Labour’s 1983 manifesto and immigration


The folk at Socialist Unity have republished in full Labour’s 1983 manifesto, A New Hope for Britain (notoriously known as ‘the longest suicide note in history’). There is a section on nationality and immigration, which was the first time that a substantial section of Labour’s manifesto was dedicated to these issues. Previously there had been a short paragraph or a few sentences on immigration issues. For example, the 1979 manifesto only mentioned immigration briefly:

Large-scale migration to this country is ending, but we still have some major commitments to fulfil. Labour will honour these. A quota would merely cause even longer delays for dependants.

Our whole immigration and citizenship law needs revision. Progress has already been made on this with the publication of a Government Green Paper.

So it was significant that Labour felt it important to clearly state their position on immigration and nationality issues, which had been altered under the Thatcher government with the British Nationality Act 1981.

I thought it would an interesting exercise to highlight what Labour said on these issues in 1983 and briefly analyse what was being proposed. In particular, I am interested in contrasting what they promised in 1983 with their track record on immigration issues while they were in power between 1974 and 1979. I understand that the 1983 manifesto represents a significant shift in the policies of the Labour Party and that many saw it as a symbolic turn from the Wilson/Callaghan years, but four years out of power and a manifesto full of promises could not override the actions of the government while Labour were in power.

So here it is:

Nationality and immigration

Through their immigration and nationality laws, the Tories have divided families and caused immense suffering in the immigrant communities. We accept the need for immigration controls. But we will repeal the 1971 Immigration Act and the 1981 British Nationality Act and replace them with a citizenship law that does not discriminate against either women or black and Asian Britons.

Under our Nationality Act, we will restore rights removed by the Tories, such as the right to automatic citizenship if born in Britain. The Act will enable other Commonwealth and foreign nationals to acquire citizenship if they qualify by objective tests, and provide a right of appeal against the refusal of an application for citizenship. We will also ensure that the cost of acquiring citizenship will no longer be an obstacle to those who wish to apply.

Under our new Immigration Act we will liberalise the age limit criteria for children and the criteria for elderly parents and other relatives. We will simplify the procedures and commit the resources necessary for all applications to be processed promptly; and allow medical examinations, including x-rays, only for medical,
not administrative purposes. The race and sex discrimination in the husbands and fiances’ rules will be ended: we will restore the entitlement to admission to join a woman settled here irrespective of her citizenship, birthplace or ancestry. We will also ensure that immigration officials fully respect the human rights of those
seeking entry. We will also:

  • Consult Commonwealth governments so as to resolve the question of the other British nationals from independent countries who possess no other citizenship.
  • Provide a right of appeal for those who the Home Secretary proposes to deport or exclude on security grounds.
  • Establish a more independent and balanced panel of adjudicators for immigration appeals.
One of the many pamphlets that exposed the difficulties faced by migrant families trying to enter the UK in the 1970s and 1980s
One of the many pamphlets that exposed the difficulties faced by migrant families trying to enter the UK in the 1970s and 1980s

The Immigration Act 1971 was introduced by the Heath Government. Labour had promised to repeal the Act in the 1974 election campaigns, but did not do so when they won government in October 1974. In many ways, it was more severely enforced under Labour, who, even then, were worried about looking ‘weak’ on the issue of immigration.

It is true that under the Conservatives, there were many divided families as a result of British immigration laws (as the Anwar Ditta case shows), but this started much earlier than 1979. Immigrant groups, such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Runnymede Trust, produced several reports that demonstrated that throughout the 1970s, families (particularly those from South Asia, who made up the majority of permanent migrants in the 1970s and early 1980s) had to go through an arduous journey of applications, interviews and background checks in the hope of joining family members already residing in the UK. For those who were successful, an average waiting time was about 18 months for entry clearances to be granted, but a significant number were denied entry into the country. A 1978 report by the Runnymede Trust also stated that of those rejected, most were indeed ‘genuine’ applicants, but fell foul of the bureaucratic immigration control system for a variety of insignificant reasons (of the 55 cases analysed by the Trust, only one was found to be ‘bogus’). More on this can be found in this paper.

We have found from our research into Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers at the National Archives that despite any public pronouncements made about ‘simplifying’ immigration procedures, the government were unwilling to commit further financial resources to reduce the waiting times of those applying to enter the UK and maintained that strict bureaucratic measures were required to detect ‘bogus’ migrants.

The mention of x-rays (as well as the age limits of children) relates to the practice employed by the immigration control system of using wrist x-rays to determine the age of teenage children applying to migrate to the UK. The publicisation of the practice in 1979 led to an inquiry by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees, being conducted on the medical examination of immigrants. A report produced by Yellowlees in 1980 argued that this practice should be continued, but in early 1982, Yellowlees reversed his previous decision and Willie Whitelaw announced that x-rays would no longer be used for the determination of age.

Although the immigration rules and practices under Labour did discriminate against female migrants (see an outline of our work on this topic here), this discrimination was strengthened under the Tories in 1981. But it is also worth noting that Labour considered a proposal to put a quota on dependents (i.e. wives/fiancees and children) seeking to join family members already residing the UK while in power in the 1970s (even though it was eventually rejected as a costly and discriminatory proposal). Also based on the abhorrent practices undertaken by the immigration control system under Labour, it is interesting to see Labour promised to ‘fully respect the human rights of those seeking entry’.

The 1983 manifesto might have been a step forward for Labour, but the memory of Labour’s record on immigration while in power would have been hard to erase, particularly for those who were victims of the discriminatory practices that occurred during the 1970s. Whether they would have had the conviction to implement these promises is a moot point, but the promises made in 1983 were probably the most progressive made by the Labour Party since the introduction of immigration controls in 1962 and would be in stark contrast to what Labour proposes today.


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