Spartacus Blog

The Politics of Immigration: 1945-2018

Sunday, 27th May, 2018

John Simkin

Last week I had a few days away in Crete. I got involved in a discussion with a former London bus driver who was now retired and living in Norfolk. He seemed to be having a good life but was very angry with the state of Britain. His main concern was over the issue of immigration. He claimed that when he was working he was appalled by the number of immigrants and refugees who enjoyed the benefits of free bus passes. He also blamed the immigrants for the lack of council housing for the young men and women in his bus garage. For some reason, he thought that Jeremy Corbyn was the cause of these problems.

The following day I got into conversation with a young Polish woman who was working as an engineer in Norway. Although she and her husband (he was also a Polish engineer), she was keen to return to Poland as soon as possible because she had elderly parents who needed her support. I asked her what she thought about the recent popularity of far-right groups in Eastern Europe. Much to my surprise, she replied that she fully understood this and she was herself a right-wing nationalist and a supporter of the Law and Justice Party.

The main reason for this was that she was very hostile to foreign immigrants living in her country. These immigrants did not come from the European Union, because the Polish social welfare is so poor that EU citizens have no desire to live in the country. Her concern was about the large number of Ukrainian immigrants living in Poland. According to The Economist, Ukrainians living in Poland "can earn five times more than at home, picking tomatoes, mixing cement or driving for Uber, the ride-hailing firm". The article, entitled, Ukrainian immigrants are powering Poland’s economy, argues: "A tumbling birth rate and the emigration of 2m Poles to other European Union countries has shrunk the labour supply. Unemployment is at its lowest since 1991 and the economy is surging. The Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (ZPP) says 5m more workers are needed to sustain growth over the next three decades." (1)

In the elections that took place in Hungary in April 2018, the right-wing populist party, the Hungarian Civic Alliance, achieved a two-thirds majority for the second consecutive time. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister since 2010, made immigration the main issue of the election. In reality, the country is suffering from a terrible labour shortage. The EU Commission has lodged a lawsuit against Hungary at the EU’s highest court over laws adopted in 2017 limiting EU migrants and its unwillingness to take asylum seekers. (2)

The Italian General Election took place on 4th March, 2018. However, it took until last week to form a new government. It will be a grand coalition between the right-wing populist Northern League Party and the anti-establishment party, the Five Star Movement. The first policy document published by the new coalition government contained plans to build more detention centres to accelerate the deportation of an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants and to review migrant rescue missions at sea after they arrive on Italy’s shores. The agreement also calls for a renegotiation of the Dublin Refugee Treaty. The document also calls for imams to be registered with the state. Unauthorized mosques will face “immediate” closure while proposals for the construction of new ones and their funding will be scrutinized. (3)

Throughout the world people are becoming obsessed with the subject of immigration. This is also true of the UK and it is believed played a major role in the EU referendum result. Why is this? There have always been episodes of migration to Britain but, these were always small and demographically insignificant. In most cases, we had a problem of too many people leaving the country. For example, between 1880 and 1890, 795,000 (net) people left Britain. People born in Britain between 1876 and 1920 left in large numbers with some two million more leaving England and Wales than arriving. (4)

In the years leading up to the First World War, unemployment hovered between 2% and 4%. This all changed in the 1920s and 1930s and in some years was over 30%. During the Second World War, unemployment fell to as low as 0.6%. Full employment after the war caused the UK tremendous economic problems. In the early months of 1947 there was a serious fuel shortage. The Labour government urged the British people to become more productive. However, the main cause of this was the labour market. By 1948 only 1.8% of the adult population were unemployed. As the historian John Bew pointed out: "It was no use asking people to working harder when there were not enough people to man the vital industries." (5)

The only solution for the government was to encourage foreign workers to come to the country. In 1948 Parliament passed the British Nationality Act that gave citizenship to all people living in the United Kingdom and its colonies, and the right of entry and settlement in the UK. The first ship Empire Windrush arrived from Jamaica with a group of 492 migrants on 22nd June, 1948. All those who did not know anybody in the UK, were sent to the underground shelter at Clapham Common, while the authorities tried to organise accommodation and work for them. (6)

Later that day 11 Labour Party MPs wrote to Clement Attlee complaining about these new immigrants. "This country may become an open reception centre for immigrants not selected in respect to health, education, training, character, customs and above all, whether assimilation is possible or not. The British people fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity in their way of life, and are blest by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.... We venture to suggest that the British Government should, like foreign countries, the dominions and even some of the colonies, by legislation if necessary, control immigration in the political, social, economic and fiscal interests of our people." (7)

