The ‘Smethwick Problem’ in 2010: Labour, Immigration and Responding to Electoral Defeat

This is a draft paper that I wrote in early 2012 for a proposed collection on social democracy and labour politics in Australia and Britain in the 21st century. However this proposed collection seems not to have taken off and I thought I’d post it here, partially in response to Ed Miliband’s comments last week that (again) Labour would curb immigration if elected in 2015. The paper is a bit rough and ends with events in mid-2012, so it doesn’t address the issue of UKIP that has emerged in the last year. I’m not sure what to do with it at the moment, but would welcome any feedback. 

The candidates for Labour leadership in 2010 - only Diane Abbott refrained from blaming immigration for Labour's poor result
The candidates for Labour leadership in 2010 – only Diane Abbott refrained from blaming immigration for Labour’s poor result in the previous election

There is consensus amongst most people that Labour’s performance at the UK 2010 General Election was quite dismal. The Labour Party achieved its lowest share of the vote since 1983 (and its second lowest since 1918) and received a lower share than the Conservatives did in the 1997 Election that saw Tony Blair and New Labour come to power.[1] Like the last years of the Conservatives’ 18 year stint in government under John Major, there was a perception that Labour had run out of steam and the Blairite hegemony amongst the Party elites was unable to deal with the multitude of problems facing Britain, while appearing ‘unconcerned’ about these problems and the effects they would have upon the British public. As Thomas Quinn has written, ‘Labour was punished for its staleness but also for the perception that it was increasingly out of touch with voters’ concerns.’[2] In the aftermath of the Party’s defeat, this idea of the chasm between the Party, its supporters and the greater population was continuously referred to.

In announcing his bid for Labour leadership, Ed Miliband admitted, ‘the reason our party lost so many voters is that people thought we had lost a sense of who we stand up for… People felt we lost our way.’[3] In an interview with all five Labour leadership candidates in The Independent, Miliband again stated, ‘[w]e lost touch with ordinary working people’, while Andy Burnham said something similar: ‘Over time, we became dangerously disconnected from ordinary people and those who had voted for us in 1997. It looked too often as though we stopped listening’.[4] Alongside housing, jobs and wages, both Miliband and Burnham mentioned immigration as an issue that ‘ordinary people’ felt let down on by Labour. From the last days of the election onwards and throughout the subsequent Labour leadership campaign (and even beyond), immigration and multiculturalism became, for many, one of the primary reasons why Labour lost the 2010 election.

Three out of the five Labour leadership candidates raised immigration as an important issue that they believed had cost Labour votes in the election. Ed Miliband, in his announcing his candidacy, stated that the British people ‘thought we didn’t take seriously enough the impact they felt immigration was having on their wages and livelihoods.’[5] Ed Balls said on the BBC’s Politics Show that he believed that Gordon Brown should have been talking about immigration, but had made ‘a mistake by brushing it under the carpet’.[6] With regards to migration from Eastern Europe within the EU boundaries, Balls wrote in The Observer that because of migration from new EU countries ‘there has… been a direct impact on the wages, terms and conditions of too many people – in communities ill-prepared to deal with the reality of globalisation’.[7] Balls, in seeking ‘to rebuild trust with the British people’, stated that Labour had got it wrong about migration from the enlarged EU, declaring that ‘[I]n retrospect, Britain should not have rejected transitional controls on migration from the first wave of new EU member states in 2004’.[8] Despite calling for Labour to return to its socialist roots and embrace the idea of ‘aspirational socialism’,[9] Andy Burnham emphasised immigration in his campaign to be Labour Party leader. Burnham stated in an interview with The Guardian that Labour needed to reconnect with people over the issue of immigration, saying that there was a ‘strong feeling… that we had our fingers in our ears and our hands over our eyes.’[10] In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Burnham expanded upon this further:

We were in denial. We were behind the issue all the time, and myths were allowed to develop. There’s still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration. I’ve been accused of dog-whistle politics for doing so… But it was the biggest doorstep issue in constituencies where Labour lost. People aren’t racist, but they say it has increased tension, stopped them getting access to housing and lowered their wages.[11]

Other Labour Party figures who weren’t running to become Party leader spoke in similar terms. Liam Byrne wrote in a pamphlet for Labour ginger group Progress that ‘[i]mmigration and welfare reform came up on doorstep after doorstep.’[12] Labour Peer Maurice Glasman called immigration ‘the big monster we don’t like to talk about’ and said that the issue was discussed in a ‘very supercilious, high-handed way’, with ‘no public discussion of immigration and its benefits’.[13] Glasman claimed, ‘Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration and the extent of illegal immigration’, which led to ‘a massive rupture of trust’.[14]

