Britain-EEC/EU relations

The last time the government evoked the ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan

The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd has, in the wake of Brexit, evoked the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, which has been used in the past by Gordon Brown in 2007 and by the British National Party and the National Front in the 1980s. While she has been heavily criticized for her statements, this is an on-going issue. The following is from a 2010 book chapter on discourses of ‘race’ and immigration in the UK under Thatcher and New Labour, which looks at the last time the slogan was widely used – at strikes in 2009 where a section of the British labour movement embraced Euroscepticism. In the aftermath of Brexit, these strikes reveal some of the debates that the left were unwilling to have about the EU, European workers and a consistent anti-racism.


In their 2009 European Parliament elections, UKIP gained 16.5 percent of the vote and thirteen seats,[i] heavily campaigning for withdrawal from the EU and limiting immigration from Europe. Their campaign document for the European Parliament elections, intertwining opposition to the EU with an anti-immigration position, declared:

Our membership of the European Union is already costing jobs in the UK. Major construction projects now hire many of their staff overseas, with British workers not even having the opportunity to apply…

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves. We can only do this outside of the EU political union. The open-door immigration policy has been voted against by only one party–UKIP.[ii]

The 2009 European Parliament elections saw a swing by British voters, albeit a low voter turnout, to the right, with the explicitly Eurosceptic and anti-immigrationist UKIP and the British National Party (BNP) gaining votes and/or seats, and the Conservatives, with a more toned down rhetoric on Europe and immigration, winning a majority of British seats.[iii] However anti-EU politics are not always defined by the right, with the Labour Party until the era of New Labour traditionally opposing British involvement in the forerunners of the EU, and are not always linked to anti-immigrationist politics. The labour movement has also traditionally opposed British entry into Europe, viewing the EU and its predecessors as a capitalist super state that allows the flow of economic benefits into the hands of a supra-national ruling capitalist class and away from the working classes.

The 2009 European Parliament election also saw the creation of a new left-wing anti-EU party, the No2EU: Yes to Democracy party, which sought to promote withdrawal from the EU on less nationalist and xenophobic grounds, but did not make much ground against the Eurosceptic right. No2EU had originally emerged from a crisis in the British labour movement over the free movement of labour within the EU, with wildcat strikes breaking out across Britain in response to several companies employing non-union workers, primarily from Italy and Portugal. The aim of the strikes seemed to be quite varied, with a wider range of different organisations and interest groups intervening.[iv] Some saw the strike as a response to employers using non-union labour to drive down wages, while others focused on the supra-capitalist structures of the European Union.

But the most controversial element of the strike was the slogan, “British jobs for British workers”, used by some involved in the strike. This slogan had been first used by the National Front and the British National Party, but had been revived by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in several speeches in 2007, including the TUC Annual Conference and the Labour Party Conference.[v] The slogan was evoked by some rank-and-file striking workers,[vi] which drew fierce media attention to the strike and divided the labour movement over how to support the strike. The reluctance to explicitly support or condemn the strikers using the slogan can be seen in the comments from the trade unions involved. Derek Simpson, a joint leader of Unite, asserted that “[n]o European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job”, while General Secretary of the GMB, Paul Kenny said, “You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs”.[vii] TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber stated:

Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.[viii]

Some “distasteful elements”, such as the BNP, tried to make political capital out of the strikes, using the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in a council by-election in the ward of Newton Hyde in Greater Manchester. In May 2008, the BNP had polled 846 votes in the ward, compared to Labour’s vote of 1,124, and this gap of only 278 votes was expected to close as the economic downturn worsened and the BNP campaigned on the “British jobs” slogan.[ix] But this did not happen as the BNP vote increased marginally to 889 votes, but Labour’s majority soared to 1,379 votes.[x] James Purnell, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, which encompasses the Newton Hyde ward, said, “I think it’s a victory for hope and solidarity over people who want to bring division and hatred”.[xi] However four months later, the BNP had a surprising result in the European Parliament elections, winning two MEP seats for former National Front members Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, in the North West and Yorkshire, exploiting populist anxiety over immigration and the European Union. On the other hand, No2EU only managed to gain around 1 percent of the vote across Britain.[xii] What the wildcat strikes and the No2EU campaign demonstrated was that it is difficult to disentangle anti-EU politics from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric and left-wing, and generally anti-racist, opposition to the EU is a minor part of the discourse, unfortunately trumped by the right, who continue to dominate the discourses on immigration and the European Union.


