The preferences and the prejudices of the swing voter in the marginal constituency retain a disproportionate influence within our political system. As such, the modern politician seeks to neutralise – or triangulate around – difficult political terrain. There is no better example of this terrain than the current debates around race and demographic change.

Labour Party Deputy leader contestant Jon Cruddas tackles immigration and the far right in this essay…

Race, Class and Migration: Tackling the Far Right

18 April 2007

Article by Jon Cruddas in the Policy Network book “Rethinking Immigration and Integration: a New Centre-Left Agenda”

Over the last few years, many of our communities have experienced extraordinary rates of change – primarily driven by mass migration, changing patterns in the demand for labour and the dynamics of the housing market. The policy issues thrown up by these forces have been diffi cult for the state to comprehend; not least because many of the people affected by the changes do not show up in the census and therefore do not exist for the purposes of public policy making.

Moreover, the communities undergoing these rapid demographic changes are often the most poorly equipped to do so, and maintain high levels of poverty, social immobility and poor public services. Poorer, low-cost housing areas, primarily in urban settings, are taking the strain in managing migration fl ows. The impact of migration on the labour and housing markets has triggered tensions and threatened community cohesion. In particular communities, the local population grows at a faster rate than the state’s refinancing of public services, as decisions on funding are based on an out-of date formula for resource allocation.

These issues demand an adequate response from the state that must be based on the empirical realities of modern Britain. It means a return to issues of class, race, poverty and migration. It means that we have to construct a real-time demographic picture upon which to build such an adequate response. It is through such a response that we can construct a framework for addressing the material conditions which aid the far-right in exploiting these issues.

Yet the configuration of the electoral system pushes politicians into dangerous territory when addressing race and migration. The preferences and the prejudices of the swing voter in the marginal constituency retain a disproportionate influence within our political system. As such, the modern politician seeks to neutralise – or triangulate around – difficult political terrain. There is no better example of this terrain than the current debates around race and demographic change.

Those negatively affected by migration perceive government efforts to tackle immigration as being woefully inadequate, as the issues which concern them are not sufficiently reported in the media and therefore are not commonly understood. This underreporting, combined with the strain placed on existing services by the recent expansion in migration, has led to disillusionment and caused voters to seek populist answers.

The economic losers from immigration are becoming increasingly alienated from their traditional Labour representation. This essay explores this fundamental economic and political rupture. On the one hand, the current situation has created a contest of tough policies on migrants. Due to the lack of a visible and coherent Labour policy, right-wing political parties (both mainstream and more extremist) have garnered support from traditional Labour voters. Immigration is a contentious issue which will increasingly determine electoral outcomes.

On the other hand, migrant labour has contributed to the economic prosperity enjoyed by Britain. Migrants bring an enormous range of benefits to the British economy, and many low-skilled workers are filling gaps in the UK labour market.

The combination of migration and economics can also result, in the worst cases, in racism and extremism. With reference to my own constituency in East London, I offer an insight into the way these forces combine and the consequences of the rise of extremist political forces. This article argues that what is required is a response grounded in the material conditions of disadvantaged communities, in order to remove the forces that are feeding extremist political movements.

Public perceptions must be tackled in order for the government to receive credit for its policies, but simultaneously, these policies need to be more responsive to the actual situation on the ground.

Changing labour markets and the demand for labour

Globalisation and the information and communication technologies have been widely cited as the key contemporary levers of change that are reshaping the labour markets of the future. Yet, the fundamental problem with this conception of the ‘new knowledge economy’ is one of evidence. On the basis of both the empirical changes over the last ten years and the best projections for the future, it is clear that we are witnessing an ever more pronounced polarisation within the labour market – and wider society – often described as the ‘hour glass’ economy.

On the one hand, there exists a primary labour market – the knowledge economy. On the other, there is an expanding secondary labour market where the largest growth is occurring – in service-related elementary occupations, administrative and clerical occupations, sales occupations, caring, personal service jobs and the like. In terms of absolute employment growth since the early 1990s, the fastest growing occupations have been in four long-established services (sales assistants, data input clerks, storekeepers and receptionists); in state dominated education and health services; and the caring occupations (care assistants, welfare and community workers, and nursery nurses).

