn't have the manpower to deliver...

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