Ethnic minorities under Brexit cosh

Kimberly McIntosh reports Brexit will be harsh for BAME communities

When we’re talking about Brexit, the phrase ‘left-behind’ is often not far behind. The ‘left behind’ in theory refers to everyone damaged by austerity, betrayed by politicians of all stripes and the forces of globalisation. But it conjures up images of the ‘white’ working class in post-industrial Britain. This is a misnomer – the working class is multiethnic. Whilst the discussion might not show it, Brexit has been about ethnic minorities from its inception and its impact has, and will, be felt keenly by these communities.

The vote to Leave the European Union was driven by a complex cocktail of causes. Disparate demographics across the UK said they wanted out and it’s important not to conflate this with the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. This campaign was outwardly xenophobic, using anxiety about migration and ‘cultural change’ as thinly veiled proxies for race. The increase in hate crime following the referendum result was a consequence of this rhetoric, not a random aberration.

But beyond hate crime, there hasn’t been much attention given to how ethnic minorities might fare when, how, and if we leave the EU.

In our briefing Brexit for BAME Britain I examine with my colleague Dr Irum Shehreen Ali how BAME people might fare. We find that ethnic minorities are in an unenviable triple-bind in relation to Brexit: already economically worse off, the primary targets of hate crime and hit hardest by austerity. BAME families are already more likely to be in low-paid work, spend a greater share of their income on rent and have less in savings. This makes them vulnerable to price increases and makes it harder to weather economic storms. The projected fall in GDP by 8% over the next 15 years, particularly in light of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and projected fall of household income at between £850 and £6400 per year, will hit BAME people the hardest, as they are more likely to be on lower incomes and in precarious work.

Ethnic minorities are also concentrated in specific sectors of employment, some of which are at risk post-Brexit. For example, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are twice as likely to be working in ‘plant and machine operations’ compared with white British men, and much more likely to be already living in poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that a ‘hard Brexit’ would leave these workers at high risk of job losses.

How ethnic minorities, and the country as a whole, are impacted by Brexit will largely depend on how the government in power responds. If Theresa May remains, with Philip Hammond as Chancellor, we can expect spending to remain at historic lows, despite assurances that ‘austerity is coming to an end’ or is ‘over’ – depending on your verb tense of choice.

If we have a People’s Vote and there is a switch to Remain, there will need to be a clear, positive vision as to what it can offer all of the country… Otherwise ethnic minorities are at risk of a backlash

So far, austerity measures have had a disproportionate impact on BAME women on low incomes. The other Conservative leadership contenders have little care for social justice and are unlikely to continue with May’s “burning injustices” mantra.

Discussions of ‘Left Brexit’ or ‘Lexit’ need to be clearer about what assurances there will be that the poorest in our society will not be made even poorer. We need to see increased investment in the industries, areas and people projected to be impacted negatively – people on low incomes, disabled people, ethnic minorities and women. But if there is no election or Labour does not win it, these groups are likely to be hit harshly by the government’s response after we leave. It is not an ideological game.

If we have a People’s Vote and there is a switch to Remain, there will need to be a clear, positive vision as to what it can offer all of the country – not just mobile, young people who want to do Erasmus. Otherwise ethnic minorities are at risk of a backlash from anyone harbouring a sense of betrayal. Research by Hope Not Hate found that levels of optimism about economic prosperity and opportunities post-Brexit are greatest in those areas that voted most strongly to leave the EU. Again, if this is not delivered, BAME people, EU residents and migrants will be the targets of resentment. Visible minorities are the most common targets for hate crime and the police are preparing for it to increase in March 2019 when we are (supposedly) due to leave.

Now is the time for decisive leadership from our political leaders, economic policies that work for everyone and a vision that leaves anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism behind. I hope it comes soon.

The Briefing Brexit for BAME Britain is available from

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