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18 August 2023

Ethnic minority Brexiteers have been vindicated

Every promise of the Leave campaign has been dashed – except that of easier migration from outside the EU.

By John Oxley

The Tory Party’s electoral woes are rooted in part in the consequences of Brexit. The vote to leave the EU and its consequences has caused a rift with younger voters who might otherwise have been attracted to the party. At the same time, the Tories have failed to satisfy many of those who supported Brexit, meaning they are receiving little benefit from having leant into the realignment.

Now polling shows increasing regret with the decision, and dissatisfaction with how it has been handled. Many of the groups that first clamoured for an exit from the EU have found their hopes dashed by subsequent political decisions. Farmers and fishermen, the totemic industries of Leave, feel betrayed by subsequent trade deals that have largely lost them markets and opened them up to competition. Northern Irish Leavers are let down by the protocol that has drawn a border down the Irish Sea. Similarly, those who backed Leave to reduce immigration look aghast at rising net numbers and the inability to deal with small boat crossings.

But there is perhaps one group that has bucked this trend and got what they were hoping for from exiting the EU – ethnic minority Brexit voters. While it is true that most voters from ethnic minorities backed Remain, around a third supported Leave (compared with more than half of white voters). Foremost among them were British Asians and British Chinese voters, with ward-level data suggesting an unexpectedly strong showing from South Asians in London.

[See also: Labour is getting bolder on Brexit]

Though often ignored in the coverage of the referendum and its aftermath, these voters were a crucial component in Brexit getting over the line. Perhaps more strikingly, they are the one group that has perhaps got it wanted from the result. 

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While it is hard to ascribe motivations to an entire voting bloc, through the Brexit debate there was one argument which had a distinct appeal to ethnic minority voters – ending the pro-European discrimination of the immigration system. This argument was repeatedly made by Michael Gove as part of the campaign, and had an obvious attraction for Brits with a background in Commonwealth and other non-EU countries.

Under free movement, Britain was largely unable to control the flow of EU citizens. This meant the political cost of high migration numbers fell on those from outside the EU. To keep inflows down, the rules were stricter for migrants from outside of the bloc, in particular excluding those in relatively low-paid careers. The Vote Leave campaign shrewdly seized on this, with Priti Patel leading a “Save Our Curry Houses” campaign, which highlighted the difficulties of hiring chefs from Bangladesh, compared with hospitality workers from the EU.

This wasn’t the sole reason that some ethnic minority voters chose to back Brexit, but it was indicative of the perception that remaining in the EU favoured Europe against the rest of the world. Sometimes this was rooted in tensions between more established and newly arrived immigrant communities and often, like the white Brexit vote, it went hand in hand with economic deprivation and political alienation.

In the years since Brexit happened, however, this outlook appears to have been vindicated. Since Britain formally left the EU, migration from outside the bloc has surged. Even without the one-off inflows from Ukraine and Hong Kong, migration from the rest of the world is easier, and more common than before. Under the points-based system, migrants have an equal chance no matter where they are from, and our pattern of migration has changed as a consequence. 

Before 2020, around two-thirds of foreign workers in hospitality were European. Now it is less than half. For students and graduates, there has been a significant increase in non-EU migrants, with Nigerian and Indian numbers surging after these were named “priority countries”. The number of non-EU health and care worker visas issued has increased five-fold since 2019. This is likely to increase further as countries push for more visas in trade deals, and as new generations of EU workers find it easier to move around the continent than to cross the Channel. Those who hoped Brexit might usher in a new era of non-EU immigration have been vindicated.

Brexit might have proved disappointing for many who backed it, with successive governments failing to deliver the inducements that were promised. But the ethnic minority Brexiteers are a curious anomaly. They bucked the general pattern of voting, and have largely got the prize they wanted. It remains to be seen if they will give the Tories any electoral thanks for that. 

[See also: “Are you happy outside the tennis club?” Sadiq Khan on rejoining the EU]

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