Last night I was called a racist during an election debate organised by Eastern Eye where BBC’s D.J. Nihal was quizzing a panel representing the three main parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats. It came about because I asked a question about who was entitled to vote. The charge was that I was being racist to Asians and it was hurled at me by an Indian lady. Since I am also of Indian origin it was somewhat curious.

The three panellists Nihal was grilling were Michael Gove for the Tories, Ivan Lewis for Labour and Baroness Kramer for the LibDems. Nihal, who did an excellent job, much better than some of the better known political journalists, started by talking about immigration. This was understandable for, as he put it, most of the people in the room were either immigrants or children of immigrants. On the way there I was again made aware of the feelings on immigration when my taxi driver, who was white, said he would vote UKIP and then reassured me “It has nothing to do with race”.  In response to Nihal all three panellists made the point that they wanted immigration fairly regulated.

My question was if immigration is to be properly regulated, something this country has been debating since I arrived here in the 60s, how come people who are not citizens of this country are allowed to vote in all UK elections including the general election? I explained that I was not talking about EU citizens. They can vote in local elections and European elections but not the general election.

The privilege of voting in all UK elections extends to Commonwealth Citizens, British Overseas Territories and British Crown Dependencies. Fiji and Zimbabwe may be currently suspended from the Commonwealth but their citizens resident here have not lost their right to vote in UK elections. This privilege also extends to three countries which belong to the EU, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta. Unlike other EU citizens because of this country’s historic links with these countries citizens of these countries are also eligible to be to vote in all UK elections.

My query was simple. If immigration and who has what rights in this country is now the hot topic of the election should this not be sorted out? I had been intrigued some weeks earlier when at a British Futures event Douglas Carswell, the UKIP Member of Parliament, who was talking of immigration neatly side stepped this issue. It is clear Nigel Farage for all this talk of telling us what nobody else will does not want to touch on this subject.

At last night’s forum my question made a businesswoman sitting in front of me very irate. She said she was from India, worked and lived here, paid her taxes why should she not vote and that I was being racist. She was, of course, being ridiculous. In India as a citizen of Britain, even if she had lived there for years and paid all her taxes and observed all the laws she would not be allowed to vote and this is true of nearly every country I know including the US. So Green Card holders in the US cannot vote in the Presidential elections.

Or take Australia. Much reference has been made to Australia’s point system of immigration. But Australia only allows citizens to vote. The election law there changed in 1984 before which British citizens living in Australia were allowed to vote. Those who were entitled to do so before 1984 have retained their right but not those who have arrived since.

So how did the panel react? Nihal asked Ivan Lewis of Labour whether I was being racist.  He refused to use those words but he clearly disapproved of my raising the issue and went on to say how some Conservatives had raised this issue, a subject he felt should not be discussed. Baroness Kramer justified retaining the present voting system on the grounds that the British do things differently, that wonderful British eccentricity at work. Gove just said that he did not want to see any change in the franchise.

Now let me make it clear. I am not saying there should be a change. I am merely intrigued that the issue is not discussed. I have raised it with members of parliament and many of them did not even now that non-citizens can vote. So why this ignorance?

Again observe Australia. The Australian Electoral Commission has a section explaining why certain non-citizens are allowed to vote and this is headed: Why are some British subjects allowed to be on the electoral roll? Nothing could be clearer.

Yet in Australia’s case they are talking of non-citizens from one country, Britain. Here we are talking of citizens from 72 countries or territories.   I know it reflects the range and extent of the British Empire, on which the sun was never supposed to set. But the sun set long ago, so why has this legacy remained?  This is all the more curious as this election has highlighted another imperial legacy regarding the tax status of non-doms with Labour promising to abolish it.   So why is this voting imperial legacy not looked at?  And to be branded racist just to discuss the issue shows how curious attitudes are on this issue.

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