The underground would be filthy - 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. Photograph: Getty Images
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Without immigrants, our country wouldn’t function. So let’s give it a go...

Fancy Ukip’s oh-so-reasonable line on the need to save our “out-of-control”, overcrowded, overburdened country? Let’s all try living, just for one day, without immigrants.

I have a modest proposal for the likes of Ukip, MigrationWatch, the Home Secretary, David Goodhart, Paul Dacre and, of course, the BNP. Why not call for “A Day Without Immigrants?” Wouldn’t that demonstrate, once and for all, that neither our economy nor our society needs migrants? That they are a burden, rather than a blessing?

“A Day Without Immigrants” was the name given to a rather innovative series of protests in the US in 2006, which brought more than a million Latinos on to the streets of 50 cities, from New York to Los Angeles. They boycotted shops, schools and their places of work to try to highlight the plight of undocumented migrant workers.

But here’s how I’d implement a similar boycott here: anyone in the UK born abroad or with a parent born abroad would stay at home for 24 hours. Any business or organisation founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant would close for the day.

Britain would be transformed – but, regrettably for the immigration-bashers, in a wholly negative way. In fact, I suspect it would be a pretty awful 24 hours for most Britons, dark and dystopian, even. Think Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – but without migrants, rather than with zombies.

Let’s start with the trivial stuff. Who would serve you in restaurants or coffee shops? Who would make your sandwiches and wraps at lunchtime? What would be the point of going out to eat in the evening if there were no longer any Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Lebanese, Persian, Italian, Spanish and, yes, French restaurants open?

How about your health? Who’d patch you up and prescribe your medicines? Ministers and their outriders in the right-wing press like to scaremonger about the spiralling costs of so-called health tourism (which amounts to a shocking 0.01 per cent of the £109bn NHS budget) and exaggerate the numbers of migrant families that turn up expecting free treatment in our overstretched A&E departments. The reality, as the chair of the council of the Royal College of GPs, Dr Clare Gerada, has pointed out, is that “you are much more likely to have an immigrant caring for you than sitting up in front of the emergency department”. About 30 per cent of the doctors and 40 per cent of the nurses working in the health service were born abroad. Put simply, the NHS could not survive 24 hours without its migrant workforce.

The same applies to the social-care sector. If you have a sick parent living in a care home, you might have to take the day off to look after them. In 2009 a fifth of all care assistants and home carers – 135,000 people in total – were foreign-born; in London, 60 per cent of care workers were migrants. Speaking of taking the day off, neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition would have to turn up to Westminster for PMQs – Nick Clegg is the son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father; Ed Miliband is the child of Polish refugees.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor would have to go to the Commons to warn that “A Day Without Immigrants” would, if extended over a year, force him to introduce a further £7bn of spending cuts and/or tax rises. Why? Migrants boost the British economy by £7bn a year, according to an OECD study published in June. That’s the equivalent of an extra 2p on the basic rate of income tax.

Sticking with the economy, we’d have to board up iconic British stores such as Marks & Spencer (co-founder: Michael Marks of Belarus), Selfridges (founder: the American Harry Gordon Selfridge) and Tesco (founder: Jacob Kohen, son of Avram, a Polish migrant). UK holidaymakers would have to cancel their cheap flights on easyJet (founder: the Greekborn Stelios Haji-Ioannou).

Our universities, a multibillion-pound export industry, would take a hit, too, if foreign students stayed away. One in ten students in British universities comes from outside the EU and the fees that students from other countries pay are a bigger source of income for most universities than research grants.

What about sport? Imagine going to watch a Premier League game midweek as a Liverpool fan. Luis Suárez wouldn’t be playing. If you’re a Man United fan, you’d miss out on the ball skills of Robin van Persie; if you’re a Man City fan, it’d be Yaya Touré on strike. Chelsea fans? Say goodbye to Juan Mata and Eden Hazard.

Incidentally, if you were planning on using the Tube to go to watch Chelsea play, you’d find it in a pretty filthy state, the train platforms tagged with graffiti and strewn with rubbish: 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. It wouldn’t just be the District Line that was dirty, it would also be your place of work: 89 per cent of office cleaners in the capital are migrants.

But the countryside would be fine, right? Wrong. Imagine all those unpicked crops and the effect: the rise in food prices, supermarkets opting for (cheaper) foreign over domestic produce, fruit farmers on their knees. The truth is that “native” Brits have not been interested in fruit-picking for years and, as the Home Office’s own Migration Advisory Committee warned in May, many of the UK’s fruit-picking businesses could close without new migrant workers from outside the EU.

On immigration, we hear constantly that voters don’t trust the official statistics or studies (a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that the public thinks that immigrants make up 31 per cent of the population –when the official figure is 13 per cent). So this may be the only way to win hearts and minds. A great boycott. A one-day strike by immigrants and their children across the UK, coupled with a ban on the use of immigrant-founded businesses by the “indigenous” population.

For a mere 24 hours. Let’s do it. And if it doesn’t transform public opinion, well, at least I’ll have had the day off work.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.