Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Labour and immigration


Recent comments by ministers about Gypsies and asylum seekers are in keeping with Labour's appalling record on racism and immigration, argues Gareth Jenkins. Here he looks back at many years of broken promises

Jack Straw on Gypsies

'There are a lot [of] people who masquerade as travellers or Gypsies, who seem to think they've got a licence to commit crimes and act in an unlawful way.

Many of these so called travellers seem to think that it's perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of other trouble, including defecating in doorways of firms and getting away with it.'
Jack Straw, 22 July 1999, interview with BBC Radio West

It would be reassuring to think that Jack Straw's outburst against refugees and travellers is a product of New Labour's ditching of everything old Labour stood for. But far from being an aberration, the slide into racism has been a constant feature of Labour. Put to the test, principle has always crumbled.

One of the first great tests of postwar British politics was the Tories' 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely. The Tory government gave in to pressure from a motley group of right wing MPs who for years had spewed out lies about 'floods' of diseased and criminal 'coloured' people drawn to the 'honeypot' of the welfare state. The law had no other purpose than to reduce the numbers of black people coming from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent.

Labour initially stood firm on the issue. The right wing leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, stated in 1961, 'The Labour Party is opposed to the restriction of immigration as every Commonwealth citizen has the right as a British subject to enter the country at will.' This right of citizens was 'unconditional'. There should be no restrictions on grounds of health or criminal record. Nor should criminals be deported. Only a handful of Labour MPs and constituency parties challenged this position.

The core of Gaitskell's argument against controls was that it was a complete myth that there was any prospect of 'millions and millions of brown and black people coming into this country'. He made the simple but correct point that people migrated to Britain in proportion to the number of jobs available. 'As the number of unfilled vacancies goes down, the immigration figures go down, and as the number of unfilled vacancies rises, the immigration figures go up.'

Yet in the early 1960s immigration rose sharply despite an economic slowdown and drop in job vacancies. Did this prove that controls had become necessary? On the contrary. With the threat of immigration restrictions people from the New Commonwealth rushed to beat the ban. Fear of controls produced the very thing the act was designed to prevent.

The common assumption is that opposition to immigration controls is a vote loser. Yet an opinion poll published during the parliamentary debate on the Tory bill showed a sharp decline in support for immigration controls from 76 to 62 percent. Giving a lead helped mobilise those who wanted to stand up to the hysteria, and Labour managed to modify some of the most obnoxious elements in the Tory bill.

But it wasn't long before the slide began. During the committee stage of the bill Denis Healey, Labour's spokesman on colonial affairs, gave his solemn pledge that a Labour government would repeal the law. Only three months later, in February 1962, Healey refused to tell parliament whether or not Labour would repeal it.

By November 1963 Harold Wilson, who had succeeded as leader of the opposition after Gaitskell's death, clarified Labour's attitude. 'We do not', he said, contest the need for control of immigration into this country.' Some sparks of principle still flared up. But increasingly the response was that Labour was not responsible for immigration. This implied that the Tories had been right all along.

Labour's retreat
Far from this winning votes for Labour, it did the opposite. Nowhere was that clearer than at Smethwick where, against the national trend, the Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths, defeated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, in the 1964 general election. As a Tory councillor, Griffiths had run a vicious anti-immigrant campaign for several years. Gordon Walker's response all too quickly moved over into the territory occupied by the racists. His local party's eve of poll leaflet pleaded with the electors of Smethwick:

    'Be fair. Immigrants only arrived in Smethwick in large numbers during the past ten years--while the Tory government was in power. You can't blame Labour or Gordon Walker for that. Labour favours continued control of immigration, stricter health checks and deportation of those convicted of criminal offences. Labour will give local authorities greater power to help overcrowding. Labour will provide new and better housing.'

Labour's surrender to Griffiths' campaign to halt immigration explains why Gordon Walker lost. His vote fell by nearly a third. Griffiths' remained nearly the same--enough for him to win with a swing against Labour of 7.2 percent. Gordon Walker's abject surrender meant Labour was helpless to win voters away from the perception that immigration was the key issue.

