Last night, Channel 4 aired a program on the 1964 election in the seat of Smethwick, where immigration became a controversial topic and was used to reason why Labour lost a safe seat to the Conservatives. I have written about the use of a racist slogan during the election campaign before (here and here), but this post gives a wider context for the changing political landscape at the time and why the Smethwick election had a long-lasting impact the Labour Party. It is based on an extract from our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control, which came out last year.
Throughout the 1950s, the official position of the Labour Party on immigration control was one of consistent opposition. When the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was debated in Parliament in November 1961, the Labour Party opposed it on the same grounds it had presented in 1958. Gordon Walker, Labour MP for Smethwick, contended that the Conservative Home Secretary R. A. Butler ‘advocates a Bill into which race discrimination is now written – not only into its spirit and practice but into its very letter’. Labour’s opposition to the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was based on both political and economic arguments.
Politically, the Labour Party favoured a more benevolent British Commonwealth and defended the right of free entry for Commonwealth citizens, attacking the Conservatives for ‘having rejected the Commonwealth’ and what it supposed were ‘the principles on which it was founded’. The Labour Party opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill on the principle that it was racially biased, and ‘consistently accused the government of implementing racism’. During the Bill’s second reading, Walker declared that Labour would ‘bitterly oppose the Bill and will resist it’ as it was ‘widely and rightly regarded as introducing a colour bar into our legislation’. Labour’s economic argument was that the flow of migration had been regulated by the demands of the British economy, with leader Hugh Gaitskell stating that ‘the rate of immigrants into this country is closely related and … will always be closely related, to the rate of economic absorption’. As Gaitskell explained, throughout the 1950s until 1959, there was ‘an almost precise correlation between the movement in the number of unfulfilled vacancies … and the immigration figures’.
Some authors, in particular Paul Foot and Peter Alexander, have emphasised the principled opposition of Gaitskell, as leader of the Labour Party, who presented an official, unified, formal position on the concept of immigration control for Labour. Foot wrote that Gaitskell understood ‘much better than his colleagues the general principles behind the international migration of labour’, and believed in the British Commonwealth as a ‘world-wide multi-racial community network’. In Parliament, Gaitskell declared that the Bill was ‘a plain anti-Commonwealth Measure in theory and … a plain anti-colour Measure in practice’, and Denis Healey, Labour’s spokesperson on colonial issues, pledged at a meeting of immigrant and Commonwealth organisations that a Labour government would repeal the Act if elected.
However, the Labour Party’s official position changed soon after Gaitskell’s death in early 1963, when Harold Wilson became leader of the party. Whereas previously Labour’s opposition to immigration control had been officially ‘unconditional’, now Wilson claimed that the party ‘supported and … do support certain provisions of the Act’. Wilson announced that ‘[w]e do not contest the need for control of immigration into this country’ and accepted the continuation of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act.
Wilson’s statement that Labour accepted the concept of immigration control was the beginning of a growing consensus between the two major parties that non-white immigration from the Commonwealth was a problem. The defeat of Labour MP Gordon Walker to Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths, primarily fought on the issue of immigration, made many within the Labour Party move towards an acceptance of strict immigration controls, believing that opposition to controls could be cited by the Conservatives as a sign of Labour’s weakness. 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 aspect of this campaign was the slogan, ‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’, about which Griffiths commented, ‘I would not condemn anyone who said that. I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling’. 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) was, according to Labour Minister Richard Crossman, that ‘[e]ver since the Smethwick election it has been quite clear that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour Party’.
Despite the official front, the Labour Party had been internally divided on the issue of immigration for many years. The official position on unconditional right of entry had seemingly only been held together by the leadership qualities of Hugh Gaitskell. The notion of the Labour Party yielding in the face of racist public opinion has been well documented in the history of race relations in Britain. Yet, as Kathleen Paul has observed, 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’. Both Labour and the Conservatives had adopted unofficial means to prevent Commonwealth immigration into Britain in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. While the traditional history views the Smethwick result as impetus for Labour’s acceptance of restrictions upon non-white Commonwealth immigration, Kathleen Paul’s assertion that these measures were ‘driven not by the explosion of “race and immigration” into the electoral arena but by imperatives internal to the governing elite’ is far more convincing.
