A white-only debate lacks balance

Barbara Roche and Gavin Barwell say both their parties are out of touch on immigration

On Tuesday, the Office of National Statistics published its latest round of migration statistics, sparking a fierce debate over the cultural make-up of modern Britain. Race and immigration remain combustible political issues. To some they represent a social and economic challenge; to others, inclusion and diversity. But whatever one's perspective, the politics of migration and ethnicity cannot be ignored.

The appointment of Lynton Crosby as a Conservative adviser has generated significant comment in the media, much of it focusing on the robust immigration campaign messages he crafted working for former Australian PM John Howard and Michael Howard, if overlooking the more liberal messaging he deployed for Boris Johnson. Similarly, Labour-controlled Rotherham council's removal of three young ethnic minority children from their foster parents who were supporters of Ukip has generated its own controversy and column inches.

It is troubling that Britain's black, Asian and minority ethnic communities invariably provide the background to the cultural debate, without being invited to participate in it. One element of the succesful Obama re-election campaign has received more analysis and attention than any other: his ability to target, mobilise and capture the votes of ethnic minority communities. Obama won 93 per cent of the black vote, 71 per cent of the Latino vote and 73 per cent of the Asian vote. Mitt Romney secured 59 per cent of the white vote, enough to have won him any other presidential election. But as Republican Senator Lindsay Graham ruefully acknowledged "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term".

In Britain, we are still not alive to the political implications of the changing demography of British society. Take the current concentration on the "white working class", or the veneration of Gordon Brown's nemesis, Gillian Duffy, as grandmother of the nation. It wouldn't hurt to give a voice to the black working class and Mrs Patel too.

Too often the engagement of the political class with Britain's ethnic minority communities has been tokenistic. The Conservative Party has historically ignored these communities, while Labour has taken them for granted. The Respect Party's gain from Labour in Bradford in March, and the Tories' struggle to make inroads in Britain's inner cities show both parties have paid a political price.

Fringe elements on the left have attempted to curtail debate on race and culture, fuelling resentment among those who recognise legitimate issues should be aired. Fringe elements on the right have attempted to hijack the issues for their own extremist agenda. But we need to have a full, frank and honest discussion about immigration, culture and race, with Britain's ethnic minority communities playing a full part, rather that being treated as the political equivalent of movie extras.

Broadening the debate will help break down preconceptions and stereotypes. A survey last year by anti-extremism campaigners Hope not Hate found that 39 per cent of British Asians believe all immigration to the UK should be stopped, at least temporarily, compared with only 34 per cent of white Britons. Such attitudes show that no section of the community can have its views pigeonholed or ignored.

Immigration. Race. Culture. Ethnicity. This is big politics. No politician can afford to continue to treat Britain's ethnic communities as observers, rather than participants, in that debate.

Former Labour MP Barbara Roche and Conservative MP Gavin Barwell co-chair Migration Matters

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