Diane Abbott was one of two Labour leadership candidates that did not focus on immigration in their bid to be Party leader (David Miliband was rather silent on the issue, although he did talk about the negative aspects of globalisation, which can be interpreted as veiled comments about migration by looking at Ball’s statement above). Abbott stated:

One of the things that made me run was hearing candidate after candidate saying that immigration lost us the election… Rather than wringing our hands about the white working class and immigration, we need to deal with the underlying issues that make white and black people hostile to immigration: things like housing and job security.[15]

There seem to be four main points that can be made about Labour’s electoral fortunes and the issues of immigration and ‘race’:

  • Despite Labour Party figures claiming that immigration was the biggest issue for many of its constituents and amongst its traditional supporters, studies have shown that the largest issue by far in the 2010 election was the economy and the recession that Britain faced.
  • Much of the discussion around immigration and its relationship to the economy (in terms of jobs, wages and public spending) seemed to be disconnected from Labour’s policy record and the history of New Labour’s time in power – many of the outcomes of Labour’s policies on immigration and ‘race relations’ could be described as discriminatory and racist, while the real reasons for the decline in employment, working conditions, wages and public spending can be attributed to New Labour’s pursuit of neo-liberal policy.
  • There was an assumption that a shift to the right on issues such as immigration and multiculturalism could attract disaffected voters who may have supported the Conservatives, the UK Independence Party or the British National Party, but in practice, it was difficult for Labour to outflank these parties to the right.
  • In pursuing these right-leaning voters, while also engaging in war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic ‘War on Terror’ and other neo-liberal economic plans, Labour’s traditional support base has been in danger of being lost, fragmenting into support for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens Party, the Scottish National Party, or Plaid Cymru.

As Richard Seymour wrote in The Guardian, ‘New Labour’s triangulations ended up reinforcing rightwing beliefs and drove public opinion sharply to the right over the last decade’, but in the end, ‘[t]he major beneficiary of this has not been Labour, far less the constituencies that labour ostensibly exists to serve.’[16]

‘The biggest doorstep issue’

As mentioned above, there was a perception amongst Labour politicians that immigration was one of the key issues that voters wanted to discuss in the 2010 General Election campaign, and connected to this was the notion that Labour under Gordon Brown had tried to evade discussing the issue. One of the moments of the election campaign that crystallised this way of thinking was ‘Duffygate/Bigotgate’, when an elderly women (Mrs Gillian Duffy) in Northern England asked Gordon Brown about Eastern European migration and Brown was secretly recorded by Sky News calling her a ‘bigot’. Ed Balls, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, said that her concerns about ‘immigration, education and housing’ were ‘the very same concerns of Labour voters in my West Yorkshire constituency’ and had ‘talked to hundreds and hundreds’ of Mrs Duffys during the campaign.[17] Talking about Brown’s apparent dismissal of Mrs Duffy, Balls stated, ‘[i]n that moment Mrs Duffy captured our reality. Too many people believed we’d stopped talking their language. We can’t win again if we ignore people like her’.[18] There was a belief that calling people ‘bigoted’ or ‘racist’ for holding discriminatory views on immigration demonstrated a disconnect between the ‘white working class’ and the Labour Party and that this incident would highlight what Party figures actually thought of ‘ordinary people’ and thus discourage potential or traditional Labour voters from voting for them in the election. However Steven Fielding has argued that ‘[m]emorable it might have been… how far “bigotgate” hurt Labour’s performance is moot’ as ‘[m]ost of those who disliked Brown had already made up their minds; and Labour -without Duffy – even managed to win Rochdale, from the Liberal Democrats.’[19]

'Bigotgate': When Gordon Brown met Ms Duffy
‘Bigotgate’: When Gordon Brown met Ms Duffy

Still Duffy remained, for many Labour Party figures, the archetypal former Labour supporter and was used to encourage (and vindicate) the Party’s strategy of promotion of an anti-immigrationist agenda, often at the expense of connecting with other sections of the British population that might vote Labour. As Lynssey Hanley wrote in The Guardian, ‘Labour has become so fixated on the idea of Gillian Duffy represents their typical lost voter –  being white and working class and therefore a member of “the white working class” – that it refuses to acknowledge any others’.[20] Focusing on the white working class in this way had two effects – the first (which will be discussed later in this paper) is that this strategy alienates those who do not fit into this essentialised group who had traditionally supported Labour, such as Britain’s migrant communities, people involved in anti-racist campaigns and movements, and other progressive sections of  the working class; and secondly, it presumes that the outlook of the white working class is defined solely or primarily upon the idea of ‘race’. Richard Seymour has commented that this idea of the ‘white working class’ puts the emphasis on the notion of ‘white’ and maligns the traditional notion of the working class, so that when the word ‘class’ is mentioned, it is ‘heavily racialised’:

