AT A time when the UK is involved in armed conflicts in various parts of the world, when another Cold War is looming with Russia, when most life on earth faces extinction if we do not sort out global warming, when the latest report on poverty in the UK suggests that a significant proportion of the population is sliding into food-bank dependency while the bankers who caused this have bounced back to greater wealth, you might think that there would be much scope for political debate as we head towards an election year. Instead, the major political topic is immigration. This is what will dominate the election.
It seems to loom large in almost every election.
The Conservatives are keen to out-UKIP the UKIP on immigrant bashing. Every major speech by David Cameron is designed to show how tough the Conservative Party is on immigration and the causes of immigration. Labour is desperately trying to keep the vote of “white van man” after their recent disastrous own-goal.
As for UKIP, they revel in talk of repatriation, of benefit scroungers, of British jobs being taken by foreigners. There is never any hard fact or statistics to back their extreme claims, yet they are given daily, and almost unquestioning publicity by the media. Their rhetoric and manifesto promises will become more and more bizarre and frightening as both major parties slide closer to the UKIP part of the xenophobia spectrum.
Where are our leaders? While all this is happening, what are we, the black and Asian communities doing about it? Where are the voices challenging the extremist’s position? Where is our “rapid rebuttal unit” to put forward a rational view in the media every time a UKIP councillor drips more poisonous views into our TV screens? Why are we not able to re-set the political agenda so that immigration does not, yet again, become the central talking-point of the election?
A significant proportion of our community is sliding into poverty. Once in the trap, it is almost impossible to escape it if you are black or Asian. What about access to justice? The latest proposed changes to legal aid will result in increasing injustice for poor black and Asian communities, who are predicted to be the hardest hit.
The threat by the Tories to repeal the Human Rights Act will accelerate us back to the bad old days of justice for the rich and a lesser type of justice for the poor and minority communities. But where are the marches, the newspaper campaigns, the community leaders voicing their concerns? Isamophobia will rise again. Racism is increasing. In some parts of the UK, racist attacks have increased and are clearly linked to rise of the far right.
We only need to look at the rise of extremist parties in Greece or Austria to know what could happen here if we are not vigilant. The far right are now better financed (some by the USSR), more mobilised and never better prepared for power than they are today.
We are only wealthy and powerful as individuals and not as communities. It is heartening to see the Asian Power List and Rich List. It gives the impression our communities are wealthy and powerful. This is not entirely true. If we were, why are we not setting the agenda, or at least influencing it? Why are none of the major political parties keen to address our concerns?
Even Labour, which traditionally has received the block Asian and black vote, is keen to emphasise its anti-immigration rhetoric and distance itself from us. There is a wealth of talent and finance in our communities. It needs to be gathered for one broad purpose – to ensure that we have a say in the political manifestos of the main political parties. And to ensure that those who set their agenda against our communities will have a fight on their hands.
The next few years will see attacks on our rights and freedoms. The attacks will be justified by the politicians – to combat the scourge of immigration and terrorism. Media hounds will be set against us, in case we have the temerity to complain. It has been said that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Let us make 2015 the year when we stop enduring, the year of peaceful political action in support of our communities.
Sailesh Mehta is a barrister at Red Lion Chambers. He is also a founding member of the Society of Asian Lawyers