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23 February 2016

Our referendum campaign may set us back on a dark path

The battle between Remain and Leave is already taking a troubling turn.

By Steve Bassam

Late last week, as a guest of my local football club Brighton and Hove Albion, I attended a fund-raising event for Kick It Out (KIO). Staged at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground in their hotel it was a brilliant occasion. I’ve been a guest at many fundraisers for good causes over the years and however worthy some are honestly a chore. This was different: the company was good, as was the entertainment. A room filled with happiness, inspired by young performers like Ballet Black and the David Idowu Choir from Peckham.

Opened up by Herman Ouseley the whole evening was in turn inspiring, troubling and timely – coming at a moment when our country is confused about its identity and direction. Herman rightly said that football had played a key role in challenging racism and hate crimes. But chillingly, he reminded us all that reported such crimes were again on the rise – up 68 per cent over the last year – and drew attention to recent reports of antisemitism and attacks on Muslims. 

The debate about our relationship with the European Union has descended into arguments about levels of immigration, migrants’ access to various forms of income support across borders, and the long held principle of free movement of labour. Thrown into this mix has been the plight of refugees fleeing armed conflict in Syria and people from further afield seeking asylum. My sense is that David Cameron’s game plan for resolving internal Conservative Party tensions by holding an in/out referendum was never meant to have become ensnared in this brew of issues.

The odd backdrop to the KIO fundraiser made for a more thought provoking evening than anticipated. I was especially taken by the experiences shared by one young Muslim woman working in football who reminded us of the daily hatred experienced by hijab wearers. It is hard for most of us to understand where this comes from, except that there is a part of our culture that is averse to difference and which can be egged on by virulent tabloid headlines about immigrants taking ‘our’ jobs.

The failure of politicians who should know better to confront all of this is shameful but also dangerous. I hope KIO plays a part in the referendum, because we urgently need to call out the soft racist rhetoric emanating from sections of the various ‘leave’ campaigns. Perhaps it’s too much to ask of a Prime Minister worried about his legacy that, in campaigning to remain in the EU, he goes further than playing lip service to the part played by migrants in making our country the world’s fifth strongest economy.

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Labelling victims of conflict stuck in Calais as “a bunch of migrants” might work the old dog whistle, but it does nothing for social cohesion. Neither am I impressed by a Conservative mayoral campaign that alludes to extremism in its attempts to label and malign Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan. Indeed, sitting as I do in an increasingly diverse House of Lords chamber, where Asian peers on the Tory benches outnumber their Labour counterparts I find it a puzzling political conundrum.

The broader educational work KIO do in our schools and communities is vital. Progress in our football grounds and sporting venues has been hard fought, and Herman was right to praise pioneers during his speech at last week’s event. But we now need a new generation to challenge the new hatreds that some use to divide us. We need a campaign that firmly asks Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to take down content that adds nothing and in fact diminishes our cultural debate. A campaign to turn on its head how social media networks are abused by Islamophobes and anti-migrant fearmongers who seek to promote otherness at any cost.

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