Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A whole new set of intolerances

My grandfather used to tell a story about when he arrived in England in the 1950s, and spent a whole evening going door-to-door trying to find somewhere to lodge. Everywhere he went had a sign saying ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. He finally came to one house where the landlord was a fellow Irishman who rented him a room and with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. London in the 1950s was not a welcoming place for anyone with an Irish accent, and sadly my grandfather’s experience of hostility was not uncommon.

That said, aged 12 I would slightly roll my eyes at such tales and think that they came from another era, one without colour television and far removed from my own experiences. I grew up in the age of the Celtic Tiger, when it never crossed anyone’s mind to treat Irish nationals resident in the UK as second class citizens. So the 345,000 Irish nationals resident in the UK, as well as the people who like me are the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants, were pretty shocked to hear that not just one, but two senior Tories reckon that Irish nationals and Commonwealth citizens should lose their right to vote in the UK. Apparently the fact that these rights date back decades and that, at least in the case of Ireland, they are reciprocal, does not matter to Liam Fox and Graham Brady. Yes, that is right, Graham Brady, who as chair of the 1922 Committee exerts a fair amount of power on the Conservative backbenches. Fox of course, is an ex-defence secretary, so these remarks cannot be passed off as the ramblings of rogue backbenchers.

According to Fox ‘it is ridiculous that the government of a country like ours could be decided by those who are not British citizens. It is high time we brought this law up to date’ and Brady agreed, saying ‘it would be outrageous if overseas nationals were able to decide the outcome’. Even when discrimination against many of the communities targeted in these statements was rife, they still had the vote in this country. These threats do not just hark back to historic prejudices – they propose a whole new set of intolerances.

In many ways what is really sinister is not the threats themselves but what lies behind them. A decade ago nobody would have thought that they could get away with publicly expressing views like these. Yet with the anti-immigrant onslaught which we have seen on a daily basis in the papers since support for Ukip began to grow, people like Fox and Brady do not just think its fine to want to disenfranchise Irish, Indian, Pakistani and all sorts of other communities, but also have no qualms about saying so. Whether or not Nigel Farage and his cronies win seats at the next general election, they have succeeded in shifting the boundaries in what is considered acceptable in public discourse. Now, more than ever, Labour has to stand up for minority communities. Otherwise, even those groups who thought marginalisation was something consigned to history could find themselves once again facing prejudice and cast out to the edges of our society.


Maeve McCormack is a councillor in the London borough of Camden. She tweets @McCormackMaeve


Photo: British High Commission, New Delhi

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Maeve McCormack

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  • Absolutely appalling. These right-wingers are intent on destroying any hints of democracy, fairness and justice, just so they can keep their greasy and tainted hands on the instruments of power. I suspect this is a way to remove (mainly) Labour voters from the electoral register. I wonder what their take is on people who have dual nationality (like Boris Johnson).

    So, if these ‘foreign nationals’ are to be disenfranchised why should they pay taxes in a country that gives them no say in which party is in power, either locally or nationally? A concerted campaign of not paying taxes might bring some sense into the debate, or possibly an appeal to the European Courts might do the trick. Oh, of course, they don’t want us to be signed up to these institutions do they.

  • The Tories are being amazingly cynical here but the answer isn’t the status quo as Maeve suggests. If it was simply discrimination then it would be easy to deal with but things are more complicated than that and Labour’s response needs to be more sophisticated, realistic and effective to ensure these voters are not disenfranchised.

    Here’s a quote from a LabourList article on this:

    “At the moment anyone from a Commonwealth country or Ireland can move to the UK and can register to vote in a general election almost as soon as they arrive. Yet, in most instances UK citizens are not allowed to vote in those Commonwealth countries. This is fundamentally unfair.

    If Commonwealth communities in the UK are serious about maintaining their franchise they need to put pressure on their own governments to extend it to UK citizens where they come from. Labour should support these campaigns.

    However, that won’t be enough. In the long term, the way to stop the franchise being taken away from Commonwealth citizens in the UK is to move people closer to British citizenship. This will make the right to vote more meaningful for Commonwealth citizens in the UK and protect it from accusations that Commonwealth voters are getting something for nothing.

    Commonwealth citizens should have an automatic right to vote after living in the UK for a number of years, maybe two or three. This could be called ‘associate citizenship’ to demonstrate that they’re part of the politics of the nation and long term members of the community.”

  • Liam Fox proposes to remove Irish and Commonwealth citizens from the electoral register.

    That proposal has brought to prominence the fact that there are now only 345,000 Irish citizens on that register, barely more than Indians, who with Pakistanis add up to a whopping 486,000, practically half a million.

    Notice, also, that there are vastly more Indian than Pakistani voters in Britain: 306,000 to 180,000.

    Not necessarily, indeed almost certainly not, that there are vastly more people of Indian than of Pakistani descent, and vastly more of those combined than of Irish descent. But that is something very importantly different.

    Still, would Fox like to see Irish and Commonwealth citizens replaced with American and Israeli citizens? Would he be opposed to that, if someone were to propose it?

    I would let Americans, Israelis and everyone else vote, too, if they were legally resident here, with everything that that entailed. But I would allow only British citizens to stand for Parliament. That would be the deal.

    Similarly, if 16-year-olds must be given the vote, then, without prejudice to the term of anyone already there, the minimum age for MPs would need to go up to, say, 30, along with the minimum age for jurors.

    It is in any case, I am told, beyond unlikely that the Bill would fail to preclude 16-year-old jurors, since various categories of voter are already excluded from or excused jury service.

    Yes, that would work, wouldn’t it? To vote, you would need only to be legally resident here and to be at least 16. But to stand for Parliament, you would need to be British and to be at least 30. Look out for that.

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