As Sadiq Khan steps through the doors of his new City Hall office the post-mortem has already begun about the impact of a bruising and divisive election campaign on a city as diverse as London. As the new mayor seeks to heal the wounds he should revisit the debate during the campaign about encouraging greater citizenship.
The new mayor promised to foster cohesion and promote citizenship and civic engagement. But how should he go about this, and what real impact would it have?
Communities feel most comfortable with immigration when they can see immigrants putting down roots and becoming part of the community, rather than being transient and isolated among their own group. Promoting citizenship in communities where people lead parallel lives would encourage that.
Citizenship sends a powerful message to the rest of society that an immigrant has passed a range of thresholds to become ‘one of us’. To become a British citizen, you have to pass a Life in the UK test about our culture and history and be able to speak decent English. You have to have lived here for long enough to qualify, and you have to be of ‘good character’, that is, not have committed any serious offences. Promoting citizenship will promote social cohesion.
And the mayor should help those migrants who would really benefit from citizenship be able to get it. For some migrants, the benefits are negligible. Other groups stand to gain much. Non-Commonwealth, non-EU citizens would gain their first measure of electoral representation – important steps for London’s Somali or Turkish communities.
For low-income immigrants, it would protect them from discrimination as an unintended consequence of attempts to reduce illegal immigration. Banks, landlords and employers now have to verify the immigration status of everyone they open an account for, rent to or employ. There is evidence to suggest that those without much knowledge of the system, or who don’t recognise an unfamiliar passport and immigration document, err on the side of caution, indirectly discriminating against people who do have the right to be here. But they would recognise a British passport immediately.
It now costs around £1,300 to naturalise – far beyond the range of some low wage immigrants. The new mayor should think about how he can help them on their path.
London is now the first major Western city to elect a Muslim mayor. At a time when the role of Muslims in Europe is contested, the third biggest personal mandate in the EU, after the presidencies of France and Portugal, is now held by the Muslim son of immigrants. This is no small step. But after such a divisive campaign, there is no room for complacency.
Sadiq Khan is now in charge of Europe’s biggest city, a global metropolis home to people from all over the world. Fostering cohesion and making immigration work will be a key part of his new job. Making more Londoners citizens would be a good place to start.
Chris Murray is an IPPR research fellow specialising in migration and integration. He tweets at @ChrisMurray2010