Attlee replied on 5th July, 1948: "It is traditional that British subjects, whether of Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race or colour), should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom. That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded, particularly at this time when we are importing foreign labour in large numbers. It would be fiercely resented in the Colonies themselves, and it would be a great mistake to take any measure which would tend to weaken the goodwill and loyalty of the Colonies towards Great Britain... It may be of interest to you to know that of the 236 who had nowhere to go and no immediate prospects of employment, and who were therefore temporarily accommodated at Clapham Shelter, 145 had actually been placed in employment by the 30th June and the number still resident in the Shelter at this last week-end was down to 76. It would therefore be a great mistake to regard these people as undesirable or unemployables. The majority of them are honest workers, who can make a genuine contribution to our labour difficulties at the present time." (8)

In June 1950, a Cabinet committee was established with the terms of reference of finding ways which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of black people from British colonial territories. In February 1951, that committee reported that no restrictions were required. But from the time of Churchill's premiership, new Commonwealth immigration rose from 3,000 in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and thence to 136,400 in 1961. This failed to solve our labour shortage as in 1961 only 1.6% of the adult male population were registered as unemployed. (9)

Despite the need for immigration in 1962 the Conservative government led by Harold Macmillan, responded to the campaign by the right-wing press against immigration, passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. This tightened the regulations and restricted the rights of immigrants to come to Britain, to those who had government-issued employment vouchers. The leader of the opposition in Parliament at the time, Hugh Gaitskell, called the act "cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation" and accused the government of "yielding to the crudest clamour" of racism and suggested that liberal members of the government should be ashamed of their failure to stop "this miserable, shameful, shabby bill" by threatening to resign. (10)

Victor Weisz (Vicky), Evening Standard (14th October, 1963)
Victor Weisz (Vicky), Enoch Powell: Minister of Health (1963)

This was a blatant attempt to win the support of those members of the electorate who held racist views. However, the government faced a severe shortage of labour in certain industries and secretly encouraged large-scale immigration from the Asian subcontinent. This labour shortage was especially a problem in the National Health Service. The Minister of Health, Enoch Powell, made an important decision. Powell’s war experiences in India made it the place he turned to for help. “We know Powell had a high regard for Indian society and that Indian medical schools trained doctors based on the British system, so he knew he could find a relatively good source of well-qualified doctors.” In 1963 Powell invited Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi doctors to the UK. This resulted in 18,000 arriving over the next twelve months. (11)

Powell praised these doctors, who he said, "provide a useful and substantial reinforcement of the staffing of our hospitals and who are an advertisement to the world of British medicine and British hospitals." Many of those recruited had several years of experience in their home countries and arrived to gain further medical experience, training, or qualification. Powell's initiative was a great success and after eight years 31 per cent of all doctors working in the NHS in England were born and had qualified overseas. (12)

In the 1964 General Election the Labour Party obtained a swing of 3% to obtain victory. However, some Conservative Party members played the race-card during the election. This included Peter Griffiths, who was taking on Patrick Gordon Walker, who had been Shadow Foreign Secretary, in Smethwick. The constituency had the highest percentage of recent immigrants to England and during the campaign his supporters used the slogan "If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour". Walker found it difficult to deal with this issue as the local Labour Club did not allow black people to become members. (13)

Griffiths himself did not coin the phrase or approve its use, but he refused to disown it. "I would not condemn any man who said that, I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling". Griffiths reminded the electorate that Walker had opposed the introduction of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. “How easy to support uncontrolled immigration when one lives in a garden suburb,” Griffiths sneered at his Labour rival during the general election campaign. Griffiths won the seat with a 7.2 % swing to the Conservatives and reduced Walker's vote from 20,670 in the previous election to 14,916. (14)

Harold Wilson, the new prime minister, was furious with the defeat of Walker and called on Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the leader of the Conservative Party, to condemn Griffiths racist campaign as he had previously agreed that the political parties would not exploit anti-immigrant feelings during the election. Wilson later wrote: "I asked him, then and there, to get up and say whether he endorsed the successful Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, or whether he repudiated the means by which he had entered the House. If the former, I said, then Sir Alec would have fallen a long way from the position he had taken up. If the latter, then the honourable member for Smethwick would, for the life-time of Parliament, be treated as a parliamentary leper. This created an immediate outcry and some Conservatives walked out in protest." (15)

Michael Cummings, Sunday Express (9th July 1967)
Michael Cummings, Sunday Express (9th July 1967)

Enoch Powell changed his opinion about immigration after Harold Wilson became prime minister and on 20th April, 1968, made an attack on the Labour government's policy on this issue. "The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils... In 15 or 20 years, on present trends, there will be in this country three and a half million Commonwealth immigrants and their descendants. That is not my figure. That is the official figure given to parliament by the spokesman of the Registrar General's Office. There is no comparable official figure for the year 2000, but it must be in the region of five to seven million, approximately one-tenth of the whole population, and approaching that of Greater London. Of course, it will not be evenly distributed from Margate to Aberystwyth and from Penzance to Aberdeen. Whole areas, towns and parts of towns across England will be occupied by sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population."