[i] UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”, 17 July, 2009,, (accessed 30 November, 2009)

[ii] UKIP, “Campaign Policies Euro Elections 2009”

[iii] UKIP’s vote increased from 16.2 percent in 2004 to 16.5 percent in 2009, with 12 seats in 2004 and gaining one seat in 2009. The BNP gained two seats in the 2009 election, even though their overall vote declined. The Conservatives lost two seats in 2009, but still hold ten more seats than Labour with 25 seats and 27.7 percent of the vote. See: UK Office of the European Parliament, “Results of 2009 European Elections in the UK”; House of Commons, “European Parliament Elections 2004”, House of Commons Research Paper, 04/50, (London, 23 June, 2004) 11

[iv] See: Audrey Gillan & Andrew Sparrow, “Strikes Spread Across Britain as Oil Refinery Protest Escalates”, The Guardian, 30 January, 2009; “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009; Socialist Party, “Lindsey Refinery: Workers Show Their Strength”, The Socialist, 4 February, 2009; James Turley, “Critical Support for Wildcat Strikes”, Weekly Worker, 5 February, 2009, 4; “Blame the Bosses not ‘Foreign Workers’”, Socialist Worker, 7 February, 2009, 1, 3

[v] Vincent Keter, Government Policy on “British Jobs for British Workers”, House of Commons Library, (16 September, 2009) 2,, (accessed 4 December, 2009)

[vi] See:, (accessed 17 February, 2009)

[vii] Cited in, Unite, “Unite’s Three Point Plan for Dealing with the Current Wave of Unofficial Strike Action”, latest_news/unite_has_today_proposed_a_thr.aspx, (accessed 17 February 2009); “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[viii] Cited in, “This is a Strike Against Bosses”, Morning Star, 1 February, 2009

[ix] Jon Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”,, (accessed 8 February, 2009)

[x] J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xi] Cited in, J. Land, “Labour Sees Off BNP’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ By-Election Challenge”

[xii] “Crow’s No2EU Gain 153,000 Votes”, BBC News Online, 8 June, 2009,, (accessed 30 November, 2009)


New piece at History & Policy: Brexit, imperial nostalgia and the “white man’s world”

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 8.53.50 pm

This is just a quick note to let people know that the website History & Policy has published a piece by myself and Steven Gray (University of Portsmouth) on Brexit and imperial nostalgia for the ‘white man’s world’ of the former settler colonies. You can read the piece here.


Policing the Northern Irish border in the 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

With the debate about ‘Brexit’ heating up in the final week before the Referendum, there has been more and more debate about what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the British, Northern Irish and Irish authorities were also concerned about this border, and how travel across it would be monitored. The British were most concerned about potential terrorists crossing the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and Northern Irish terror suspects fleeing to the South. Throughout the 1970s, the British, as well as their local counterparts, attempted a series of different tactics to prevent border crossings, starting with an explicitly militarised approach to the experimentation with a more traditional immigration control system. As Vicki Conway wrote, it was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreements in the mid-1980s that the Irish border was effectively controlled from both the British and Irish sides.

Since partition in the 1920s, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (the Republic of Ireland after 1949) had been porous, with relatively free movement on both sides of the border. Before the outbreak of the conflict in August 1969, the only republican activity seen across the border area in the post-war era was the short-lived ‘border campaigns’ of the Irish Republican Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon after it began, the border area became a focal point of the conflict – for the movement of republican fighters between the North and the South, and for attacks by Republicans upon the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary patrols situated at the border. A 1971 report outlined the problem as such:

The security problem in Northern Ireland is influenced by the relative ease with which men with subversive intent, with or without arms, ammunition or explosives, can enter Northern Ireland; and wanted men can escape. The movement occurs over the land border with Eire; though normal sea and air points of entry into Northern Ireland; and by illegal movement by sea and air.[1]

In August 1970, a car bomb killed two RUC members at Crossmaglen, which resulted in a partial closure of the border, blocking ‘unapproved roads in South Armagh, Castlederg Salient and Londonderry [sic[ Salient’.[2] According to a 1971 report on the border closure, 51 roads were closed, using spikes, but over the next two months, there were 83 recorded incidents of the blocks being removed from 29 different roads.[3] The report found that:

Resistance to the blocks was so determined and the result so ineffective that it was decided to abandon the operation. Spikes and other blocks were gradually removed during the period Oct – Dec 1970, and the sites tidied up.