By adding the word ‘white’… the ‘working class’ becomes de-odorised, neutralised, cleansed of menacing cadences of militancy and leftism. It becomes an object of pathos and melancholia, inherently reactionary, and typified by the middle aged white male emoting about family and country… This sort of ‘working class’ is tame, dull, conformist, and deferential, but also vicious, sadistic, and vindictive. It is in this, and so many other ways, the ideal alibi for the Blairites.[21]

However this is far from reality and it is clear that Labour’s traditional working class base was much more diverse in its concerns. Several studies have shown that immigration was not the biggest issue in Labour heartlands in the 2010 election, with the primary issue raised by most people being issues linked to the economy and Global Financial Crisis. Don Flynn, Rob Ford and Will Somerville have showed that the issue of immigration was not a determining factor for many voters, with ‘MORI polling consistently show[ing] that immigration/asylum was not critical’ and ‘was the fourth priority in the election, behind the economy’, while ‘[p]olls for YouGov ranked immigration higher (the second most important issue) but it was still behind the economy’.[22] Flynn, Ford and Somerville have shown that according to polling, immigration was a bigger issue in the 2005 election, but ‘was a distant second to the economy in the 2010 election’, adding:

While immigration does seem to have influenced some voters, it is clear… that this election was treated by many more as a referendum on Labour’s performance in the economic crisis.[23]

The ‘Smethwick Problem’

The use of the term the ‘Smethwick Problem’ provides a historical context for Labour’s contemporary anxiousness about the issue of immigration and voter support as the issue has plagued Labour since the 1960s and has led to previous Labour politicians to believe that being ‘tough on immigration’ would be a vote-winner, often with very negative consequences for potential migrants trying to enter the country and the ethnic minority communities that already exist in the UK. Labour Minister Richard Crossman stated in 1975 that, ‘[e]ver since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear [for Labour] that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party’.[24]

The Conservatives had introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, which was the first piece of legislation that put restrictions upon Commonwealth immigration and while opposed by Labour at the time, by late 1963 (under the leadership of Harold Wilson) the Party had grown to accept the Act. However in the 1964 General Election, anti-immigration groups, often connected to local branches of the Conservative Party in the Midlands and the North, sought to portray Labour as pro-immigration. Conservative candidate  Peter Griffiths used the issue of immigration, supported by the Conservative Association, local anti-immigration advocates and fascist groups, to disrupt the traditional support for the Labour Party in Smethwick. The most notorious and infamous part of this campaign was the slogan, ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’, to which Griffiths commented, ‘I would not condemn anyone who said that. I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling’.[25] The Labour Party’s interpretation of the loss of Smethwick (a loss of 7.2 per cent against an average swing across the nation to Labour of 3.5 per cent)[26] was that support from the working class could be lost on the issue of immigration.

The traditional historical consensus has been that the Smethwick result was the impetus for Labour’s acceptance of restrictions upon black immigration, but recent scholarship, such as the work by Kathleen Paul, has asserted that these restrictive measures were ‘driven not by the explosion of “race and immigration” into the electoral arena but by imperatives internal to the governing elite’.[27] The notion of the Labour Party yielding in the face of racist public opinion has long been held, but as Kathleen Paul wrote, the concept of a ‘hostile public push[ing] an otherwise liberal administration toward ever greater “immigration” control’ is the ‘picture presented by policy makers themselves’.[28] Both Labour and the Conservatives had undertaken unofficial means to prevent black immigration into Britain in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s and by the 1960s reached a bi-partisan consensus that non-white immigration was a social, economic and political problem.

From the 1960s until the 1990s, the modus operandi for Labour was to oppose some of the excesses or explicitly discriminatory pieces of legislation concerning immigration and ‘race relations’ introduced by the Conservatives, but enforce this legislation (and restrict it even further) while in power. However by the time that New Labour came to power in 1997, Blair and the Labour leadership had conceded so much ground to the Conservatives on issues of immigration and asylum that it seemed to many observers that Labour was now embroiled in a contest with the Tories to ‘out-nasty’ each other. David Robinson noted that between 1997 and 2009, Labour ‘introduced no less than seven Parliamentary Acts on asylum and immigration’, striking an increasingly ‘populist’ tone.[29] As with many other of New Labour’s policies, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic ‘War on Terror’, increasing deregulation and privatisation and cuts in public spending, a shift to the right on issues of ‘race’ and immigration saw support amongst progressive working class and middle class voters move away from Labour towards other political parties, such as the Lib Dems, Respect and the Greens, or towards apathy.