He then went on to explain the consequences of such levels of migration. "It almost passes belief that at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week - and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. So insane are we that we actually permit unmarried persons to immigrate for the purpose of founding a family with spouses and fiancés whom they have never seen."

Powell attacked the Labour government's commitment to passing a Race Relations Act that would make it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. "The discrimination and the deprivation, the sense of alarm and of resentment, lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come and are still coming.... For these dangerous and divisive elements the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood.' Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal. (16)

The Times correctly reported that, "This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our postwar history." (17) Iain Macleod, Edward Boyle, Quintin Hogg and Robert Carr all threatened to resign from the Shadow Cabinet unless Powell was sacked. Edward Heath agreed and Powell was dismissed and he never held another senior political post. However, a Gallup poll at the end of April showed that 74 per cent of those asked agreed with Enoch Powell's speech and only 15 per cent disagreed, with 11 per cent unsure. Other polls concluded that between 61 and 73 per cent disagreed with Heath sacking Powell. (18)

Duncan Sandys, Gerald Nabarro, Teddy Taylor and other right-wing members of the Conservative Party supported Powell. Heath defended his decision telling Robin Day: "I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife... I don't believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell's way of putting his views in his speech." (19)

Harold Wilson became concerned about the growth in popularity in the Powell's views and immigration rules were tightened. During the 1970 General Election campaign Labour candidates were urged not to "stir up the Powell issue". Tony Benn disagreed."The flag of racialism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over Dachau and Belsen. If we do not speak up now against the filthy and obscene racialist propaganda ... the forces of hatred will mark up their first success and mobilise their first offensive.... Enoch Powell has emerged as the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger character than Mr. Heath. He speaks his mind; Heath does not." (20)

It has been claimed that the popularity of Powell's perspective on immigration played a decisive contributory factor in the Conservatives' surprise victory in the 1970 General Election. One study suggested that Powell might have attracted 2.5 million extra votes. He definitely did very well in his own constituency in Wolverhampton South West. His majority of 26,220 and a 64.3 per cent share of the vote were then the highest of his career. (21)

Net Migration: 1964 to 2015
Net Migration: 1964 to 2015

Net migration is the difference between two flows. It is the number of people entering a place in a particular year, less the number of people entering a place over the course of that year. As Danny Dorling has pointed out: "Immigration rules were tightened in 1968 with the short-term effect that some 104,000 (net) left during the six years of Labour government (1964-70) and despite the mini economic boom. That exodus was reversed at the start of Ted Heath's tenure (in 1971-2), but then it flip-flopped back to a net migration of (-112,000) under Labour from 1973-9, then again at -105,000 (net) in the three Thatcher years of 1980-2 and yet again a figure of -76,000 (net) during John Major's 1990-3 recession. I point all this out in case you thought that usually more people tended to arrive than leave. In most years since 1840 that has not been the case." (22)

Unemployment figures remained low for the next fifteen years. In 1974 unemployment was only 2.6%. In a television interview in January, 1978, Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the opposition, played the race-card when she claimed "Some people have felt swamped by immigrants. They've seen the whole character of their neighbourhoods change." (23) Bernard Levin, who was a supporter of Thatcher, warned that, "If you talk and behave as though black men were some kind of virus that must be kept out of the body politic then it is the shabbiest hypocrisy to preach racial harmony at the same time." (24)

David Olusoga, points out in Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016): "Immigrants accounted for a mere 4 per cent of the British population in 1979. Yet, the word 'swamped' struck home with voters and shocked some commentators. Intentionally or not it was an echo of Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech... Thatcher's words were denounced by black British groups and by her political opponents, and criticised by some of her own party." (25)

Thatcher's comments increased her popularity with the British public and it is believed it was a factor in her victory in the 1979 General Election: "Before her remarks, only 9 per cent of British citizens felt that there were too many immigrants; afterwards 21 per cent admitted they were worried. Thatcher's supporters argued that it was a politician's job to draw the public's attention to uncomfortable truths. Opponents suggested that such rhetoric was self-fulfilling. It was easy to forget that at this time immigrants amounted to 4 per cent of the population. Was it possible for so small a minority to 'swamp' a mighty imperial nation?" (26)

This prepared the way for Thatcher's economic policies neo-liberal economic policies in order to control the power of trade union movement. Unemployment figures rose substantially over the next few years: 1980 (7.4%), 1981 (11.4%) and 1982 (13.0%). With high unemployment and with the encouragement of the politicians who have created the unemployment, people turn their hostility towards the people who are immigrants or who look like immigrants, who believe they have taken their jobs. (27)

In the late 1990s unemployment fell, encouraging an increase in immigration. When the 2001 census results were published the newspapers published scare stories about the UK's growing population. The Observer reported: "The population of the United Kingdom has passed 60 million, fuelled by record immigration and increasing life expectancy. It is growing at the fastest rate since the baby boom of the sixties... Almost all the growth is in the South of England. The number of people living in the North and Scotland is declining." (28)