As the violence in Northern Ireland increased over the next few years, various sections of the British and Northern Irish authorities attempted to devise ways of preventing Republican fighters from crossing the border, or from attacking border patrols inside Northern Ireland. The British Army attempted to transform the border into a militarised checkpoint, relying on a combination of blocking off ‘unapproved’ roads and vehicle/personnel checks at others. Central to this was an emphasis on vehicle and identification checks. However there were several problems that the Army and the RUC encountered when trying to enforce this policy.

Firstly, they found that there was too much border to guard at one time. A 1973 Home Office report stated:

There are 303 miles of the border. There are 20 approved roads, 187 approved roads and 17 concession routes… The facilities for crossing the border are much greater than the number of cross-border roads. In particular there are 30 miles of water, numerous lanes and smugglers’ pads and border lands which are easily negotiable on foot.[4]

The Northern Ireland Office found that if the entire border was to be guarded, the burden would fall to the RUC and proposed ‘strict control along a limited sector only’, based on where the border was most likely to be traversed by ‘subversive’ elements.[5] Stormont’s Government Security Unit proposed in March 1972 that there were two solutions patrolling the entire border. The first option was a ‘sealing’ of the border, while the second was a partial prevention of entry, particularly along ‘unapproved’ roads.

‘Sealing’ the border was seen as the ‘nuclear’ option as it entailed converting the entire border into ‘a militarized frontier, with a continuous glacis, minefield or other impenetrable barrier under constant surveillance’.[6] ‘The only points of entry’, the Unit then proposed, ‘would then be by the way of the 20 approved crossings, with 100% checks on all persons, vehicles and loads’.[7] This was an extreme option and the Unit warned:

It may be necessary to bring home to members of Parliament and the public what the ‘sealing’ of the Border really implies. Any measures on the lines of those described would be enormously costly in time, money and manpower; they would involve a dislocation of all legitimate cross-Border activities; they would have to be supported by a defensive blockade of the entire coastline; and their political and economic implications would be entirely unacceptable within the context of [the] EEC.[8]

More favourable was the partial prevention of entry, which would mean the blocking of some more difficult to police roads and the interception of vehicles on the remaining roads. However this still presented problems, with the Unit stating that any road closures would need to be weighed against ‘the hardship likely to be caused, the resistance to be encountered and the tying down of manpower to ensure that closures remain effective.’[9] The Unit warned that partial closures still required a large amount of manpower to guard both the closed and open routes. Furthermore, it was warned that ‘[p]ermanent check-points at vehicle crossings [would] also present shop window targets’ for attacks by Republican fighters.[10]

With the focus on intercepting vehicles crossing the border and the use of checkpoints, there was also disagreement over how these interceptions would function. At first, there was a push for compulsory ID checks on all of those who crossed the border, but it was acknowledged that this was ‘a valuable aid to the identification of drivers, but that this did not help in relation to passengers’,[11] as non-drivers in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were not required to hold identification papers at all times. Adding to this was confusion amongst the different agencies over whether Republic of Ireland driver’s licenses had photographs or not.[12]

A proposed alternative to the checking of driver’s licenses was the checking of vehicle registration papers. However it was deemed that this raised too many obstacles, particularly as numerous vehicles crossing the border (delivery trucks, hire cars, etc) would not necessarily have these registration papers in the vehicle. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there was ‘a well-founded objection to keeping registration books in cars because both can be stolen together.’[13]

To get around these specific problems, it was floated whether all people living or working within a designated border zone could be issued with a special vehicle permit.[14] In the same document, it was suggested ‘if there is a case on security grounds for imposing this requirement, it should be applied over the whole province and not only in a specified border area.’[15] However with both suggestions, it was felt that this would be an onerous requirement and that permits could not quickly issued. The conclusion to these proposed checks was that ‘[t]he imposition of a requirement to carry vehicle documents would not necessarily bring about any substantial improvement in border security’ and that ‘[e]nforcement would present considerable difficulties’.[16]