In short, employment growth has been concentrated in occupations that could scarcely be judged new, still less the fulcrum of a ‘new economy’. New Labour’s political strategy has been driven by the dynamics at work at the top end of this hour glass – the political inference being that those who occupy the bottom half will always stick with Labour as they have no other viable alternative. For purposes of political positioning, the worldview has developed which renders the working class invisible and downgrades the needs of working class communities. Yet paradoxically, New Labour has overseen an economic strategy characterised by the expansion in the demand for relatively low waged work. In short, empirically it has brought about the development of a thriving bottom of the hour glass. This mix has tended to create a brittle tension between the narrative of New Labour and the empirical realities of the modern world. New Labour presents a picture of immigration in England for both the purposes of policy and public relations which is necessarily wrong because of the evidence on which it is based. This clashes with the experience of British people, whose experience of immigration is concerned with how daily life is affected by migration, and who see only the gap between Labour policy and migration issues.

This gap needs to be bridged in order to confront the problems caused by migration and show the public that these problems are being addressed in a serious way. Furthermore, the benefits of immigration must be emphasised. This tension also characterises the politics and the economics of migration. On the one hand we triangulate around migration and race given the prejudices of the swing voter in the swing seat.

Thus the importance of the swing voter lies behind the portrait painted by Labour: tight control over immigration and a protection against the negative aspects of these population flows. The presentation of Labour policy thus becomes of the greatest importance.

On the other hand, migrant labour – regulated and unregulated – has in reality been the cornerstone of government economic strategy, fuelled by the demand for relatively low-waged labour. The best illustration of this collision between rhetoric and reality is the data regarding the minimal prosecutions for those employing un-regularised migrant labour. Given the rate of inward migration alongside the lack of market regulation, it is impossible to conclude anything other than that migrant labour is seen as a key driver in tacitly de-regulating the labour market in order to reproduce this flexible low waged economy.

Migration: the numbers game

Rapid change is occurring in the British economy and wider society. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the population is growing at its fastest pace since the early 1960s despite record emigration. The ONS estimates the population of Britain to be some 60.2 million in June 2005 – a year-on-year rise of around 0.6 per cent or 375,000. According to research 235,000 of the 375,000 rise was due to net migration, with the remainder made up by the growing gap between births and deaths. In the same year net outward migration rose to 114,000 – the highest figure since records began in 1991.

The ONS has announced a programme to improve on these estimates given an acknowledgment that increasing numbers of people are on the move at any one time. This review is a tacit acceptance that these figures understate the real demographic changes at work within the UK – despite the record numbers contained in the estimates. The data assumes only a net migration of 74,300 from the new accession states.

The government has recently announced that some 427,095 people from the new EU countries had registered to work here over the two years from May 2004. However, the self-employed, students and dependents and legal ‘non-working’ residents do not register. It is a common estimate that at least 600,000 new EU nationals have now migrated to the UK over the last two years. The initial government estimate of the inflows was between 5,000 and 13,000. When we begin to scrutinise the details of this migration interesting information emerge. Most of them have come from Poland – 264,000. 82 per cent are young, aged between 18 and 34 and have no dependents. Most jobs performed are relatively low waged and low skilled jobs. In short there appears to have been a massive demographic movement into the UK driven by demand for certain forms of labour. Yet many of these families do not appear on the radar of public policy-makers, who remain attached to an out of date census that cannot encompass the sheer demographic dynamic that has developed over the last few years.

Demography, race and class: a case study of New Labour and the BNP

The Local Election results in May 2006 saw the British National Party (BNP) make significant electoral gains in specific parts of the country. Overall, the BNP gained 33 new councillors bringing their total to 48. BNP candidates were elected or polled over 25 per cent of the vote in over 100 council wards across the country. These gains built upon earlier electoral gains. The BNP polled 808,000 votes in the European elections and would have secured several MEPs and London Assembly members were it not for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). At the last General Election the BNP saved its deposit in 34 constituencies and made inroads within some of Labour’s traditional working class communities.

In 125 London the BNP polled 4.9 per cent in the Assembly elections. They had averaged some 35 per cent in five council by-elections over the last two years in Barking and Dagenham. Here, in September 2004, they won their first council seat in London for 11 years. This performance is significant not least because over the last few years there has been a sustained campaign against the BNP on the ground. At local level a new ‘Popular Front’ politics has been forged through anti-fascist groups and churches together with local union branches and voluntary and political groups coming together to defeat the far right.

How then are we to understand the BNP vote? This is partly accounted for by the ability of the BNP to become the depository of anti-Labour feeling in a number of wards given the limited alternatives available to vote for any other mainstream Party. Across the borough Labour stood 51 candidates, the Tories 23, UKIP 17, the BNP 13 and the Liberals 4.