Unemployment continued to fall and by 2008 it was down to 5%. This made the UK a more attractive place to work and we saw an increasing number of people arriving. During this period, more people entered the country rather than left it. The main reason is that "we have created a lot of jobs in recent years that offer unattractively low pay and that are mostly filled by young people coming in from other countries for whom the experience of Britain is at least interesting at first, and for whom the money, until recently, used to be good, if spent back home." (29)

Conservative Party politicians and the right-wing press continued to argue that the problem is that Britain has too many migrants entering the country. This was often related to the shortage of houses. However, it has been pointed out that this problem is made worse by the large number of people who own more than one house. When the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was asked in 2009 how many houses he and his wife owned he said it was probably four but pleaded with the journalist not to "make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I've got." (30)

The Daily Mail played an important role in trying to persuade Cameron to bring an end to immigration. It reported that 70 million is "the number of people who our national statisticians expect will populate the UK by mid-2029". (31) The BBC joined in with these scare stories: "A new survey predicts the UK population will reach 78m by 2051... By 2051 a growing birth rate, coupled with high levels of immigration from Europe, Australasia and the US, as well as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, will take the UK population to 78m... The report predicts ethnic minorities will make up 20% of a 78m population." (32)

It has been argued that these predictions assume that will enjoy rapid economic growth over the next forty years. History tells us that every economic recession results in a decline in population: "Emigration and the consequent slump in fertility that comes with economic distress. Fewer people start families when their jobs are at risk, as so many fear being unable to set up home." During the Great Depression in the 1930s the British did not replace their own numbers through births. Stories were published that the country would be depopulated by the end of the century. (33)

These scare stories worried David Cameron and during the 2010 General Election he promised to bring net migration below 100,000 a year. Of the three main political parties the one that had most strongly opposed immigration, the Conservatives, gained the most seats and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Just two weeks into power the new government published an official document committing to the introduction of an actual limit on the number of non-EU migrants to be admitted into the UK to live and work. (34)

After his election the right-wing press put David Cameron under pressure to deliver his promise on net migration. This included the The Sun, who reported on 27th August, 2010, that "an extra 196,000 people flooded into Britain last year" and this was a "20 per cent increase on 2008". The article then went on to state that country was dangerously full and that the UK was the second most congested country in the European Union. (35)

The newspaper had got this information from a report published by the anti-immigration pressure group, Migration Watch. It claimed "England has a population density of over 3 times the EU average and second only to the Netherlands and Malta in the 25-nation EU... Congestion is therefore a much more significant factor in the UK than elsewhere and points to a very clear need for the UK to be able to limit immigration by controlling its own borders and having its own immigration policy." (36)

It is the UK that is in the European Union, not England. The UK actually appears in the Migration Watch below the Netherlands, Malta and Belgium. It is not only the Sun journalist who cannot read the chart that appears in the document. The man who wrote the report missed out Belgium. When this was pointed out to Nigel Farage he commented that "Belgium was not a country as far as he was concerned". (37)

Danny Dorling has argued: "Congestion means to be overfilled and overcrowded: jammed, clogged full. The extent to which a group of people might be suffering from congestion depends on their local population densities but also, and more importantly; on how well they have arranged their infrastructure to allow them to move about. It is possible to have a far greater population than can be found in Britain living at far greater local densities and suffering far less congestion. For example, Japan is home to twice the population of the UK, has far less flat land available but it also has a far superior transport system that in turn allows its populace greater ease of movement. Conversely, if you want to see people suffering terrible congestion despite having a huge amount of land then try driving at rush hour in Auckland in New Zealand, where there are only fourteen people per square kilometre, which makes New Zealand some twenty-five times less densely populated than Japan." (38)

The Optimum Population Trust agrees with Migration Watch. One of its patrons, Sir David Attenborough, states on its website: “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder - and ultimately impossible - to solve with ever more people.” In a report published in July 2010 it claimed that the United Kingdom was "overpopulated by forty-five million people" and advocated that couples should only have two children, that immigration should never exceed emigration, and that the population should be reduced by at least a quarter of a per cent per year." (39)

In reality, the UK only appears to be overcrowded and congested because of bad decisions made by politicians. For example, they have failed to invest enough in our transport system and have not built enough homes for its people. "The latest report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) on home ownership shows the number of young adults with a household after-tax income of between £22,200 and £30,600, owning their own home dropped from 65% in 1995 to 27% in 2016. During the period under study (1995-2016) house prices on average have increased by 152%. Their wages, however, have increased by only 22%, while GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita has increased by 47%.... Currently households are typically spending over 30% of their after-tax income on rents. Even with this expenditure they are likely to be living in overcrowded and smaller places than their parents." (40)