Alongside the push for a greater insistence on documentation for those crossing the border, the Army also pushed for greater powers of search and seizure of suspected vehicles. As a 1973 Home Office document stated, ‘’[t]he army would like a clear power to seize vehicles so that they could be removed for close scrutiny’, and called for an expansion of the Special Powers Act 1922 to cover this demand.[17] While the requirements for compulsory carriage of documents were not followed through, greater powers of search and seizure were incorporated into the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

After much deliberation, it was debated whether the intense scrutiny placed upon cross-border travelling had brought many tangible benefits, particularly considering the amount of manpower involved. For example, one report stated:

In the first four months of 1971, over 200,000 cars have been searched in Northern Ireland and in only about 10 have wanted men, arms or explosives been found; some 25 or more evaded road checks.[18]

However the report also qualified that there were some gains to this approach, adding:

Nevertheless the security dividend from a tighter control of the border area must not be underestimated: a reduction in cross-border explosive attacks and the interception of wanted or wounded men escaping from Belfast are typical potential gains. (My emphasis)

After 1972 (the deadliest year in the 30 year conflict), the Provisional IRA shifted tactics to attacking targets on the British mainland, while Loyalists targeted civilians in the Republic of Ireland. Although there were two bombings at the Old Bailey in 1972, it was not until the following year that the British mainland campaign began in earnest, with retaliation by Loyalists through the bombing of civilian areas in the South. At the same time, the British authorities believed there was an increase in the number of incidents in Northern Ireland perpetrated by Republicans crossing the border from the Republic. The British Army estimated that ‘terrorists based in the Republic have been responsible for at least 497 incidents in 1973’.[19] The spread of the conflict from Northern Ireland to Britain and the Republic of Ireland worried the British and Irish authorities, although there was little Anglo-Irish co-operation at this stage.

The bombing of two Birmingham pubs in October 1974 led to the newly installed Wilson government to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. As well as extended powers of detention for those suspected of terrorism offences in Britain, the Act also gave powers to regulate the travel of people from Northern Ireland to England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) and exclude/deport those suspected of being involved in terrorism offences (related to the conflict in Northern Ireland – the PTA did not extend to the other forms of international terrorism on the rise in the 1970s). In 1976, the Act was amended to cover people travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, but crucially neither act dealt with suspects travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British authorities still relied on policing the border though a series of checkpoints.

In the same year, the Northern Ireland Office warned that policing the border in this manner was still involved massive amount of manpower, with a report stating:

Since 1971 nearly 20% of regular Army manpower in the Province has been devoted to maintaining the integrity of the Border areas and the Border itself. Experience has shown that because of the length and nature of the Border, the Army, no matter how many men they deploy cannot ensure total security.[20]

Furthermore, the report argued that border area was not topographically ideal for surveillance and certain technologies, such as radar and unattended ground censors, had limited success in helping the authorities detect subversives crossing the border.[21]

To overcome this, the report revisited the idea of laying mines, erecting wires or some other kind of immovable physical obstacle across the border to restrict illegal crossings. However it was felt that the use of either mines and wires had ‘an unpleasant “East German” connotation and would be indicative of a siege mentality’, with the added problems that ‘[m]ines would be dangerous and wire would be unsightly’.[22]

In 1977-78, Lord Shackleton undertook a review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1976 and despite suggesting that exclusion orders be subject to periodic review,[23] there was little revision on the issue of cross-border terrorism and subversion. At the same time, the temporary provisions of the 1976 Act were up for renewal. At this point, the Home Office briefly considered whether the transformation of the checkpoint system into a more formal border control system across the Irish border would help in the fight against Republican (and Loyalist) violence. However it was soon concluded that, like the checkpoint system, control of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would still require a large amount of manpower.[24] A report prepared by the Home Office stated categorically, ‘A system of full immigration control would be costly, most difficult to administer, and of limited effectiveness’.[25]

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland has, for the most part, ended, it would be wise heed this warning about the difficulty of implementing an immigration control system between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, there have been no immigration restrictions between the UK and Ireland and the only controls have been applied have been the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (which were made redundant in 2000 by the Terrorism Act). To establish a new border control system at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be a blow to the peace settlement forged in 1998, and to wider Anglo-Irish relations.

