December 12 is being talked up as the date to settle the question of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. A grass-roots campaigner argues that it’s about much more than that – and makes a heartfelt plea to black voters.
John Major refused the temptation to hold a referendum on Europe and it was never even an issue when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in power. They must have believed that referendums, as it is often claimed Margaret Thatcher said, do not decide anything.
What perhaps tempted David Cameron to put membership of the European Union to a referendum was that he had won two referendums in a row: on proportional representation in 2011 and Scottish independence in 2014.
Having secured a majority in the 2015 election, he was emboldened to think that he could finally lay the Conservative Party’s old problem with Europe to rest.
June 23 2016 was the day that divided political parties, divided Parliament and is now in danger of dividing the people of the UK. A year after Theresa May did a deal with Europe and a month after Parliament initially approved Boris Johnson’s deal, there is still no answer to the question of what type of Brexit the people of Britain want.
Johnson declares he has called this election because he wants a majority to allow him to deliver Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats want this election because they believe they can win and stop Brexit.
The Labour Party says it wants this election so it can put a negotiated Brexit deal back to the people to decide whether to leave with a deal or to remain.
But why should a single issue – Brexit, which has already been decided by a referendum – be judged by a general election? General elections are for deciding who runs a country, not a single issue such as whether to get out of Europe.
I believe the Remain side lost because it did not make a compelling enough case to the electorate and Leave won not because it made a better case, but because those who voted Remain in pro-Remain areas failed to win with bigger majorities.
Beyond Leave versus Remain
There are more important things the people of Britain want and most are clearly fed up with Brexit. So the real issue in this election is whether the present government deserves the bigger majority it is asking for. In my opinion, if previous elections are anything to go by, it is unlikely it will get that majority. Perversely, Britain has become afflicted with the European way of governance – coalition government – even as we try to get out of Europe.
Perhaps the only reason Cameron got a majority in 2015 was that his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, failed to live up to their promise that they would temper the extreme positions of the Conservative Party. Not only did they shore up the government but they visited austerity on the vulnerable people they had promised to protect. They went even further, reneging on their own “sacred” education policy by agreeing to increase university tuition fees. The voters punished them, with both Labour and Conservatives taking seats from the Lib Dems in 2015. So when Mrs May tried to get a larger majority in 2017, she ended up only governing in a different type of coalition, with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Mrs May failed to deliver Brexit because she did not consult with Labour and the other parties at the start of the process. The late attempt at a cross-party approach came too late and even then it was the Conservative European
Research Group and the DUP with which she was supposed to be in alliance that eventually blocked any of the options that Parliament tried to agree on.
The 2016 Brexit referendum was close; it did not deliver a clear enough majority. So billing 2019 as a Brexit election again will not deliver the clear majority if the country votes along Leave or Remain lines.
Brexit apart, and having settled on the prospect of another hung parliament, let me reflect what will secure ballots from me and other African and Caribbean voters.
As in 2017, Operation Black Vote (OBV) will publish a Black Manifesto and I hope that the demands in it will resonate and endorse some of the policies I support.
The British establishment continues to conflate equality of opportunity with diversity. This is a multi-ethnic, multicultural country and no one, regardless of racial heritage, should be denied opportunity. Racial discrimination and racial abuse must become things of the past. The discriminatory policies deep rooted in some statutory institutions must be banished.
There is nothing unconscious about discrimination. The notion that some institutions are colour-blind is false. Voluntary codes have failed to work in most public, private and community institutions. We should support political parties which deal with discrimination head-on.
The question of immigration has come up and will emerge again. With Brexit on our minds, it makes sense to re-establish a connection with the Commonwealth and extend free movement of people to Commonwealth countries. A positive assurance that the toxic environment which birthed the Windrush repatriation scandal must be a thing of the past will get my vote.
Another matter that will determine how I vote is international development aid. We must meet and go beyond the stipulated 0.07 per cent spend of UK GDP, increasing it to 0.1 per cent. It is disgraceful that we have repeatedly underachieved on this target. If we are truly ready to do business and cut trade deals in Africa and the Caribbean, we must adopt a more principled approach to assisting them to achieve their sustainable development goals. An enlightened self-interest policy on education, for instance, will help them deliver more doctors and nurses for the National Health Service, more teachers for British schools and more workers in other parts of the public service.
Austerity remains a threat for all disadvantaged people and the party that comes up with the most innovative policies on disadvantaged youth, low incomes, access to training and the job market, people with disabilities and older, vulnerable people on low pensions will get my vote. There is no reason why an advanced Western country cannot deal with disadvantage. The fifth-largest economy in the world must demonstrate its “First World” affluence by eradicating poverty.
Finally, the party which gets my vote should show that it is improving political representation for ethnic-minority people. Our voices must always be heard at the policy level: we can speak for ourselves and share our experiences and expertise. In the words of Samuel Cornish and John Brown Russwurm, editors of the first black newspaper in America, the Freedom Journal, first published on March 16 1827: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly though in the estimation of some mere trifles.”
So, for me, this election represents a watershed and will determine how the UK will manage its new politics of consensus. This is not about giving one party a clear majority: this election is about voting in response to the parties’ manifestos, and not the promises politicians make when confronted with difficult questions.
But there is another important reason why our voices can be heard. OBV has analysed the results of the last election and compiled a list of 50 seats where the number of black and minority-ethnic votes significantly exceeds the majority at the last election.
These seats are spread all over the country, in rural areas and big cities. There are 25 constituencies held by the Conservatives, 20 by Labour, three by the Liberal Democrats and two by Plaid Cymru where BME voters can decide who wins.
So, we must engage to help shape policy, we must register to vote, we must read the manifestos of each party and we must vote for the party whose policies resonate with us. This is not about Brexit, a divorce after 40 years of cohabiting with Europe: this is about the rest of our lives and our children’s lives and the lives of our grandchildren and our descendants yet unborn.
Please vote with your head and your heart.
* Ade Sawyerr is a UK-based management consultant specialising in inner-city community development among minority ethnic groups (http://www.equinoxconsulting.net). He comments on society, economics and politics and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party
* This is an edited version of an article first published by Operation Black Vote, the lobby group representing the interests of black Britons. https://www.obv.org.uk/