David Cameron went into the 2015 General Election with net migration to the UK three times as high as he promised at the 2010 election. In February, 2015, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) "announced a net flow of 298,000 migrants to the UK in the 12 months to last September – up from 210,000 in the previous year, and equal to the population of a city like Nottingham. The sharp increase was driven by a 'statistically significant' rise in immigrants arriving in the country – up to 624,000 in the year to September from 530,000 in the previous 12 months. Around 327,000 people emigrated in the same period. The final set of such statistics before the May election showed significant increases in migration among both non-EU citizens – up 49,000 to 292,000 – and EU citizens, which rose by 43,000 to 251,000." (41)

When she became prime minister, in July, 2016, Theresa May, stated she was "absolutely committed" to Cameron's target to bring net migration below 100,000 a year. She maintained this position during the 2017 General Election. However, it did not seem to win her many votes as she suffered a net loss of 13 seats with 42.4% of the vote, whilst Labour made a net gain of 30 seats with 40.0% (their highest share of the vote since 2001).

Percentage of population of England and Wales that was foreign born, 1851-2011
Percentage of population of England and Wales that was foreign born, 1851-2011

Unemployment has been falling in the UK since the 1990s. There was a slight increase during the banking crisis but in March 2018, figures were released that showed the unemployment rate in the UK stood at a 42-year low of 4.2 percent. (42) The problem today is not unemployment but low wages. This is again blamed on the free movement of labour. Of course, it is partly responsible for the lower wages. (43) That is why employers are always in favour of immigration as it keeps down their labour costs. As Toby Perkins pointed out: "Increasingly, people in poverty are also in work. Under this Government, work alone no longer pays enough to allow people the dignity of being able to feed their family". (44)

The latest research reveals that a record 60% of British people in poverty live in a household where someone is in work, with the risk of falling into financial hardship especially high for families in private rented housing. Although successive governments have maintained that work is the best route out of poverty, the study says the risk of poverty for adults in working families grew by a quarter over the past decade. Rod Hick, a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Cardiff University, who led the research team, has insisted: "The rise of in-work poverty should be tackled through three main policies, the report says: greater provision of free and affordable childcare to enable both adults in a household to work; a reversal of cuts to tax credits and universal credit; and action to tackle high rents in the private rented housing sector." (45)

This problem of low pay has not been helped by the proliferation of recruitment agencies that recruit solely from eastern Europe. Faiza Shaheen, the director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, carried out research into this issue: "At one agency, a lead recruiter was candid about the way in which the agency focused on recruiting only Polish and eastern European workers. This, she said, was in response to business demands for workers with 'a stronger work ethic'. When pushed further, she admitted that Polish workers were less likely to demand higher wages and to know the rights temporary workers were entitled to. When I spoke to local people, they were all too aware that agencies were not taking them on, and were justifiably angry. At the time I couldn’t foresee how much such outcomes – which are due to lack of employment safeguards, rather than immigration per se – would fuel anti-immigration sentiments in the years to come." (46)

This is not a recent problem. At a conference of the International Workingmen’s Association in Lausanne in July, 1867, Karl Marx argued: "The power of the human individual has disappeared before the power of capital, in the factory the worker is now nothing but a cog in the machine. In order to recover his individuality, the worker has had to unite together with others and create associations to defend his wages and his life. Until today these associations had remained purely local, while the power of capital, thanks to new industrial inventions, is increasing day by day; furthermore in many cases national associations have become powerless: a study of the struggle waged by the English working class reveals that, in order to oppose their workers, the employers either bring in workers from abroad or else transfer manufacture to countries where there is a cheap labour force. Given this state of affairs, if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organisations must become international." (47)

Len McCluskey has pointed out that working-class interpretations of the free movement of labour has had a significant impact on the political consciousness of trade unionists. "I can reveal that as long ago as 2009 Unite private surveys of membership opinion were showing that even then our members were more concerned about immigration than any other political issue." He believes that there "is no doubt that concerns about the impact of the free movement of Labour in Europe played a large part in the referendum result, particularly in working-class communities. And we are also, I would argue, past the point where working people can be convinced that the free movement of labour has worked for them, their families, their industries and their communities."

This has caused real problems for trade union officials: "Anyone who has had to negotiate for workers, in manufacturing in particular, knows the huge difficulties that have been caused by the ability of capital to move production around the world – often to China and the Far East or Eastern Europe – in search of far lower labour costs and higher profits. Likewise, the elite’s use of immigration to this country is not motivated by a love of diversity or a devotion to multiculturalism. It is instead all part of the flexible labour market model, ensuring a plentiful supply of cheap labour here for those jobs that can’t be exported elsewhere."