British Army base in South Armagh

British Army base in South Armagh

[1] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders: Preliminary Report’, 17 May, 1971, p. 1, CJ 4/424, National Archives, London.

[2] ‘History of the Partial Closure of the Border in 1970’, 17 May, 1971, CJ 4/424, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control: Vehicle Documentation’, p. 1, 1 February, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[5] Letter from Northern Ireland Office to Northern Ireland Command, 30 March, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[6] Government Security Unit, ‘Control of the Border’, p. 1, 30 March, 1972, CJ 4/424, NA.

[7] Ibid,

[8] Ibid, p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 2.

[10] Ibid, p. 2.

[11] Central Secretariat (Stormont), ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, 13 November 1972, p. 4, CJ 4/424, NA.

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Central Secretariat, ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 7.

[18] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders’, p. 1.

[19] Lt. Colonel Reynolds, ‘Border Security’, 30 January, 1974, p. 1, CJ4/810, NA.

[20] Northern Ireland Office, ‘’Picquets and Unmanned Devices on the Border’, 2 December, 1976, p. 1, CJ 4/1758, NA.

[21] Ibid., p. 4.

[22] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[23] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts of 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO 1978) pp. 39-41.

[24] ‘Difficulties Over Proposal for Immigration Control Between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland’, n.d., HO 344/336, NA.

[25] Ibid.

‘Fortress Britain’ and the end of the Cold War

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian this week that the walls and barriers that had fallen in 1989 were being rebuilt in 2015. A cartoon in the pages of Marxism Today published in December 1989 seems to have made the same argument – that while the West celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the same time, they were seeking to build metaphorical walls of their own to keep out ‘undesirable’ migrants.

Wall 1989

In 1982, Thatcher described the Berlin Wall as ‘a monument to oppression and cruelty, but also to futility’. The British border control system, which was significantly strengthened during her Prime Ministership, could be described in the same terms.

Since Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the free movement of people within the borders of the EEC (and then the European Union) meant that Britain experienced significantly more numbers of migrants from Europe than from the Commonwealth and other nations, whose numbers were cut dramatically by the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971. Although opposition to Britain joining the European Community has been widespread, but diffuse, since the late 1960s, opposition to migration from within Europe was only a minor feature in the discourse on immigration in Britain until the 1990s.

The most reasonable explanation for this is because there was free movement within the EEC’s borders, labour migration was not permanent and numbers seemed to rise and fall in line with changes in the economic landscape. But there is also the possibility that objections to European migration were muted because most migrants within the EEC were “white”. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991 and the enlargement of the European Union in the early 2000s have shifted the discourse on European migration in Britain.

A substantial part of the discourse has been a concern over migrants from Eastern Europe to Britain, replicating fears expressed over previous waves of migrants to Britain – that Eastern Europeans, particularly Polish migrants, have been taking jobs away from British people and that others, particularly Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians, have been involved in crime in Britain, from petty offences to trans-national organised crime. These objections to migration from Eastern Europe have been usually, but not always, part of a wider objection to the European Union and a push for Britain to leave the EU.

Furthermore in 2015, the nations that exist on the edges of the EU, such as Greece, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania have been seen as having porous borders that have allowed asylum seekers and ‘illegal immigrants’ from the Middle East and South Asia into Europe. Under the Conservatives (and driven to the right by UKIP), anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment had reached such a height that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU and Cameron has pushed for a renegotiation of the nation’s obligations to Europe. This is possibly the biggest assertion of British self-interest within the EU since Margaret Thatcher refused to join the Schengen Area in the late 1980s.

In 1985, the Schengen Agreement was first signed by member countries of the EEC to discard the operation of border control between these countries, which has expanded within the EU to twenty-five countries. Thatcher refused to join and during an infamous speech in Bruges in 1988, stated:

Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel through the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.

By this time, ‘Fortress Britain’ had already excluded most Commonwealth immigrants and now it resisted relaxing its controls with regards to people from within Europe.

As travel restrictions between East and West Germany were abolished in November 1989, Thatcher expressed that she hoped that ‘this is only a prelude to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.’ As the rest of the Soviet Bloc collapsed, while many proposed greater integration of the former Eastern ‘people’s democracies’ into the European Union, Thatcher and other Eurosceptic Tories worried about expansion of the EU eastwards. However by the time that EU expansion was actually tabled, Labour was in power, who did not oppose this, much to the chargrin of many.