Wilson, now prime minister, caused a minor furore by attacking the new member for Smethwick as a 'parliamentary leper'. But his actions belied his words. He accepted the Tories' Immigration Act and tightened up entry qualifications way beyond what the Tories had been able to achieve.

West Indian families at Victoria station in 1956

There was little protest from anywhere in the party. Richard Crossman, a leading left winger, who had once stated how proud he was to be opposing the Tories' immigration bill as a 'shameful piece of colour bar legislation', now confided to his diary:

Justifying controls
Other Labour politicians attempted to present the case for immigration control positively. Right winger Roy Hattersley formulated the argument which was to form the basis of Labour's justification ever since, Hattersley originally opposed the Tory immigration bill. In 1965 he asserted that Labour had been wrong. There were, he claimed, 'social problems' with uncontrolled immigration. These had to do with integration. 'We must', he said in his speech, 'impose a test which tries to analyse which immigrants... are most likely to be assimilated into national life.'

This argument became the basis for one of Labour's most enduring myths--that restricting numbers is good for race relations: 'Without integration, limitation is inexcusable. Without limitation, integration is impossible.' This was neat but untrue. Implementing controls reinforces the notion that it is immigrants, rather than the defects of capitalist society, which cause the problems ordinary people face. That makes integration more, rather than less difficult to achieve. It also flies in the face of logic to assume that discrimination to keep immigrants out eradicates discrimination at home.

Equally, experience over the last 30 years shows that, far from calming anti-immigrant feeling, controls only provoke demands for greater restrictions. It did not take long for the Labour government to find that out. When, in 1968, Asians in Kenya were threatened with loss of permanent residence unless they took out Kenyan nationality, Tory MPs, most notably Enoch Powell, predicted mass arrivals of Asians with British passports.

Labour responded to this scaremongering by rushing the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill through parliament in 24 hours. The new law was overtly racist. It was no longer a case of stopping Commonwealth citizens moving to Britain. The act stopped British citizens if they lacked a 'close connection' with the country, close connection being defined as birth in Britain or descent from a parent or grandparent born in Britain. So some 150,000 Kenyan Asians were rendered stateless, while white settlers and their families enjoyed free access.

Far from this appeasing the racists, it only encouraged them. Within weeks Enoch Powell delivered his notorious 'rivers of blood' speech in Birmingham. The Wilson government's only response was to pass legislation the following year which made it extremely difficult for dependents to come to Britain.

Pakistani women questioned at Heathrow in 1965 as immigration control was tightened

None of this saved Labour from electoral defeat in 1970. The new Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, who had sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet, rapidly introduced the 1971 Immigration Act. James Callaghan, for Labour, rightly said that the act was a 'badge of respectability to prejudice' and promised its repeal. But the Tory concept of 'patriality' as the basis of the 'right of abode' was virtually the same as Labour's 'close connection'. Not surprisingly, Labour did nothing, once back in office between 1974 and 1979, to repeal this 'badge of respectability to prejudice'. Asked on television in 1978, 'What you really mean is that immigration control is a device to keep out coloured people?' the Labour home secretary, Merlyn Rees, calmly replied, 'That is what it is.'

As in the late 1960s, the reason was Labour's collapse in the face of a renewed racist offensive. The catalyst was the hysteria whipped up by the press over the expulsion of a few hundred unfortunate Asians from Malawi in the spring Of 1976. The Sun screamed about the 'scandal of 600 a week immigrants' (they were put up in hotels, with the money going to the racketeering owners). The Daily Mirror talked of a 'new flood of Asians' and the Daily Telegraph headline was 'Invasion Of Asians Forces Borough To Call For Help'. The parallel with today's media outbursts about floods of refugees living in luxury and councils unable to cope is startling.

In 1976 the fascists gained their first electoral success, winning council seats in Blackburn and 44 percent of the vote between two candidates in a council by-election in Deptford, London. Labour's response to this massive growth in racism was to echo it. In May, Bob Mellish, Labour's chief whip and MP for Bermondsey (near Deptford), spoke in the House of Commons on the 'influx' of Malawi Asians: 'This nation has done all it should have done. Its record is one of great honour and integrity, but I say, "Enough is enough".' The next speaker, Enoch Powell, repeated the same demand. No wonder that the Greater London Council elections in the following year saw the fascist National Front get 119,063 votes, or 5 percent of the vote.