McCluskey goes on to point out: "Argument that wage rates are not affected does not stand up to scrutiny either. Put simply, if all you have to sell is your capacity to work, then its value is going to be affected by an influx of people willing to work for less money and put up with a lower standard of living because it nevertheless improves their own lives. Supply and demand affects the sale of labour too, pitting worker against worker... And unions here need to unite with trade unions in other countries to end to the playing off of workers in one part of the world against each other, to oppose the power of global capital with the power of a renewed international labour movement. The problem is not cheap labour in Britain – it’s cheap labour anywhere." (48)

Immigration has little impact on the wages of most workers. However, a number of studies have found there is a negative effect of migration on the wages of low-skilled workers - those with whom migrants compete most directly. "Research published last year by Sir Stephen Nickell of the Office for Budget Responsibility suggested there was a small negative effect of migration on the wages of locals in the semi-skilled and unskilled service sector - such as care workers, shop assistants, restaurant and bar workers." (49)

A far more important reason for falling wages is the government's economic policies. The Resolution Foundation carried out a study of Philip Hammond’s 2017 budget and claimed that the measures taken would result in the longest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. It also found the poorest third are set for an average loss of £715 a year over the coming five years, while the richest third stand to gain £185 on average. (50)

Aditya Chakrabortty has pointed out it is Conservative Party politicians and their friends in the media industry who have blamed migrants for the misery caused by "the government’s own drastic spending cuts – for a buckling NHS, a cash-starved school system and falling wages". Most migrants that come into the country are young, educated at someone else’s expense and here to work. (51)

Research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that immigrants are much less likely to be on benefits or in social housing than their UK-born counterparts. "Immigrants who arrived after EU enlargement in 2004 and who have at least one year of residence, and are therefore legally eligible to claim benefits, are 59 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 57 per cent less likely to live in social housing." (52)

Migrants pay billions more in taxes to Britain than they take out in public spending. Far from squeezing hospitals and schools, they subsidise and even staff them. Without these immigrants the National Health Services. Immigrants and the offspring of immigrants make up a vastly disproportionate share of the staff of the NHS. For example, according to a report from the Runnymede Trust, there are more nurses from Malawi working in Manchester than in all of Malawi. This has had a serious impact on the health of the people in that country. (53)

Malawi's one and only medical school was established in 1991. At first this led to an increase in the numbers of doctors in the country. However, a 2007 study which followed up the college's first 250 graduates found that two-fifths had left the country and there was a "severe shortage of doctors". The World Health Organization estimates there is just one doctor for every 40,000 people in Malawi, and that compares to one per 400 in the UK. This has a predictable effect on Malawian healthcare, where 110 children in every 1,000 born will die before the age of five, compared with six per 1,000 in the UK. In the short-term it is cheaper for the government to bring in doctors and nurses from underdeveloped countries, who have paid for the training. This is not only immoral it will also cause long-term problems for our own economy. (54)

Cameron's government clearly thought that it was a vote winner to appear to be against immigration. In the 2014 Immigration Act, ministers set out to introduce what then home secretary Theresa May described as a “hostile environment” for those in the UK unlawfully. The approach was designed to deny illegal immigrants access to work, accommodation and vital services in anticipation this would encourage individuals to leave the country voluntarily. For example, the act makes provision to prevent private landlords from renting houses to people without legal status, to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driving licenses and bank accounts.

When it was debated in the House of Commons, some Labour MPs, warned against some of the dangers of this legislation as it would increase the powers of Immigration Enforcement Officers, who would now have the power to carry out of invasive checks and searches of anyone deemed to be a foreigner. (55) Diane Abbott asked Theresa May whether she had considered "the effect that her measures that are designed to crack down on illegal immigrants could have on people who are British nationals, but appear as if they might be immigrants?" (56)

Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party at the time, believing that the electorate shared the government's hostility to migrants, ordered his MPs to abstain when the vote was taken. Six Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Dennis Skinner, David Lammy, Mark Lazarowicz and Fiona Mactaggart, rebelled and voted against the measure. (57)

During the 2016 EU referendum debate immigration became one of the most important issues. The Centre for the Study of Media Communication and Power at King’s College, carried out research into the way the media dealt with this subject. It analysed almost 15,000 articles published online during this period by 20 news outlets, including the BBC and all the national papers. Researchers found immigration to be the most prominent issue in the 10 weeks running up to the vote, leading 99 front pages. Of those, more than three-quarters were from the four most virulently leave newspapers: The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun.