While the walls are going back up across mainland Europe now, Britain’s (metaphorical) walls have been erected since the dying days of the Cold War.


New journal article – ‘The Myth of Sovereignty: British Immigration Control in Policy and Practice in the Nineteen-Seventies’

HR cover

This is just a quick post to announce that our long-awaited article in Historical Research journal has now been published online through early view and can found here. The title of the article is ‘The Myth of Sovereignty: British Immigration Control in Policy and Practice in the Nineteen-Seventies’, with the following abstract:

This article explores how British immigration control policy was carried out during the nineteen-seventies to filter immigration, while addressing the perceived problem of ‘non-white’ colonial migration. Recently released government documents suggest that the immigration control system should be viewed as a series of inter-connected institutions and actors that operated under the influence of a number of different, and often contradictory, factors. The result of these competing factors was an immigration control system that, relying on the paradoxical whims of the government and other sections of civil society, was restrictive and suspicious towards potential migrants, but at the same time constrained in its behaviour.

This article is part of our wider project on the body and border control between the 1960s and the 1980s, of which we just submitted a monograph manuscript to Palgrave Macmillan. Marinella and I started this project in 2008 and are excited to see the results of our research.

As usual, if anyone is not able to access the article from the interweb, email me and I can send you a copy.

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)

The legacy of Enoch Powell

The following is just a little rejoinder to something that David Osler wrote in his post about UKIP and the legacy of Powellism. While I agree with most of what Osler wrote, he did argue:

In more recent years, any hint of sympathy for the proposition that ‘Enoch was right’ has been a hanging offence in what was supposed to have been a detoxified brand. One Tory prospective parliamentary candidate in a winnable west Midlands seat after was forced to step down after making just that claim only a few years back.

I disagree with this and think Jenny Bourne had it right when she talked about the ‘beatification of Enoch Powell’ back in 2008. I thought I would post this excerpt that was cut (due to space) from this book chapter published in 2010 on the negative legacy that Powell has had  upon the discourses on ‘race’ and immigration in contemporary Britain.


Since the 1960s there was a growing consensus that non-white immigration from the Commonwealth was a ‘problem’ that required strict immigration control to limit numbers and an emphasis on integration and assimilation in the domestic sphere. The remedy pursued by Labour Governments from 1964 to 1970, then 1974 to 1979, was to enforce tight immigration control procedures, alongside the introduction of legislation to curb racial discrimination. With the Race Relations Act, it was possible to prosecute against the most overt forms of racial discrimination and harassment, but its connection to the strengthening of immigration control reflected the Government’s emphasis on migrants integrating into British society. The Labour Government believed that this process of integration would help ‘stamp out the evils of racialism’,[1] but it allowed the anti-immigrationists, inside the Conservative Party, as well as in extra-parliamentary organisations and in the popular press, to dictate the agenda towards further restrictions. As Paul Foot wrote in his 1969 book, The Rise of Enoch Powell: ‘One of the most constant rules in the history of immigration control is that those demanding controls are encouraged, not silenced, by concessions’.[2]

Although concerns over the social impact of non-white immigration had been expressed in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary discourses since the 1940s, a major turning point in the discourse was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968. Speaking at a local Conservative Party meeting in Birmingham, Powell launched a tirade against non-white migration, stating:

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…

We are on the verge here of a change. Hitherto it has been force of circumstance and of background which has rendered the very idea of integration inaccessible to the greater part of the immigrant population… Now we are seeing the growth of positive forces acting against integration, of vested interests in the preservation and sharpening of racial and religious differences, with a view to the exercise of actual domination, first over fellow immigrants and then over the rest of the population…

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.[3]

Powell’s speech alluded to the views of the ‘ordinary British citizen’ on race relations, immigration and ‘alien cultures’, appropriating the ‘crude and inconsistent racism expressed in the factories, shopping centres and pubs… endorsed by a politician who had the authority of education, political office and a position in the Shadow cabinet’.[4] Powell attributed one of the most controversial remarks of the speech to an anonymous constituent, ‘a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man’, exploiting the anxieties of a large section of the British population in his declaration: ‘In this country in fifteen of twenty years’ time the black man will have the whip over the white man’.[5] Although dismissed by Edward Heath for the shadow cabinet, Powell’s exploitation of popular racism generated much support for him with a Gallup Poll in May 1968 revealing that ‘74 per cent of those questioned agreed in general with his views and 24 per cent said they would like him to be leader of the Conservative Party if Edward Heath retired’.[6] In the week following Powell’s speech, a series of strikes occurred across Britain, most prominently amongst the London dock workers, in support of Powell, either for his racist views or his right to free speech.