The Labour government, like its 1964-70 predecessor, tightened up immigration procedures still further. The number of deportations increased, from 292 in 1974 to 714 by 1978. The Labour government also amended the rules to prevent 'marriages of convenience'. Worst of all, immigration officials subjected Asian women to the humiliation of 'virginity tests'. When this became known, the outcry forced the governmerit to put an end to the scandal.

The search for scapegoats
Campaigning in East London forced the Nazi, Derek Beackon, from his council seat This then is the awful record of Labour in office. Why is it so bad? One obvious reason is the fear of losing votes--a prime concern for an electoralist party where success is measured in terms of winning office. But that is only one aspect. The other reason has to do with Labour's relationship to capitalism. It comes to office because of workers' dissatisfaction with the system. Its support swells as millions of people seek to have their aspirations for a better life realised through a change of government.

But office exposes the limitations of what it can do. Precisely because it does not interfere with the real centres of power, it is dependent on the concessions that capital is prepared to make. Apart from 1945, Labour tends to take office at the very moment when capital is least willing to make concessions. Labour then finds itself implementing the very cutbacks it opposed.

As disillusion and anger set in, the search for scapegoats takes off. What could be a more obvious target than the alien, the immigrant, the refugee or the traveller? Labour does not necessarily kick the process off. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the bigots on the right, sections of the Tory Party, the media and the extreme right who focused the despair on minorities, black people in particular. Labour then found itself doubly helpless. It feared taking on the bigots, partly because it was worried about rocking the electoral boat, partly because to take them on it would have to tackle the very issues--housing, health, education--which it had failed to tackle in the first place. So it has tried to ride the tiger of racism in the same way as it assumed it could ride the tiger of capital--only to find itself devoured in the process.

There is one final problem the Labour Party faces over immigration. Socialists are opposed to immigration controls for one simple reason. In a world where capital can go where it likes, workers should also be free to seek the best conditions they can. Capital uses the state to strengthen itself and to weaken workers' ability to resist exploitation, particularly by dividing workers between 'British' and 'immigrant' or 'us' and 'bogus asylum seekers'. So resisting immigration controls is ultimately to challenge the state. That precisely is what Labour cannot do. Its whole reason for existence is to use the existing state in an increasingly limited attempt to bring change. No wonder, then, that Labour falls at the first hurdle over immigration controls.

Each Labour government has been nastier towards immigrants than the last. This is not because those in office are more vicious. It is because the decline in British capitalism and its increasing tendency to crisis force Labour to turn on its supporters. Each Labour government has been quicker to rat on its promises than the last. This is as true of immigration as anything else.

The Blair government has tried to avoid the problem by making virtually no promises. But that doesn't stop it behaving nastily on the issue of immigration--or on the new scapegoats, asylum seekers or travellers. It offers weasel words about the difference between authentic and bogus asylum seekers, between political and economic refugees, in the same way as in the past it made a distinction between uncontrolled immigration (which threatened race relations) and controlled immigration (which meant that 'we' could absorb those who respected 'our' way of life). In practice, all asylum seekers and refugees become bogus in the same way as for earlier Labour governments all immigration became something to be stopped.

Many who have looked to the Labour Party for change are as shocked by Jack Straw's attacks on asylum seekers and travellers as they have been by New Labour's attacks on the disabled or provision for schools and hospitals. New Labour tries to pretend that it is only responding to genuine fears on the ground, something which armchair critics and ivory tower academics know nothing about.

It is a slur on working class people to assume that pandering to prejudice is expressing their deepest feelings. Bigotry can be tackled and isolated. The campaigns which smashed the fascists in the 1970s and pushed Derek Beackon back into the sewer in the 1990s demonstrated precisely that. One condition of their success was that socialists could begin to answer people's concern about these issues in a way that Labour did not.

Straw's outburst is a sure sign that Labour knows, halfway through its term of office, that it needs to try and disguise its lack of achievement. If, as seems likely from past experience, joining in the scapegoating only encourages the emergence of much nastier forces, socialists will need to campaign proudly and confidently round the old slogan, 'They're welcome here.'

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