"Coverage of immigration more than tripled over the course of the campaign, rising faster than any other political issue. Immigration was the most prominent referendum issue, based on the number of times it led newspaper print front pages (there were 99 front pages about immigration, 82 about the economy). Coverage of the effects of immigration was overwhelmingly negative. Migrants were blamed for many of Britain’s economic and social problems - most notably for putting unsustainable pressure on public services. Specific nationalities were singled out for particularly negative coverage – especially Turks and Albanians, but also Romanians and Poles. The majority of negative coverage of specific foreign nationals was published by three news sites: the Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun." (58)

It soon became clear that there were some serious problems with the 2014 Immigration Act. The government had given the contract for removing illegal immigrants to the private company, Capita. The Home Office received repeated warnings that a large number of people who had arrived in the UK as a result of the 1948 British Nationality Act (known as the Windrush Generation) were wrongly being accused of being illegal immigrants by Capita. Some people were sent text messages stating: “Our records show you may not have leave to remain in the UK”. Arten Llazari, the chief executive, of Refugee and Migrant Centre (RMC) said: “The Capita contract effectively outsourced part of the creation of the hostile environment to the private sector. In the process many vulnerable citizens, mostly of Caribbean descent, were harassed and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Charities and concerned MPs have been highlighting what is now known as the Windrush scandal to the Home Office to no avail.” (59)

The BBC reported that Downing Street, the Home Office and the Foreign Office were told about problems faced by the Windrush generation by the Barbados government as early as 2016. It was pointed out that "migrants from Commonwealth Caribbean countries who settled in the UK from the late 1940s to the 1970s had been declared illegal immigrants if they could not provide a range of documentation proving they had lived in the UK continuously. Some have been threatened with deportation, lost their jobs or been refused access to medical treatment." However, the government did nothing about it and when asked in the House of Commons about this problem. (60)

Amelia Gentleman, of the Guardian newspaper, began investigating the issue in October, 2017. She was told by The Migration Observatory that up to 57,000 people were potentially vulnerable because although they arrived from Commonwealth countries before 1971, they had never applied for a British passport or been naturalised. This included 15,000 from Jamaica, 13,000 from India, and the other 29,000 from countries such as Pakistan, Kenya, and South Africa. (61)

Gentleman later recalled: "For a long time it was incredibly frustrating because the Guardian was publishing interviews I’d done with people whose lives had been ruined by this situation and no one in government seemed to care very much. It was only when the Barbados high commissioner revealed that at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting that the story became huge. We put that on the front page, and then reported David Lammy’s outraged letter to the government signed by 140 cross-party MPs, and within 24 hours Amber Rudd (15th April, 2018) was apologising for the 'appalling' behaviour of her own department." (62)

The crises deepened when on 14th May, the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, admitted to the home affairs select committee that the Home Office had identified 63 possible Windrush cases of wrongful removal and warned the number could rise. "Officials identified the cases after trawling through 8,000 removal and deportation records for Caribbean nationals aged 45 or over, who could have benefited from provisions in the 1971 Immigration Act protecting their right to be in the UK." (63)

George Eaton, writing in the New Statesman, has claimed that "the Windrush scandal has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Labour Party and the Daily Mail in outrage. Indeed, regardless of their stance on immigration, seemingly all now agree that the Home Office’s harassment of long-standing residents was shameful." Eaton goes on to argue that "though the public and MPs may favour draconian controls in theory, they often baulk at their practical consequences". (64)

Eton points out that polling has long shown that voters are sceptical of "immigration" as an abstract but are far more sympathetic to migrant groups. For instance, a study by British Future found that the public wanted numbers of the following groups to "increase or stay the same": scientists and researchers (86 per cent), doctors and nurses (85 per cent), engineers (83 per cent), IT specialists (77 per cent), care workers (75 per cent), construction workers (63 per cent), fruit pickers (63 per cent), and waiters and bartenders (52 per cent). In other words, "when immigration is given a human form, support for it increases". (65)

People are clearly less hostile to the idea of immigration when people consider the impact on the individual but does it change their irrational approach to the subject. According to YouGov the Windrush Scandal has had little impact on people's views on immigration: "Overall public opinion towards immigration remains negative: 63% of people think that immigration into Britain in the last ten years has been too high and by 32% to 24% they think it has been mostly bad for the country. While hostility to immigration has softened a little since 2016, the changes are comparatively small - the proportion thinking the number of people coming to the UK s too high is down seven points from 70% to 63%, while the proportion thinking it is bad for Britain has barely changed at all."

Nearly two thirds (64%) of those questioned thought the government have handled the Windrush issue badly. "However, the approach that has led to such problems for the Windrush generation – the policy often described as the 'hostile environment'– still has overwhelming public support. In principle, seven in ten (71%) support a policy of requiring people to show documents proving their right to be in Britain in order to do things such as taking up employment, renting a flat, or opening a bank account." (66)

One of the most disturbing facts of the recent Windrush Scandal is that in the week following it became headline news, Theresa May's poll-ratings went up and the Conservative Party obtained their largest lead since the 2017 General Election. (67) Within days of complaining about the way that the government had treated the Windrush Generation, The Daily Mail was condemning the Labour Party for being soft on illegal immigration. (68)

