Feature: Immigration on the doorsteps

Gordon Brown’s “bigot” gaffe has shone a light on the hidden struggle over immigration. The gap between mainstream rhetoric and the language of the disaffected grows wider.

By Alex Stevenson

In 2001 and 2005 the numbers of migrants coming to live and work in Britain dominated the campaign. This time round it’s the economy – as well as Nick Clegg’s rise and rise – which has stolen the headlines. They don’t reflect the reality.

I’ve spent the last few weeks touring the country, pounding the streets with candidates of all political affiliations. Ordinary people are worried about their jobs and the recovery, of course. But they’re also preoccupied by immigration.

Across the country Britain’s multiculturalism is under stress. In Luton, the scene of terrible protests last year at a parade for troops returning for Afghanistan, the first two people I spoke to instantly raised local tensions. “It’s like Little Pakistan up there,” one said, pointing up the road to an area with a strong Asian community. The other was worried by the consequences. “You feel left out,” he said. “You feel you’ve been left behind.”

In Colne Valley, a semi-rural seat nestled in the Pennines to the south-west of Huddersfield, immigration’s dominance on the doorstep was striking. The Labour candidate, Debbie Abrahams, was repeatedly told that it was “a bit late” to be taking steps. It was depressingly predictable fare. Attempts to explain how the points-based system is fixing the problem have repeatedly proved utterly inadequate to address the depth of frustration many ordinary people feel. Brown’s disproportionate response to Gillian Duffy’s comments reflected the frustration politicians, in turn, have with ordinary people. Britain is not as enlightened as they would like.

Politicians must tread carefully when dealing with this gap. Sometimes they go too far, as the Lib Dem candidate in Oldham East and Saddleworth was accused of doing at the weekend.

Elwyn Watkins was pedalling an especially hard line on dealing with asylum seekers, a separate but related issue. He said he had a “problem” with his party’s policy to lower the illegal immigrant amnesty to those who had been in the country for over ten years. And he said asylum seekers who broke the law deserved to be kicked out. “I don’t care, they can go back on the plane to their oppressive country,” he said. The middle-class audience of Saddleworth was unimpressed. “It’s outrageous!” a member of the audience yelled. “You want to punish them a second time!”

Alex Story, the Tory challenger in Wakefield, demonstrated another of the perils when talking about immigration. His approach is about new arrivals accepting Britain’s “values”. He grew up in French but converted himself, he explained. “I used to a be republican – now I’m a monarchist!” he said proudly. At a hustings in Wakefield cathedral, however, he was forced to apologise after claiming BNP voters were drawn mainly from disaffected Labour supporters.

He stuck to his guns afterwards, telling politics.co.uk: “The Labour party believed or said they represented a certain group of people. If you speak to them now they vote BNP.” Most of those I spoke to in the audience repeated the sentiments of Labour’s incumbent in the seat, Mary Creagh. “We have a long tradition in the Labour movement of fighting against all forms of racism and xenophonbia,” she said. “I’m not going to sit in Wakefield cathedral and be told my party is somehow part of the BNP.”

Stepping out of line on immigration is much easier than stepping out of line on free bus passes. So some politicians, inevitably, go a bit too far. Perhaps part of the reason there’s a gap between the rhetoric of the national campaign and the reality of the doorsteps is because less bullish candidates are wary of treading on dangerous territory.

These politicians have fallen into the habit of being outraged that they can’t talk about immigration without being branded a racist. The truth is there’s a fine line between complaining about the impact on social services of immigrant and gripes about the colour of people’s skin. In Cheltenham, a Conservative-Lib Dem marginal, I met an elderly couple whose remarks clearly blurred the issue with unintentional racism. They told me about the famous 1992 election, in which a senior Tory used the n-word to describe his party’s black candidate. The Conservatives lost. I asked whether this was because of the candidate’s skin colour, or because of his party’s attitude to it. “What do you think?”

Back in Oldham East and Saddleworth, we find the man Watkins is up against happens to be none other than immigration minister Phil Woolas. His time as an MP included the Oldham race riots of 2001, which helped shape the Labour party’s policies on immigration. “The understanding from towns like Oldham as to the realities of immigration and the need for integration, has stood me in very good stead,” he said. He was not confronted by the issue on the doorstep; concerns about housing and the economy seemed more prevalent. But the Conservatives’ decision to select an Oldham man from the Asian community has introduced its own element of racial politics into the mix. Labour campaigners in his seat admit that “very strong racism” continues to exist in Oldham. “We haven’t done anything to address it.”

Abrahams, the Labour candidate in Colne Valley, has her own solutions. She’s left trying to defend a tough seat with strong challenges from both the Tories and the Lib Dems. So she’s doing her best, by targeting young people with a “positive message” about jobs. Abrahams has organised a creative arts project bringing together colleges, businesses and advisors, “so people could see what was out there and not feel left behind”. She realises this can’t be solved within the short space of a campaign, however. “It’s long-term stuff – not things you can do one week before the general election.”

The Conservatives are happy to harness the frustrations of the masses. Their cap on immigration is easily attacked – as Creagh put it, “they haven’t told you what would happen if you meet that [annual] cap after six months”. That doesn’t matter, though, as it’s the principle that counts. They have recognised the electoral pulling power of the issue and are likely to benefit accordingly.

The Liberal Democrats are going hard on immigration in the places where it matters. Labour are left defending the government’s policy – which simply isn’t proving effective on the doorsteps. The centre-left are the real victims of the 2010 election campaign’s hidden issue. They have no real response to the concerns of so many people, because of the huge gap which exists between their rhetoric and those of ordinary people on the doorstep.

Into this gap the insidious advances of the BNP infiltrate. “The British people’s attitude on this is really very clear,” Griffin insisted this morning. “The political elite has been trying to ignore it. It’s a political elite project, all this internationalism.”

His logic denies the plus sides of immigration and panders to the semi-informed. It needs combating – but is instead neglected as candidates retreat to safety. On the doorsteps, disaffection continues to mount.