Why Race Equality Matters in Elections

The upcoming election on May 7 has been overshadowed by politicians exploiting voters’ fears about immigration, asylum seekers and Islam. Voters need an open and honest debate without inflamed jingoistic rhetoric; we must not allow this situation to fester. 

By Lylaah Bhalerao

An example of a BNP leaflet used in the European Parliament elections for the North West. (Photo: politicalscrapbook.net)

In October 2013, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Anti-Semitism published a report into electoral conduct. Throughout the inquiry, the committee heard many examples of discriminatory conduct during elections. Former minister, Parmjit Dhanda, told of how his children found a severed pig’s head outside of his house, whilst Lee Scott MP received anti-Semitic abuse and had to have a panic button installed in his house after receiving death threats and BNP leaflets in Oldham East which implied that sexual abuse was part of Muslim culture. The report called for action to prevent racism during elections. 

REM (Race Equality Matters) responded to this call.

Founded in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing and inspired by his life, REM is a network of experts and activists in race relations and equality. They include academics, social scientists, journalists, artists, lawyers, public servants and politicians who want to make a difference.  REM is concerned about the exploitation of racial prejudice as a campaign tactic in the forthcoming 2015 general election. 

A member of REM claims: “this is a legitimate concern given that some election campaigns in the past have used race and anti-Muslim sentiment to stir up hatred between communities with the overall objective of winning votes”. In order to make their mark on the election, REM has published an election statement which sets out principles for fair election campaigns. Signed by Lord Ousley of the KickitOut campaign as well as Lord Dholokia, the statement has received cross-party support for free yet fair elections.

Article 10 of the Human Rights Act states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This… shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.” However, the UN has also said that free speech should not be used to intimidate voters or candidates, or to promote hatred: “the importance of an atmosphere free from discrimination cannot be overstated… An environment in which discrimination is tolerated facilitates intimidation and manipulation of the electorate.” 

Thus, it is clear that REM is calling for responsible free speech: candidates should not use false, erroneous or misleading information about a racial group to win votes and damage race relations.

An example of such a situation was when the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham worked to counter myths on asylum and immigration, and build community cohesion and confidence. Racists had tapped into widespread fears and concerns in the local community after campaign material for a political party had claimed there was a secret “Africans for Essex” policy, whereby the council gave £50,000 grants to African families to move into the borough. Housing, particularly the lack of cheap social housing, was an important issue for voters. REM works to ensure that a situation like this does not arise and that voters can cast a vote with assured, accurate knowledge. 

This will be especially significant in the upcoming election, as immigration is a key issue which could easily be manipulated by extremist voices. The prospect of such campaigns before May 7 is looking increasingly likely in light of the rise of Ukip in the debate, and the spread of nationalist movements across Europe, such as Pegida. 

This is why the work of REM is important; their statement appeals to “all who have a role to play in ensuring that our elections are fair and truly free”. What REM calls for is what we would expect people to do instinctively, but alas, that is not the case. They ask for candidates to represent everyone and not use words which may cause prejudice for short term political gain. They ask for public bodies to refute any false or misleading information circulating and to prepare on how to challenge misperceptions. They also ask for other bodies concerned to provide objective information on issues and for leaders and electoral arrangers to guarantee and encourage that principles in the electoral process are abided by. In short, REM asks that everyone, from all sides concerned, ensures a free and fair election which returns a result that the electorate knowingly voted for. 

Abiding by these principles is essential because voters should not be making decisions based on false information; we could end up with decisions being made that we were never aware of and there could be dire consequences. Indeed, equality is a fundamental human right and a threat to equality is a threat to democracy. With an outlook to the election, it is encouraging that influential names such as Lord Ousley and Lord Dholakia, GMB and the TUC have endorsed REM’s statement and “call for an election campaign rid of the exploitation of prejudice.” It will put pressure on other politicians to endorse it themselves, or at least abide by the principles. 

We, the youth, have grown up valuing a diverse Britain and should be proud to live in it; no person should threaten that with deliberate, false information. This is why Race Equality Matters. 

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Lylaah Bhalerao
Lylaah Bhalerao

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