In March 1965, Wilson stated that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was ‘not working as was intended’, recommending that ‘a fresh examination of the whole problem of control is necessary’. The result of this re-examination of immigration policy was the White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth, published in August 1965. The White Paper suggested that the problem involved how to ‘control the entry of immigrants so that it does not outrun Britain’s capacity to absorb them’. The emphasis of the Labour government’s platform on immigration during this period was on the notions of ‘integration’ and ‘absorption’ of Commonwealth immigrants, but the government believed that integration could not occur without immigration controls. Labour MP Roy Hattersley summarised this by declaring that, ‘without integration, limitation is inexcusable; without limitation, integration is impossible’. To this end, the White Paper made two main proposals: the discontinuation of the Category C vouchers and a large reduction in the number of vouchers issued. Category C vouchers had been the most issued voucher since their introduction, with 42,367 issued between July 1962 and September 1964. More importantly, the total number of vouchers was to be reduced from around 20,000 a year to just 8500 a year, with 1000 reserved for citizens of Malta and ‘not more than 15 per cent of the vouchers issued in Category A will go to any one Commonwealth country’. Effectively this meant that Old Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, which had fairly small populations, were entitled to the same number of vouchers as the more populous Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan. Regarding the Labour government’s fears of ‘evasion’ of control, the Paper also proposed stronger powers for Immigration Officers to refuse entry to those who were not considered ‘bona fides’.
The result of the White Paper’s release was that consensus was reached within government circles that Commonwealth immigration was undesirable and threatened social cohesion in Britain. As Roy Hattersley stated in Parliament in March 1965, ‘I believe that unrestricted immigration can only produce additional problems, additional suffering and additional hardship unless some kind of limitation is imposed and continued’. Previously speaking as ‘a passionate opponent of the Act’, Hattersley came claimed in 1965 that, ‘with the advantages of hindsight, I suspect that we were wrong to oppose the Act’.
The Labour government’s policy of integration featured heavily in the White Paper, which recommended the implementation of tighter restrictions on Commonwealth immigration while tackling racial discrimination in the domestic sphere. This led to the introduction of the first legislation against racial discrimination in late 1965 to ‘complement’ the White Paper. The Race Relations Act 1965 was introduced to ‘prohibit discrimination on racial grounds in places of public resort’ and was enacted in November 1965, but was a much weaker Act than had been proposed by MPs such as Fenner Brockway since the mid-1950s. While reservedly welcomed by both progressive and immigrant organisations, the Race Relations Act was inherently tied to the notions of integration and restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote:
Taken together, the 1965 White Paper and the 1965 Race Relations Act signalled the convergence of the two major political parties on the issues of immigration control and racial justice. An advance, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.
The Labour government believed that immigration control and the Race Relations Act would ease the process of integration for non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth into the ‘British way of life’. This process of integration, reinforced by legislation against the most overt forms of public racial discrimination, would help ‘stamp out the evils of racialism’. As Peter Alexander wrote, ‘[i]mmigration control was expected to reduce racism. The reverse happened. And with increased racism came further controls’.
While the number of colonial migrants on work vouchers decreased through the mid-1960s, other colonial migrants (on British passports issued overseas) started to increase in numbers, especially after Kenya won independence in 1963. This point in time symbolises the beginning of an ‘Africanisation’ campaign that ‘prompted many [Kenyan South Asians] to migrate to Britain rather than face continued discrimination’ in Kenya. A ‘steady flow’ of Kenyan South Asians migrated to Britain between 1965 and 1967. In 1967, the Kenyan Government passed a law under which these British citizens of South Asian descent could reside and work in Kenya only on a temporary basis. This created an increase in migration to Britain and prompted demands from sections of the media and Conservative MPs, such as Enoch Powell, that restrictions be applied to these Kenyan South Asians. Powell claimed that the number of South Asians arriving from Kenya would reach a total of 200,000, but the reality was a much smaller 66,000 out of a potential 95,000, with 29,000 already settled in Britain by February 1968. In late February 1968, the Labour government ‘steamrollered through Parliament in three days of emergency debate’ the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 with the ‘sole purpose of restricting entry into Britain of Kenyan Asians holding British passports’. According to this Act, British citizenship was determined by the birth of a person or of one of their parents or grandparents in Britain. This effectively excluded the Kenyan South Asians, or any other non-white citizens of the Commonwealth, from British citizenship. Despite the rhetoric that the 1968 Act was impartial and not racially biased, the reality underpinning this amendment was the Labour government’s intention to prevent further non-white immigration to Britain.