The ‘ultimate impact’ of Powell on the discourse on immigration and ‘race relations’ in Britain was ‘to shift it further to the right’.[7] Also taken up by Margaret Thatcher in her 1978 statements on immigration on Granada TV’s World in Action, Powell’s remarks have provided a rudimentary framework for attacks on immigration and multiculturalism ever since. As Jenny Bourne outlined, these are:

First: integration is impossible…; Second: lack of integration will naturally lead to race hatred…; Third: whites are the real, effective victims…; Fourth: immigration was a grand conspiracy…; Fifth: the answer had to be reducing numbers.[8]

In 1981, Powell spoke in Parliament of how his declarations in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to be vindicated by the riots that broke out across Britain’s inner cities in 1980 and 1981. Speaking of the riot in Bristol in April 1980, Powell remarked:

[W]hen what happened did happen in Bristol at the beginning of April last year, I remembered how, 10 or 12 years earlier, I had received from that precise area of Bristol a mass of information expressing fear and anxiety as to what might occur because of the change in that area and the local concentration of New Commonwealth population.[9]

Since then, the slogan ‘Enoch was right’ has been raised on numerous occasions when confrontation has erupted within Britain’s ethnic minority communities and has been increasingly used by Conservatives and their supporters in the twenty-first century. In 2007, former Conservative MP Michael Portillo commended Powell for ‘discussing’ immigration and a few months later, Nigel Hastilow, a Conservative candidate, resigned after writing in a column for a local Wolverhampton paper that Powell ‘was right’.[10]

One of the oft-repeated parts of what Jenny Bourne has described as Powell’s ‘rehabilitation as an authoritative political figure’[11] has been the commendation of Powell for speaking on the issues of immigration and ‘race’, giving the impression that there is no public discourse of immigration. Portillo lamented in The Sunday Times that ‘immigration is a subject rarely even mentioned by politicians’, adding that the wider British public also missed out, ‘It is not just that there is never an opportunity to vote on it, there is rarely a chance even to discuss it’.[12] However, there a large and widespread discourse on immigration and ‘race’ in Britain, and a very significant portion of this discourse is negative. The Powellite/Thatcherite anxieties over the ‘integration’ of ethnic minorities in Britain and the establishment of ethnic communities from the descendents of the original Commonwealth migrants still loom large over the discourse of immigration and ‘race relations’, with multiculturalism portrayed as a divisive influence upon mainstream British society.

Socialist Worker poster (probably from 1976)

Socialist Worker poster (probably from 1976)

[1] David Ennals, ‘Labour’s Race Relations Policy’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, November/December 1968, p. 437

[2] Paul Foot, The Rise of Enoch Powell: An Examination of Enoch Powell’s Attitude to Immigration and Race, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1969, p. 111

[3] Enoch Powell, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, in Enoch Powell (selected by Rex Collings), Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell, Bellew Publishing, London, 1991, p. 375; pp. 378-379

[4] Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics, Pluto Press, London, 1984, p. 64

[5] E. Powell, ‘To the Annual General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre’, pp. 373-374

[6] R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 64

[7] Anthony M. Messina, Race and Party Competition in Britain, Clarendon Press, New York, 1989, p. 107

[8] Jenny Bourne, ‘The Beatification of Enoch Powell’, Race & Class, 49/4, 2008, pp. 85-86

[9] Hansard, 16 July, 1981, col. 1413

[10] Michael Portillo, ‘Immigration, the Taboo Word that will Cost Cameron Dear’, The Sunday Times, 2 September, 2007,; ‘Tory Candidate Quits over “Powell was Right” Comments’, The Guardian, 4 November, 2007,

[11] J. Bourne, ‘The Beatification of Enoch Powell’, p. 82

[12] M. Portillo, ‘Immigration, the Taboo Word that will Cost Cameron Dear’