How we can be strong on migration while fighting prejudice, by a Labour councillor

11th April, 2017 1:00 pm

Britain has a long tradition of migration ranging from the Romans, Irish, and Jews in the early 20th century. Contrary to popular belief, black people were established here well before the 1940s – in fact for hundreds of years, according to the author and broadcaster David Olusoga.

It was not until after 1948 that significant numbers of black people settled in the UK, mostly coming from the South East Asian sub-continent and Caribbean Islands.

By the 1950s black ethnic minority groups numbered 100,000. Most settled in specific urban areas of the country, including inner-London, Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester. Many came to Britain for a better standard of living. Others were directly recruited to fill job shortages in low-wage sectors of the economy such as public transport, public services like the NHS and traditional industries in the Midlands.

Both major political parties at the time felt that Britain as the ‘’mother country’’ had a moral obligation to give commonwealth immigrants a home, a job and a form of security for their loyalty to the Empire. Thousands played a significant role in defeating Hitler during the Second World War.

Sadly, many of these people were not welcomed by the indigenous white population. Polls carried out in the 1950s revealed that racism and prejudice based on skin colour was widespread. Black migrants were directly discriminated in housing, schooling and well paid jobs. Urban unrest with a strong racial element erupted in London’s Notting Hill district in 1958. By 1961 opinion polls revealed large numbers of people favoured immigration control.

It was clear to many that race and immigration had become major political issues. Yet during the 1950s governments were hesitant to discuss them. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives wanted to be seen as either pro-migrant, nor anti-migrant, for it could have been electorally and politically damaging to the nation’s relations with the commonwealth.

Pressure from the electorate caused governments to acknowledge the issue. In 1962 the Conservative administration passed the Commonwealth Immigration Act restricting black immigration – a law seen by some academics at the time as racist. Yet as the political scientist David Butler pointed out in 1968 it is rare for the bulk of the population to force an issue onto the major parties: a situation repeating itself today.

In 1964 Labour lost an important seat at Smethwick in the Midlands to a Conservative candidate who had an overtly racist and anti-immigration line to his policy. This convinced Labour’s leadership that the issue of immigration couldn’t be left out of domestic politics. As Richard Crossman, a former cabinet minister under Harold Wilson, noted: “Ever since the Smethwick election it has become quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote loser for the Labour Party.’’

By 1965 both main parties had adopted a ‘’bi-partisan’’ approach to the race issue. Labour, to its credit, passed the Race Relations Act which established the Race Relations Board which had powers to probe cases of racial discrimination and bring them to court. Yet the race relations lobby doubted the new law was in the interests of racial equality. The then Labour government, it was argued, was more concerned to appease public opinion with its tough policy on immigration control than to curb discrimination.

It was Enoch Powell’s  “rivers of blood” speech which in 1968 brought the issue to a head and resulted in hundreds of London dock workers to down tools demanding an end to mass immigration. Although Conservative leader Ted Heath sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet, Labour felt obliged to bring in the 1968 Immigration Act aimed at further restrictions of overseas migration.

By 1971, with the return of a Conservative government, another Immigration Act was passed limiting black migration. But both major parties recognised the importance of established black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in terms of electoral support and adopted a dual strategy to win over black voters. In 1976 Labour passed a robust Race Relations Act to stamp out direct and indirect discrimination. In the same year the Commission for Racial Equality was established with wide ranging powers. Throughout major cities and urban towns race equality councils were set up with an educational remit.

Despite these developments the mid-1970s saw the rise of the extreme right National Front which achieved modest success in council elections. It wasn’t till the 1979 general election that Margaret Thatcher won a sizeable majority with a populist mandate to curb migration.

By the early 1980s urban unrest marked by racialised violence erupted in inner-city Brixton and Toxteth. These urban disorders which broke out in a number of British cities had a racial dimension and were almost unique because like them had happened since before World War One. Industrial decline, high black unemployment, poverty and environmental decay were permanent features of several inner-city areas. It was a crisis that fuelled crime and racial tensions. It was not till the next decade that these ugly scars started to heal as cities became engines of economic growth and cultural renaissance.

Although the issue ceased to be significant in the 200s, it resurfaced in 2001 where ethnic tensions emerged between the white and Asian community in former mill towns of Oldham, Rochdale and Bradford in the north west, exploited by the racist British National party. The far-right BNP gained  electoral support winning  seats in the European Parliament in 2004 and 2007. This saw the election of Andrew Brons, a former leader of the quasi-fascist National Front, and Nick Griffin. In the 2014 Euro-elections the BNP lost out to the populist right-wing UKIP under Nigel Farage who topped the poll in terms of the popular vote. In Hartlepool, a traditional coastal urban constituency held by Labour – over 50 per cent of electorate backed UKIP.

The EU referendum, Brexit and the durability of UKIP has forced the issue of east European migration on both major parties. Survey evidence tells us that it has become the number one policy issue, especially amongst the white working-class – labour’s core vote. Even established minority ethnic communities are concerned about it. Labour is divided on the issue. While Labour’s leadership is relaxed about unlimited migration, other urban MPs are not.

For Stephen Kinnock, Andy Burnham and the trade union Unite, free movement of labour as it currently stands is no longer an option. Labour MPs in seats where people voted for Brexit in big numbers, like Blyth and Redcar, believe that selective immigration control is the right policy to facilitate better community cohesion and to address the concerns of working-class people.

A two-tier approach to the issue has been put forward by Labour’s realists. One, an acceptance of EU skilled migration where there’s proven need of employment in the UK. Two, a willing acceptance of EU students and three a clampdown on unskilled immigration from former Warsaw Pact countries which is seen as undermining wages and placing undue pressure on public services and housing.

According to a YouGov poll in March, only 11 per cent of voters believe that Labour has the best policy on migration. Among Labour’s voters a staggering 71 per cent share this view. With ratings like this on such a key issue the party must get this right if it’s to avoid a sharp demise in its electoral fortunes in both marginal midlands and north west parliamentary constituencies  – seats  that Labour must  retain and win if it’s to form a government in 2020.

A robust stance on migration, coupled with strong policies to stamp out intolerance and discrimination, is the way forward for Labour. The sustainability of cohesive urban communities with good race relations is dependent on such an approach.

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle councillor and director of Education4Democracy.

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