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 before the 1940s, 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 against in areas such as housing, schooling and pay. 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 a major political issue. Yet during the fifties governments were hesitant to discuss the issue. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives wanted to be seen as either pro-migrant or anti-migrant, for it could have been electorally and politically damaging to the nation’s relations with the commonwealth.
Pressure from the electorate on to the ‘political elite’ 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 noted, it’s very 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 overt racist, 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 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 left- wing critics 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 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech which brought the issue to a head which resulted in hundreds of London dock workers to down tools demanding an end to mass immigration. Although Conservative Party 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 BME 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-seventies saw the rise of the extreme right National Front which achieved modest success in council elections. It wasn’t until the 1979 general election that Mrs Thatcher won a sizeable majority with a populist mandate to curb migration.
Although the issue ceased to be significant throughout the 1980s and noughties, it resurfaced in 2001 where ethnic tensions emerged between the white and Asian community in former mill towns in the North West., exploited by the racist BNP. The far-right BNP gained growing electoral support in the first decade of the 21st century winning seats in the European Parliament in 2004 and 2007. This saw the election of Andrew Broms, a former leader of the quasi-fascist NF and Nick Griffin. In the 2014 Euro-elections the BNP lost out to the radical 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% 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’s it 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 are relaxed about unlimited migration, other urban MPs are not.
For Stephen Kinnock, Jon Cruddas and Andy Burnham ‘freedom of movement of labour’ is no longer an option. Labour MPs in seats where people voted Leave 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 Labour’s core working-class vote. 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 March 2017 YouGov Poll only 11% of voters believe that Labour has the best policy on migration. Amongst Labour’s voters a staggering 71% 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 constituency – 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.