Labour’s record on immigration and ‘race relations’

One of the biggest problems for Labour in the 2010 election was that the electorate generally believed that the Labour Party elite were out of touch and there was a disconnection between the public’s perception of Labour’s policy record and what Labour actually did while in power. As Stuart Hall has pointed out, New Labour quickly adapted itself to the prevailing Thatcherite hegemony and indulged in globalisation, market forces and other neo-liberal pursuits, which ‘deregulated labour and other markets, maintained restrictive trade union legislation and established weak and compliant regulatory regimes.’[30] The end result of this, particularly as the economy weakened in 2007-08, was a stagnation in wages, a collapse in job security, high unemployment, and cuts in public spending. Many on the right side of politics, along with the tabloid press, the anti-immigration lobby and various sections of wider society, saw this not as the result of New Labour’s neo-liberal economic agenda, but caused by migration, especially from the enlarged European Union and from ‘illegal’ immigrants. Labour politicians were happy to go along with this, all the while developing more discriminatory immigration, asylum and counter-terrorism legislation, but far from controlling the debate, Labour was continually chasing the lead by the press, the anti-immigration lobby and the Conservatives which kept pushing the discourse on migration and ‘race’ to the right. As Sean Carey and Andrew Geddes wrote, ‘[f]or the Labour Party, despite a bust – if not hyperactive – legislative schedule for immigration policy, there was a powerful perception that the party had failed on immigration’.[31]

Despite promising to repeal  racist immigration laws, immigration control tightened significantly under Tony Blair
Despite promising to repeal racist immigration laws, immigration control tightened significantly under Tony Blair

As discussed elsewhere, when Tony Blair came to power in May 1997 under the banner of ‘New Labour’ and a ‘New Life for Britain’, many believed that a Labour Government would design a more ‘humane’ immigration policy. Sarah Spencer has written, ‘Labour failed to shift the debate [on immigration and ‘race’] into more constructive territory in the early years when it had the greatest chance to succeed. When Blair left office, there was still no sign that it seriously intended to try.’[32] The reality is that despite some positive actions, such as establishing the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the strengthening of racial discrimination legislation, Labour policy often impacted unfairly upon migrants and ethnic minorities in Britain. This can be seen in restrictions placed upon non-EU migrants (particularly non-skilled migrants coming from developing countries, often in the hope of joining family members), the restrictions placed upon asylum seekers and potential refugees, and after 9/11, the counter-terrorism laws that targeted ethnic minorities, often without legal recourse. As George Joffe wrote, ‘[t]he Labour government in Britian since 1997 has, sadly, often yielded to and exploited popular prejudice to its own [I would perceived] electoral benefit, particularly when confronted with political parties to its right which seek even more extreme outcomes.’[33]

But Labour’s record of being ‘tough on immigration’ has not won it support from those most likely to be opposed to immigration, but has given credence to those parties to the right of Labour who were more explicit in putting forward an anti-immigration agenda, such as the Conservatives, UKIP and the BNP. New Labour’s continued promotion of negative discourses of immigration and ‘race relations’ as the norm allowed others, in Parliament, in the press and in extra-parliamentary circles, to advocate more extreme, and often more explicitly racist, positions. But the Party continued to indulge in this discourse because it seemed to be an issue of concern with the kind of people that New Labour sought after – however not much attention was paid to thinking about whether these people were ever likely to vote Labour or the downside to pursuing these ‘potential’ voters.

Trying to out-right the right-wing

Alongside ‘Duffygate’, one of the controversial incidents revolving around the issue of immigration and the Labour Party in the 2010 election campaign was Phil Woolas’ negative and dishonest campaign against his Liberal Democrat competition in the seat of Oldham. Woolas had, at one stage, been Immigration Minister for the Labour Government, and had previously stated that Labour’s ‘prime purpose’ was ‘reassuring the public’ that the Government was in control of its immigration policy, admitting, ‘’[y]ou can only stop it being seen as a problem when you can convince the public you’re in control of it, and that’s my goal.’[34] According to the judgement against Woolas by Mr Justice Teare in the subsequent court case that stripped the former Immigration Minister of his seat, Woolas had stated in an election address that the Lib Dem candidate had ‘attempted to woo… the electoral support of Muslims who advocated violence, in particular violence against the respondent [Woolas]’ and further, had claimed that the Lib Dem candidate had ‘refused to condemn extremists who advocated [this] violence’.[35] Woolas was found guilty of knowingly making false statements about a competing candidate, which contravened the Representation of the People Act 1983, and was removed from his seat in Parliament. In the judgement by Justice Teare, it was stated that Woolas believed that immigration ‘was the second biggest issue after the economy’ and that Woolas’ adviser wrote in internal correspondence that ‘[i]f we don’t get the white folk angry he’s gone’.[36] Another one of Woolas’ advisers wrote to Woolas’ team (including Woolas himself) that the their campaign was to ‘galvinise (sic) the white Sun-reading voters.’[37]

