The truth about London’s “white flight”

A fall in London’s “white British” population does not mean the city is now “majority-migrant”.

London remains a majority-white and majority-British-born city. That was what the 2011 census found. But you may be surprised to hear it, since London now being "45 per cent white British" was one of the most prominent headlines of the 2011 census. Loose discussion of the finding has created a misleading meme. The 45 per cent figure has been received by many ears as suggesting that the capital is either “majority-minority” or “majority-migrant”. Neither is true.

The census facts are clear: our increasingly diverse capital is 60 per cent white and 63 per cent of Londoners are British-born. 

Overall, three-quarters of Londoners are British citizens, and under a quarter are foreign nationals.

But a discussion which conflates ethnicity and nationality risks misleading people about both dimensions. The official census media briefings prominently flagged up the 45 per cent figure on its own as a "key finding", without ensuring what it does and doesn't mean about how white or British London is was understood. By separating them out, we can better understand what the 2011 census data actually tells us about London and how it is changing:

63 per cent of Londoners were born in Britain

The census shows that the population of London is 63 per cent British-born, with over one in three born abroad. This 63 per cent British-born; 37 per cent foreign-born" finding is a more accurate way to capture the scale of migration in London. This also shows the increased pace of migration more accurately: the London population was 27 per cent born-abroad in 2001, and it is now 37 per cent.

Making the "45 per cent white British" statistic the headline claim is to see the salient contrast as between "white Britons" and "ethnic minorities, immigrants and foreigners (as immigrants include both British citizens and foreign nationals). That would seem to depend on the outdated premise that non-white Britons, including those born here, are not viewed as being as authentically British as their white fellow citizens.

Fortunately, the idea that British identity depends on white ethnicity is regarded as a very un-British idea by very broad majorities white and non-white Britons alike. You will find very few people who think Jessica Ennis or Ian Wright are less British than they are, because they are mixed race or black rather than "white British".

The inference that a city which is less "white British" must be less British flies in the face of the well-established evidence that non-white Britons have, on average, a somewhat stronger sense of British identity and allegiance than white Britons. Major studies have repeatedly found this; and the media have repeatedly reported it as a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. 

The population of London is 60 per cent white

"White British" Londoners are now a plurality, rather than a majority. If anybody is interested in ethnicity, the "whiteness" of the capital city , then the census demonstrates that 60 per cent of those resident in London are white. There is a white majority in London once the ethnicity of the Irish and the Americans, the French and the Poles who live and work in the city is taken into account. None of Graham Norton or Terry Wogan, Rolf Harris or Kylie Minogue, Arsene Wenger or Ulrika Johnson are likely to have made any contribution to the white British census score.

Three-quarters of Londoners are British citizens

Of the third of Londoners born abroad, many have become British too. The "foreign-born" 33 per cent will also include some Londoners like Boris Johnson, who were British from birth, though born abroad, in New York in his case. (So the Mayor is included in the "white British" 45 per cent but not in the British-born 67 per cent. The children of soldiers posted abroad helped boost the German-born category to fifth non-British country of birth, for example). 

Others were not born British but chose to become British. Again, the British tradition is that all citizens count as fully and equally British, including those like Prince Phillip and Mo Farah who were born abroad. Across England and Wales as a whole, around a third of those born abroad have been here more than twenty years,arriving across the decades between 1950 and 1990. 

This census release reported that 24 per cent of Londoners hold non-British passports. However, this will also include some who are dual nationals, and who are British too. There is a promise to include in "subsequent releases from 2011 census ... a more complete indicator of migration status since, for example, British citizens can be born abroad and other people living in the UK who were born abroad can acquire British citizenship".

The census data published so far does not reveal the precise proportion of Londoners who are British citizens. It shows that over 70 per cent of Londoners hold a British passport, but the 8 per cent of Londoners who do not hold a passport will include many British citizens too. (This gives London the lowest proportion of non-passport holders in the UK, compared to 22 per cent in Wales). However, in the meantime, data does exist elsewhere. The findings from the 2011 Labour Force Survey data show that foreign citizens made up 19 per cent of the population of outer London, and 27 per cent of those in inner London. The University of Oxford Migration Observatory calculates that, overall, that would translate into 22 per cent of London residents being foreign nationals.

The census snapshot captures much temporary as well as permanent migration

The headline census figure that 7.5 million people resident in England and Wales were born abroad and that half arrived in the last decade. That reflects the historic rise in migration over the last decade, as every report has stressed. What has been seldom explained is how and why those raw figures will also tend to exaggerate the increase. 

The census is a "snapshot". It tells us about the usual residents of England and Wales on one night in March 2001. That snapshot approach means that it cannot easily convey one of the biggest changes in immigration patterns over the last decade: a sharp shift towards temporary rather than permanent migration.

We tend to think of the "Ellis Island model" of immigration: you arrive, with your suitcase, and settle for good. But the changes in travel and communications that have made migration easier have made it easier to go back too. 72 per cent of migrants to the UK now come for less than five years, as the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has reported. A majority of those classed as "long-term" migrants (here for more than 12 months) say they intend to stay for one or two years.

The census "snapshot" captures the scale of migration, but not this challenging new dynamic of increased churn.

While half of the foreign born-residents currently in England and Wales have arrived in the last ten years, most of them will not stay, while a proportion will settle and become British. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of those recorded in the census almost two years ago will already have gone; others have arrived, and again most will later leave, while a significant minority will settle, become British and see their children become "us" too.

Londoners shopping on Oxford Street. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.