This was followed by another article which accused the Labour Party "of running up the white flag on immigration". This is because "Diane Abbott said she would close two main detention centres, axe migration targets and force officials to prove suspects were in Britain without permission. The shadow home secretary also vowed to scrap the requirement for bosses and landlords to carry out checks on a worker or tenant’s right to be in the country." The newspaper then attempted to persuade its readers that illegal immigration and immigration are the same thing by quoting the Conservative Party MP, Andrew Bridgen as saying: "Diane Abbott has confirmed what we already know – that Labour will have an open-door policy where anybody who wishes to come to our country can do so." It is going to be very difficult to have a rational immigration policy when you have this kind of reporting on the debate we need to have on this subject. (69)


(1) The Economist (5th August, 2017)

(2) The Financial Times (17th January, 2018)

(3) The Observer (19th May, 2018)

(4) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) pages 94 and 110

(5) John Bew, Citizen Clem (2018) page 452

(6) Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2013) page 261

(7) Letter sent to Clement Attlee by 11 Labour Party MPs (22nd June, 1948)

(8) Clement Attlee, letter to 11 Labour Party MPs (5th July, 1948)

(9) James Denman and Paul MacDonald, Unemployment Statistics from 1881 to the Present Day, Labour Market Trends (January 1996)

(10) Hugh Gaitskell, speech in the House of Commons (16th November, 1961)

(11) Vicki Power, Daily Telegraph (12th November, 2010)

(12) Stephanie Snow and Emma Coleman-Jones, Immigration and the National Health Service (8th March 2011)

(13) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 332

(14) Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian (15th October, 2014)

(15) Harold Wilson, The Labour Government 1964-1970 (1971) page 55

(16) Enoch Powell, speech in Birmingham (20th April, 1968)

(17) The Times (22nd April, 1968)

(18) Robert Shepherd, Enoch Powell (1998) page 352

(19) Simon Heffer, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (1999) page 461

(20) David Butler and Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, British General Election of 1970 (1971) pages 159–160

(21) Simon Heffer, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell (1999) page 468

(22) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) page 94

(23) Margaret Thatcher, television interview (27th January, 1978)

(24) Bernard Levin, The Times (14th February, 1978)

(25) David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) page 515

(26) Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2013) page 307

(27) James Denman and Paul MacDonald, Unemployment Statistics from 1881 to the Present Day, Labour Market Trends (January 1996)

(28) The Observer (26th August, 2001)

(29) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) page 114

(30) The Times (24th May, 2009)

(31) The Daily Mail (21st April 2010)

(32) BBC News Report (13th July 2010)

(33) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) pages 106-110

(34) David Cameron, Programme of Government (20th May, 2010)

(35) The Sun (27th August, 2010)

(36) Migration Watch, Population Densities of the EU Member States (May, 2010)

(37) BBC News (26th February, 2010)

(38) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) page 74

(39) Optimum Population Trust, news release (8th July, 2010)

(40) The Huffington Post (23rd February, 2018)

(41) Andrew Grice, The Independent (26th February 2015)

(42) Andrew Grice, The Independent (21st June, 2017)

(43) Rajeev Syal, The Guardian (1st January, 2014)

(44) Toby Perkins, speech in the House of Commons (25th June, 2015)

(45) Patrick Butler, The Guardian (22nd May 2017)

(46) Faiza Shaheen, The Guardian (16th November, 2016)

(47) Karl Marx, speech at the International Workingmen’s Association conference in Lausanne (July, 1867)

(48) Len McCluskey, speech (11th October, 2016)

(49) The Financial Times (12th May, 2016)

(50) The Guardian (23rd November, 2017)

(51) Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian (17th May, 2018)

(52) Christian Dustmann, Tommaso Frattini and Caroline Halls, Assessing the Fiscal Costs and Benefits of A8 Migration to the UK (2010)

(53) Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain (2011) page 116

(54) BBC News (15th January, 2012)

(55) William J Richardson, Evolve Politics (18th April 2018)

(56) Diane Abbott, House of Commons (30th January, 2014)

(57) Florence Snead, Windrush: How Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and other MPs voted on the Immigration Act 2014 (19th April, 2018)

(58) Martin Moore and Gordon Ramsay, UK media coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign (May 2017) pages 8-9

(59) Arten Llazari, The Guardian (8th May, 2018)

(60) BBC News (25th April, 2018)

(61) BBC News (18th April, 2018)

(62) Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian (20th April, 2018)

(63) The Guardian (14th May, 2018)

(64) George Eaton, The New Statesman (23rd April, 2018)

(65) Sunder Katwada, Jill Rutter and Steve Ballinger, Time to get it right: Finding consensus on Britain’s future immigration policy (September, 2017)

(66) YouGov Report (27th April, 2018)

(67) Opinium Political Polling (May, 2018)

(68) James Tapsfield, The Daily Mail (30th April, 2018)

(69) The Daily Mail (17th May, 2018)


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