Zig Layton-Henry described the 1968 Act as the ‘logical outcome of appeasement that the Labour government had adopted in order to achieve the bipartisan consensus with the Conservatives and to reduce the electoral salience of the issue’. However, this was more than merely a pragmatic issue of Labour attempting to not appear ‘weaker than the Conservatives on the issue of immigration controls’, but was the result of a deeper reassessment of the idea of British nationality as Britain’s colonial empire collapsed. White British citizens born abroad were ‘never referred to as “immigrants” under any circumstances’. The term ‘immigrant’ was reserved for non-white Commonwealth migrants, and by the late 1960s the equation of ‘immigrant’ with ‘black’ had become the prevailing attitude. The Labour Party had originally opposed immigration controls on the grounds of the ideal of the free movement of people and trade throughout the Commonwealth. However, the right to enter and live in Britain without restriction did not mean that Commonwealth immigrants were ‘regarded as British in any other sense’. For Labour, the ‘Commonwealth ideal had never been intended as a defence of [unrestricted] black immigration to Britain’. And, as Caroline Knowles has stated, the increasingly tougher controls on immigration seen in the 1960s demonstrated that Labour ‘reconstructed immigration away from Commonwealth and labour needs’, perceiving immigrants as ‘an invasive and oppositional political community to indigenousness’.
In 1968, Robert Moore wrote that ‘[r]acialists have nothing to lose and everything to gain by pressing the Labour Government even harder’. The long-term effect of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 was to create a distinction between the predominantly white British citizenry who could claim lineage within Britain and the predominantly non-white Commonwealth citizenry who could no longer claim to be ‘British’, which in turn barred the Commonwealth immigrant from entering Britain. In this we can trace the beginning of the double standard citizenship rule which divides ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants according to country of origin.
Opposition to the 1962 Bill (via National Archives UK)
 Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 706.
 Robert Miles & Annie Phizacklea, White Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics (Pluto Press, London, 1984) p. 42.
 Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.
 Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.
 Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 1716
 Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42; Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 793-794.
 Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 794; R. Miles & A. Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 42.
 Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965) pp. 174-175; Peter Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution (Bookmarks, London, 1987) pp. 34-35.
 Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 175.
 Hansard, 16 November, 1961, col. 799.
 Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 173; Marika Sherwood, Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile (Londo,: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999) p. 99.
 Cited in Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, p. 170; Hansard, 27 November, 1963, col. 365.
 Hansard, 27 November, 1963, col. 367.
 Cited in Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 49.
 Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 50.
 Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, vol. 1: Minister of Housing 1964-66 (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975) pp. 149-150.
 See Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics, pp. 161-175.
 Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997) p. 177.
 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, pp. 177-178.
 Hansard, 9 March, 1965, col. 249.
 Immigration from the Commonwealth, Cmnd. 2739, HMSO, London, 1965, p. 2.
 Cited in Miles & Phizacklea, White Man’s Country, p. 57.
 Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 6.
 Figures calculated from Control of Immigration Statistics 1 July 1962 – 31 December 1963, HMSO, London, 1965, pp. 15-16; Control of Immigration Statistics 1964, HMSO, London, 1965, p. 11.
 Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 6.
 Immigration from the Commonwealth, p. 8.
 Hansard, 23 March, 1965, col. 380-381.
 Hansard, 23 March, 1965, col. 380.
 Race Relations Act, 1965 .
 Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London, Paladin, 1992) p. 211.
 David Ennals, ‘Labour’s Race Relations Policy’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, November/December 1968, p. 437.
 Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution, p. 34.
 Paul, Whitewashing Britain, p. 179.
 John Solomos, Race and Racism in Britain (Palgrave, Houndmills, 2003) p. 60; D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 213.
 Alexander, Racism, Resistance and Revolution, p. 36; D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 214.
 Fryer, Staying Power, p. 383.
 Zig Layton-Henry, The Politics of Immigration: Immigration, ‘Race’ and ‘Race’ Relations in Post-War Britain (Blackwell, Oxford, 1992) p. 79.
 Layton-Henry, The Politics of Immigration, p. 79.
 Ann Dummett & Andrew Nicol, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others: Nationality and Immigration Law (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990) p. 201.
 Caroline Knowles, Race, Discourse and Labourism (London, Routledge, 1992) p. 94.
 Knowles, Race, Discourse and Labourism, p. 96, 103.
 Robert Moore, ‘Labour and Colour – 1965-8’, Institute of Race Relations Newsletter, October 1968, p. 390.