Cynically, this may have won voters away from the Liberal Democrats towards Labour, but as an overall strategy, a promise by Labour to be ‘tough on immigration’ could not be effective when compared the immigration policies of the Conservatives (or the even more anti-immigrationist UKIP or the BNP). Although Labour’s record on immigration and ‘race relations’ has been quite discriminatory and ‘racist’, the composition, political outlook and traditions of the Labour Party ensure that there are at least some checks and balances on the Party’s immigration policies (such as the Party’s ‘broad church’ membership, its ties to the trade union movement, its centrist political outlook and social democratic traditions). The Conservatives, on the other hand, have few less qualms with taking a hard line on immigration issues, and for the section of the British population who viewed immigration as an issue of primary importance, voting for the Conservatives. UKIP or the BNP was more likely than for Labour. Editor of the Labour Uncut blog, Dan Hodges, a self-confessed ‘Blairite’, quoted a Conservative Shadow Minister as expressing a similar point, ‘Does Peter Mandelson [one of the key Blairite image-makers of New Labour] really think he can make the Conservative Party look weak on immigration? If you keep talking up the issue, the only winners will be us and the BNP’.[38]

One of the offending leaflets distributed by Woolas during the 2010 election
One of the offending leaflets distributed by Woolas during the 2010 election

Putting all your voters in one basket

Since the 1980s, one of the key priorities of the Labour Party has been to seek support from those who had traditionally voted for the Conservatives, primarily the middle class and those in the south-east of England. Labour did this by distancing itself from its social democratic and labour movement roots, its agenda re-shaped by accepting the ‘inevitabilities’ of the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism. Labour pursued this new political platform under the assumption that its traditional working class support base would not desert it. However the neo-liberal policies of New Labour did decimate its support amongst the working class and as the paper has argued, that Labour sought to re-connect with these people by ‘talking tough’ on immigration and ‘race’. But this did not work. Between the 2005 and 2010 elections, support for Labour amongst ‘C2s’ (traditionally viewed as skilled manual workers) dropped from 43 per cent to 23 per cent.[39]

And while New Labour stuck to its neo-liberal agenda to win support from the middle class and those in the Home Counties, and at the same time, attempted to win support from sections of the working class by focusing on the issue of immigration, the strategies also served to alienate other potential Labour Party supporters. As Flynn, Ford and Somerville explain, ‘Labour’s voting coalition is diverse, and includes important groups of voters who are either unconcerned about migration or worried about the discriminatory effects of “tough” migration policies.’[40] Being “tough” on immigration, alongside Labour’s neo-liberal economic record, its reactionary social justice initiatives and foreign policy disasters (such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan), are all possible reasons why traditional ‘progressive’ Labour supporters shifted towards the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and in Scotland and Wales, the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru (or did not vote at all).

John Ross, a former advisor to Ken Livingstone and socialist economist, demonstrated from a rudimentary longitudinal study of voter behaviour since the 1966 election that, in the long-term, Labour’s votes have gone primarily to the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.[41] In the 2010 election, as well as losing seats to the Conservatives, Labour lost five seats to the Liberal Democrats, one to the Greens and one to Plaid Cymru.[42]  David Denver has summarised that ‘Labour’s fortunes were most strongly linked to the ups and downs of the Liberal Democrats’,[43] while Ross has concluded:

Posed in terms of values the conclusion… is equally clear. Conservative values have not shown themselves attractive to former Labour supporters at all… It is Liberal Democrat and Scottish and Welsh nationalist values that have shown themselves attractive to Labour voters.[44]

The anti-immigration discourse fostered by Labour also has the potential to alienate supporters in the migrant communities, but this had already begun with the 2005 General Election. The Iraq War and subsequent ‘War on Terror’, as well as other ‘race relations’ and immigration issues, saw, as Susan Watkins put it, the ‘once-loyal Muslim vote’ swing away from New Labour, with a drop from 53 per cent of Muslim voters backing Labour in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2005.[45] In 2010, Watkins wrote that ‘Muslims “came home” to new Labour by 13 points’, with ‘its share of their vote… up to 38 per cent’. But this still far from Labour’s 2001 percentage figure.[46]

A Labour recovery?

