BNP's green disguise

Observations on immigration

Opponents of asylum and immigration once talked about "rivers of blood". Now they talk about "tidal waves of concrete". Enoch Powell and other early advocates of shutting Britain's borders argued that too many immigrants would shred our social cohesion. Today's anti-immigrant lobby is more likely to complain about immigrants' carbon footprint and their noxious impact on our green and pleasant land. The close-the-borders brigade has co-opted environmentalist arguments, and it is using them to demand tougher restrictions on the right to asylum in the UK.

One reason why anti-immigrants are wrapping themselves in a pseudo-green cloak is that their old arguments - about Britain being invaded by swan-eating asylum-seekers and migrants - are transparent tosh. On 21 August the Home Office published its Asylum Statistics for the second quarter of 2007. These showed that applications for asylum have fallen. Between April and June this year, there were 4,950 applications, a 13 per cent drop from the first quarter of the year.

There were 10 per cent fewer applications in the second quarter of 2007 than there were in the second quarter of 2006, when 5,495 people applied for asylum. What's more, 2,980 asylum-seekers were deported in the second quarter of 2007. This means that the net number of asylum-seekers added to the population between April and June was a measly 1,970. If this quarterly figure was averaged out over a year, it would add up to roughly 8,000 asylum-seekers - enough to fill eight streets in your average big-city suburb. Britain swamped by asylum-seekers? Get a grip.

Asylum applications have fallen steadily over the past decade. In 2006, 23,520 people applied for asylum in the UK, the lowest number since 1997. In the same year, 18,235 failed asylum-seekers were removed from the UK. We are no "soft touch": 80 per cent of applications are refused.

The number of immigrants (rather than asylum-seekers) from eastern Europe continues to rise - but not nearly by as much as the scaremongers predicted. In the first quarter of this year, after Bulgaria and Romania acceded to the European Union, 7,935 of their nationals were granted permission to come to the UK; in the second quarter 9,335 arrived and a further 3,980 were accepted under the seasonal agricultural workers' scheme. It's a far cry from the "flood" of 300,000 predicted by some tabloid (and broadsheet) writers. One reason why the Bulgarian and Romanian numbers remain low is that the government imposed stringent restrictions on who can come from those countries - skilled workers, maybe; low-skilled workers, not so much.

The number of eastern Europeans who have come to the UK since the A8 countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) joined the EU in May 2004 has reached 683,000 - the figure that most frightens the anti-immigration lobby. Yet as Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, has written, "most have already left again, and many are, in effect, international commuters who spend only part of the year here". Legrain points out that in 2005, the first big year of eastern immigration into the UK, 565,000 migrants in total came to Britain - but 380,000 people left these shores. That made a net inflow of 185,000 people, or an increase to Britain's population of 0.31 per cent.

Since the idea that Britain is being "swamped" is pure poppycock, so those who oppose immigration have had to change tack. The British National Party argues that "our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete" as more and more houses are built. Apparently "the biggest reason all these new houses are needed is immigration. One-third of all new homes are for immigrants and asylum-seekers." The BNP claims that "immigration is creating an environmental disaster", and worries that if we let in more migrants Britain will become "a tarmac desert".

The think tank Migration Watch claims that immigration has "significant costs" for the environment. And the right-wing Campaign for National Democracy says: "[Our population] is expected to grow by over five million during the next 20 years, chiefly as a result of immigration. This will put pressure on housing and roads, which will mean the loss of more of our countryside, the destruction of greenbelt area and worsening traffic and pollution in our cities."

Unfortunately, green-leaning groups sometimes hand these right-wingers their arguments on a plate. The Optimum Population Trust, which counts Jonathon Porritt among its patrons, argues that mass immigration is a route to environmental collapse. It has called for the balancing out of immigration with emigration, so that net immigration into Britain always remains at zero: an inhumane policy proposal that would mean saying "no", even to desperate arrivals, on the basis that they would cause our population to rise by a tiny amount.

It is worth noting that, according to 2002 figures, 45.96 per cent of Britain's land is used for intensive agriculture, 29.78 per cent of it is semi-natural, 11.91 per cent of it is woodland, and only 7.65 per cent of it is "settled" - that is, built environment. In the new pseudo-green arguments for raising the drawbridge, immigrants are once again being blamed for what are in fact social and political failures. It is underinvestment in infrastructure that leads to scarcity of good-quality housing or decent roads, not the arrival of people from overseas who simply want a better life. They should have as much right to live and work here as any of the rest of us - and if that means building more homes and roads to accommodate them, so be it.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

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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.