“It was sure great to meet you and maybe we can catch up in London. Have a nice day”, said the slim young man. We were walking into an international leaders’ breakfast in the Hilton Hotel, Washington DC. We didn’t know each other, but shook hands and exchanged a short greeting. I did not think much more of it. A few years later, that slim young man became the First Black President of the United States of America.
The fact that President Barack Obama is black had a huge impact worldwide. So how important is race to politics in the USA, now and in the future? Are there any comparisons with the political situation in the United Kingdom? My book called, Winning The Race is published in April and examines these issues.
It is inevitable that whenever Race is discussed, the emotive subject of immigration is also mentioned. Illegal immigration is a controversial issue in America. Those in favour of tougher immigration enforcement say that illegal immigrants tarnish the public image of all immigrants, cost the taxpayer over $300 billion and put the safety of law enforcement officers and citizens at risk, especially along the Mexican border. In his 20 November 2014 speech, President Obama claimed that “our immigration system is broken and everyone knows it”. He announced a programme of “Deferred Action,” which would allow about 45% of illegal immigrants to legally stay and work in America.
Up to 3.7 million undocumented parents of US citizens or legal permanent residents of at least 5 years and about 3 million immigrants who arrived as children before January 2010 are eligible for the new deferrals. Some critics say this was an unconstitutional act by Obama, usurping the legislative power of Congress, but the President claims to have been “acting where Congress has failed”. There have been legal challenges to these immigration proposals and so far 26 states have taken legal action in the federal court.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Cameron announced “a series of proposals to curb immigration,” noting that the overall inflow of foreigners had significantly increased since 2004. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) initially campaigned on an anti-Europe stance, but this appears to have broadened into anti-immigrant rhetoric, to the extent that some critics have accused them of racism.
For the USA and UK, immigration policies will have an increasingly important effect on the general political landscape. This is due to the changing demographic makeup of both nations. The reality is that the USA and UK, both great nations, are each the result of immigration. This should be the starting point for the discussion, but it is where immigration and skin colour become entwined that the issues become more sensitive.
The non-partisan Pew Research Centre, based in Washington DC, has produced some compelling data. When Obama was re- elected as President in November 2012, non-whites made up 28% of the American electorate, compared with 20% in 2000. This trend has worked in favour of President Obama and the Democrats for two elections in a row. He captured a commanding 80% of the growing non-white voters in 2012, just as he did in 2008. His opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, dominated among white men, but that is a shrinking slice of the electorate in America. White men made up 34% of the electorate in November 2012, down from 46% in 1972. Hispanics are currently the largest minority group at 17% of the US population, but will make up roughly 30% of the USA by 2050. Overall minorities are about 34% of the total population, but by 2050 minorities will be about 50%. I have no doubt that minorities will vote. The question is, which party will relate better to their hopes and aspirations?
In the UK. the General Election is on 7 May this year. Although the election leads up is not as long as in the USA, our political parties are already campaigning. It will be the closest and least predictable election in living memory. With concerns about theeconomy slowly receding, immigration has returned to the top of the political agenda. This is confirmed by the respected Opinion pollsters MORI (Market and Opinion Research International). UKIP have focused heavily on concerns about immigration, resulting in electoral success in the Euro elections, Council elections and even two parliamentary bi-elections last year. This has resulted in the Conservative and Labour Parties trying to outdo each other in sounding tough on immigration, to win back disaffected voters who offered their support to UKIP. There has been a discernible move to the right in British politics, but this may not be a wise tactic in the long term.
One voter in ten, in 2015, will be a migrant. Many more will be the children of migrants. That share will rise as the migrants who have settled in the UK over the past decade gain British citizenship and participate in political life. The risk facing the parties is that their current fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, attempting to win back UKIP voters, will have a lasting impact on the political loyalties of the new migrant electorate. First impressions count and the ones being shown to migrant voters are not welcoming.
Nearly 4 million foreign voters will be eligible to vote in May 2015. They could have an influence in a range of marginal parliamentary seats across the UK. Migrants will constitute over one third of the electorate in about 25 seats and at least a quarter of the electorate in over 50 seats. The Conservatives made a big mistake by not carrying through boundary reviews a couple of years ago, when they had the chance, so they face an uphill task if they are to win overall control. About 8 years ago I warned a group of Republican leaders not to ignore the ethnic minority vote. They listened politely, did nothing and lost. The Conservatives should learn from the Republicans’ mistake. The Tory leader, Cameron, says he does not want to talk about immigration during the election, but that will not stop immigrants talking about him.