Many commentators have pointed to recent by-elections and local elections to demonstrate that there is hope for Labour yet, but there is still the issue of trying to reconnect with the traditional support base of the working class. Just as the Labour leadership campaign led to a discussion about Labour’s supposed failings on the issue of immigration, there are some within the Party still pushing for greater emphasis on these issues. One of the pushes in this direction was Lord Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ initiative. In an interview with Mary Riddell for the Fabian Review, Glasman called for the restriction of immigration to a few ‘necessary’ vocations and a re-interrogation of  the movement of labour within the EU, and if that meant stopping immigration almost completely for a certain period, Glasman agreed with the sentiment of ‘so be it’, adding ‘[t]he people who live here are the highest priority.’[47] Glasman also blamed progressive liberal politics for ‘the generation of far-right populism’ and called for Labour to ‘build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL [English Defence League] within our party.’[48] Many activists within and outside the Labour Party have argued that Labour should not engage with the EDL, and promote a policy of ‘no platform’ against the far-right group. Labour did have a policy of ‘no platform’, established in 1978, implemented in response to the rise of the National Front and this was (more or less) enforced until Jack Straw appeared on BBC’s Question Time opposite the BNP’s Nick Griffin in October 2009.[49] Traditional anti-fascist action taken by the left (including members of the Labour Party) has been to deny far-right and fascist groups the space to promote and organise, while attacking the underlying socio-economic conditions that create support for these groups. Glasman’s advice would seem to validate the distorted worldview of the far-right as ‘reasonable’ grievances and provide oxygen to these groups, rather than its implied intention of siphoning off those attracted to far-right politics back into the Labour Party fold.

A possible vindication of a strategy of rejecting a negative discourse on immigration and ‘race’ for Labour is the by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, created by Phil Woolas losing his seat. Labour’s Debbie Abrahams ran on an anti-cuts campaign against the Con-Dem coalition (consciously avoiding the racial politics employed by Woolas) and increased Labour’s majority over the Liberal Democrats in the seat from a mere 183 to over 3,500. The Conservatives put forward a candidate, but there was much speculation that the Conservatives campaigned for a Lib Dem vote to have a realistic chance at beating Labour. It seems that by focusing on economics and the issue of spending cuts, rather than immigration, Labour have been able to rally support and weaken shifts from Labour to the Liberal Democrats.

The recent victory by former Labour MP George Galloway in Bradford West also has ramifications for Labour’s electoral politics and the issues of immigration and ‘race’. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and his vocal opposition to the War, George Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party and formed Respect with other elements of the anti-war movement, most prominently the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).[50] In the 2010 election, Galloway decided to give up his seat in Bethnal Green and ran against Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick in Limehouse and Poplar, losing considerably, and then tried again unsuccessfully in the 2011 Scottish elections in his former town of Glasgow. His poor results in both elections made people very sceptical about his chances in the by-election in Bradford West, with Labour relying on long established local councillor, Imran Hussain (also a member of Bradford’s South Asian community), to take over from Marsha Singh, who had held the seat for Labour since 1997. Labour had actually held the seat since 1974 and with its long incumbency and their candidate’s ties to the local Asian communities (which makes up more than a third of the population in the district), retaining the seat seemed most likely. However, as Lewis Baston from LSE has written, this seat ‘produced one of the most astonishing by-election results in British history’.

Galloway won the seat with a turnout of over 50 percent (exceptionally high for a by-election) and with a 10,000 vote lead over the Labour candidate. Many commentators have  argued that Galloway only won because of his pandering to ‘communalism’, by relying on votes from the Pakistani/Muslim communities in the electoral district, although Medhi Hasan in the New Statesman stated that a similarly high number of Muslims live in Limehouse and Poplar and this hadn’t won many votes for Galloway there.[51] Sunny Handal made a similar point on the Liberal Conspiracy blog:

Just because British Muslims vote for a man in Bradford doesn’t make it sectarian: they are British citizens too. After all, British Muslims rejected George Galloway in Tower Hamlets not long ago.[52]

While the Muslim population in Bradford West is high, there are also other demographic factors that may have played a part. Barton notes that a large section of the population in the district is under-25 (and therefore less likely to vote for the traditional two major parties) and that youth unemployment, seen as a problem created by both Labour and the Conservatives, is extremely high in Bradford. From these two demographic grouplets, Respect was able to mobilise in particular young Muslim women to canvas for Galloway during the campaign and this was seen as an antidote to Labour’s reliance on the patriarchal community structures of the elders of the Asian community. As Helen Pidd wrote in The Guardian, ‘[w]hile Galloway recruited an army of women in niqabs and hijabs to talk to their sisters in Urdu and Gujarati, male Labour canvassers were knocking on doors and asking grown women if their husbands were in.’[53]

It must also be noted that in district wards where there were the ‘white’ population was the large majority, Galloway still won the vote by a considerable margin. Galloway’s victory has shown that minority parties can tap into the votes offered by the ethnic communities who have traditionally voted for Labour, and can also rely on a substantial amount of votes from the working class, as well as progressives and sections of the middle class. (Although since Galloway’s victory, his comments about Julian Assange and Syria (to name a few) have managed to estrange many progressive supporters, as well as members of Respect, such as Yaqoob, Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin) Perhaps the overwhelming lesson for Labour is in the case of Bradford West, but also in how they approach the issues of immigration and ‘race’ in the broader sense, is that they cannot rely on their traditional voter base to support them unquestioningly.


 Undue focus has been placed upon the issue of ‘race’ and immigration by Labour Party figures, both in the 2010 election campaign and the following discussion as to why Labour lost the election. The issue of immigration has been identified by some within Labour as a perceived area of weakness, compared with the Conservatives, and also an issue that can be exploited to win back the ‘white working class’ to the Party. I have tried to argue that this is an unwise strategy and does not address the reasons why Labour has lost so many of its supporters. Firstly, immigration was not the major concern for voters at the 2010 election, with the primary issue amongst voters being the dire economic situation in Britain. Secondly, Labour’s actual record on immigration and ‘race relations’ over its 13 years in power had been in practice quite discriminatory and ‘tough’ on certain migrant groups, but this had not drawn support towards the Party, but had seen the rise of groups on the far right, who were able to capitalise on increasing anti-immigrationist sentiment. Thirdly, although the Labour’s record on immigration and ‘race’ was quite deplorable, its composition, outlook and traditions prevent it from competing seriously on this issue with the Conservatives, who are able to shift much further to the right on the issue and can always make Labour look weak on it. Lastly, while trying to win supporters from the Conservatives and the right with a mixture of neo-liberalism, social populism and racism, Labour has left its guard down concerning other sections of society who have traditionally support Labour, with many potential voters to other parties, such as the Lib Dems (before the coalition), the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The answer for the moment seems to be that Labour should not be focussing on issues of immigration, but mounting a serious anti-cuts campaign and addressing socio-economic issues. 

I presented a version of this paper the week after Ed Miliband announced that Labour had ‘got it wrong’ on the issue of immigration while in office, which seemed to signal that Labour were still in the mindframe that immigration was an issue that had lost them voters and that could win them back in 2015. Since then, Miliband has routinely come back to the idea that (the supposedly lax) immigration policy under Labour has been a ‘mistake’ and that Labour would toughen up on the issue if they won the next election. 

What has complicated this further is the fear of UKIP by both Labour and the Conservatives. UKIP’s relative ‘success’ at the local government level, as well as in some by-elections, has scared the Tories into adopting even tougher immigration policies and initiatives and there is the danger that Labour could follow suit. 

However the remarks by Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, at this week’s Labour Conference is encouraging that Labour might resist lurching further to the right. But that still is a big MIGHT at this stage…

Yvette Cooper
Yvette Cooper at the 2013 Labour Conference


[1] Thomas Quinn, ‘From New Labour to New Politics: The British general Election of 2010’, West European Politics, 34/2 (March 2011) 408; John Curtice, ‘A Return to Two-Party Politics? Lessons from the 2011 Local and Devolved Elections’, Public Policy Research (Jun-Aug 2011) 88.

[2] Quinn, ‘From New Labour to New Politics’, 408.

[3] Cited in, ‘Ed Miliband: We need to get back in touch with people we stand up for’, Daily Mirror (17 May, 2010)

[4] Cited in, ‘You Ask the Questions Special: The Labour Leadership Candidates’, The Independent (28 August, 2010)

[5] Cited in, ‘Ed Miliband’

[6] Cited in, Nicholas Watt, ‘Ed Balls Attacks Gordon Brown Over Unheeded Immigration Advice’, The Guardian (6 June, 2010)

[7] Ed Balls, ‘We Were Wrong To Allow So Many Eastern Europeans Into Britain’, The Observer (6 June, 2010)

[8] Balls, ‘We Were Wrong To Allow So Many Eastern Europeans Into Britain’,

[9] Cited in, Allegra Stratton, ‘Andy Burnham’s Labour Leadership Bid Based on a Return to Socialist Values’, The Guardian (1 July, 2010)

[10] Cited in, Stratton, ‘Andy Burnham…’

[11] Cited in, Mary Riddell, ‘Andy Burnham Interview: New Expenses Regime “is Tormenting MPs”’, Daily Telegraph (27 May, 2010)

[12] Liam Byrne, Why did Labour Lose and How Do We Win Again, Progress pamphlet, London (2010) 17.

[13] Cited in, Robert Philpot, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, Progress Magazine (April 2011)

[14] Cited in, Philpot, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’,

[15] Cited in, John Harris, ‘Labour’s New Motto: Immigration, Immigration, Immigration’, The Guardian (21 May, 2010)

[16] Richard Seymour, ‘Authoritarianism and Free-Market Orthodoxy in Liam Byrne’s Welfare Ideas’, The Guardian (4 January, 2012)

[17] Cited in, Brian Reade, ‘Ed Balls Interview: How School Bullies Toughened Me Up to Fight the Tories’, Daily Mirror (14 June, 2010)

[18] Cited in, Reade, ‘Ed Balls Interview’

[19] Steven Fielding, ‘Labour’s Campaign: Things Can Only Get… Worse?’, Parliamentary Affairs, 63/4 (2010) 662..

[20] Lynssey Hanley, ‘Labour Must Bury Working-Class Conservatism, Not Praise It’, The Guardian (19 April, 2011)

[21] Richard Seymour, ‘The English Ideology III: The “White Working Class”’, Lenin’s Tomb (21 April, 2011)

[22] Don Flynn, Rob Ford & Will Somerville, ‘Immigration and the Election’, Renewal, 18/3-4 (2010) 105.

[23] Flynn, Ford & Somerville, ‘Immigration and the Election’, 109.

[24] Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol. 1: Minister of Housing 1964-66, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1975, 149-150

[25] Cited in, Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country: Racism and British Politics, Pluto Press, London, 1984, 49

[26] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, 50

[27] Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1997, 177-178

[28] K. Paul, Whitewashing Britain, 177

[29] David Robinson, ‘Migration in the UK: Moving Beyond Numbers’, People, Place & Policy Online, 4/1, 2010, 15,

[30] Stuart Hall, ‘New Labour Has Picked Up Where Thatcherism Left Off’, The Guardian (6 August, 2003)

[31] Sean Carey & Andrew Geddes, ‘Less is More: Immigration and European Integration at the 2010 General Election’, Parliamentary Affairs, 63/4 (2010) 850.

[32] Sarah Spencer, ‘Immigration’, in Anthony Seldon (ed.), Blair’s Britain:1997-2007 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007) 360.

[33] George Joffe, ‘“Building a Safe, Just and Tolerant Society”: British Attitudes Towards Asylum and Migration’, EUI Working Papers, RSCAS 2008/11, p. 11,

[34] Cited in, Patrick Berkham, ‘Phil Woolas’ Immigration Stance: You Can’t Come In’, The Guardian (18 November, 2008)

[35] Mr Justice Teare, cited in ‘Phil Woolas Immigration Leaflets Case: The Full Judgement’, The Guardian (5 November, 2010)

[36] Judgment by Mr Justice Teare, Watkins v Woolas [2010] EWHC 2702 (QB) 147

[37] Judgment by Mr Justice Teare, Watkins v Woolas [2010] EWHC 2702 (QB) 151

[38] Cited in, Dan Hodges, ‘We Should All Be in the Dock on Immigration’, Labour Uncut (19 August, 2010)

[39] Byrne, Why Did Labour Lose, 9.

[40] Flynn, Ford & Somerville, ‘Immigration and the Election’, 108.

[41] John Ross, ‘The Electoral Myths of “Blue Labour”’, Socialist Economic Bulletin (26 July, 2010)

[42] David Denver, ‘The Results: How Britain Voted’, Parliamentary Affairs, 63/4 (2010) 593.

[43] Denver, ‘The Results’, 597.

[44] Ross, ‘The Electoral Myths of “Blue Labour”’

[45] Susan Watkins, ‘Blue Labour?’, New Left Review 63 (May/June 2010) 11.

[46] Watkins, ‘Blue Labour?’, 11.

[47] Cited in, Mary Riddell, ‘Way to Blue’, Fabian Review (Summer 2011) 8.

[48] Cited in, Philpot, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’,

[49] Thanks to Nigel Copsey for this information.

[50] See: Timothy Peace, ‘All I’m Asking, Is For A Little Respect: Assessing the Performance of Britain’s Most Successful Radical Left Party’, Parliamentary Affairs, 66/2, 2013, 405-424

[51] Medhi Hasan, ‘Galloway’s Victory: Everyone’s an Expert’, New Statesman (30 March, 2012)

[52] Sunny Handal, ‘What George Galloway’s Victory In Bradford Does and Doesn’t Tell Us’, Liberal Conspiracy (30 March, 2012)

[53] Helen Pidd, ‘Ed Miliband Begins Mission to Woo Back Bradford’, The Guardian (10 June, 2012)

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