This psephological analysis does not account for the material forces that underpin the BNP presence in the borough. The key forces at work relate to extraordinary demographic shifts that occur against a legacy of poverty and sustained underinvestment in public services and infrastructure. The key driver of the demographic transformation is the relatively low cost private housing market. Yet this consequence of ‘the right to buy’ has also heightened demand for social housing given sustained house price inflation over the last five years.

The major demographic changes are off the radar of public policy-makers who remain attached to census data that offers diminishing returns in terms of understanding the day to day realities of life in the borough. Major population changes have occurred since the census data. Yet public policy making assumes a stable – indeed slightly declining – population of 164,000 for issues of resource allocation with a static ethnic make up for every year since 2001. As such, formal state decision making assumes a stable demography. Yet the borough retains the lowest housing costs across the whole of London and as such it has developed a magnetic pull for all those in search of such housing.

The only data set that begins to uncover the demographic shifts that every resident is aware of is year-on-year data regarding school rolls. This shows up both a rapidly growing head count but also dramatic shifts within that total. For example, between 2003 and 2005 the percentage of white children on the school roll fell by some 9.1 per cent – three quarters of this change was accounted for by black African children – as the influx of migrants radically changed the demographics of certain areas. Immigration is occurring in ever greater numbers. One of the key factors behind the emergence of the extreme right is this breach between the formal state perception of the borough and the day to day dynamics at work within the locality. The incremental investment in public services by the state on the basis of out of date population statistics cannot begin to deal with concerns that demographic change is occurring whilst resources are becoming scarcer.

Therefore, this has helped to form the perception that these changes are actually reducing the social wage. This perception could be expressed in terms of growing health inequalities, or reduced access to social housing or even declining hourly wage rates as the dynamic of migration triggers a race to the bottom of working conditions. As such, issues of resource allocation are seen by many as issues of race – which becomes the prism through which, for example, health, housing and wage inequalities are viewed. The most acute politicisation of resources concerns housing. Yet it is considered to be driven by race rather than systematic failure to provide low rent social housing units. 127 It is here that the issue of working class disenfranchisement comes into play. New Labour has quite consciously removed class as an economic or political category.

It has specifically calibrated a science of political organisation – and indeed an ideology – to camp out in middle England with unarguable electoral successes. Yet the question remains as to whether the policy mix developed to dominate a specifi c part of the British electoral map actually compounds problems in other communities with different histories and contemporary economic and social profiles. It is not just about social housing, although this is the most concrete manifestation of the core problem. It is about the ability of the state to anticipate and invest in the poor urban communities that take the strain of rapid demographic change. These communities are themselves the least able to navigate through such change as they retain the legacies of previous periods of political and economic failure. It is across this seam of class, race, poverty, public service inequalities and the demography of urban Britain that the question of Labour renewal might be considered when cast alongside the rise of the BNP.

The policy remedies are actually easy to identify – housing strategy, labour market reform, sustained education investment, the removal of health inequalities, use of brownfield land, a creative approach to demographic change in real time – including a regularisation of illegal migrants so as to properly quantify population growth. In many respects, although unfashionable, the remedies are often self-evident. In reality, it is an exercise in political will. Such remedies would, in turn, allow us to return to the class disenfranchisement issues contained in current present strategy and the associated triangulations of New Labour, especially regarding race.


The way we have sought to neutralise negative political issues regarding race, immigration and asylum has been particularly damaging. The government has never attempted to systematically annunciate a clear set of principles that embrace the notion of immigration and its associated economic and social benefits. Yet at the same time it has tacitly used immigration to help the preferred flexible North American labour market. Especially in London, legal and illegal immigration has been central in replenishing the stock of cheap labour across the public and private services, construction, and civil engineering.

Politically, the government is then left in a terrible position. We triangulate around immigration and collude in the demonisation of the migrant whilst relying on the same people to rebuild our public and private services and make our labour markets more fl exible. Immigrant labour is the axis for the domestic agenda of the government yet we fail to defend the principle of immigration and by doing so we reinforce the isolation and vulnerability of immigrants. We aid the process of stigmatising the most vulnerable as the whole political centre of gravity moves to the right on matters of race. The wages of many of my constituents are in decline.

House prices appear to rise inexorably upwards, whilst thousands seek nonexistent new social housing. Public service improvements fail to match localised population expansion let alone the long term legacy of underinvestment. At work their terms and conditions are under threat as they compete for jobs with cheap immigrant labour. In terms of access to housing and public services and their position in the workplace, many see immigration as a central determinant in their own relative impoverishment. This remains unchallenged whilst the media and political classes help demonise the immigrant.

Those communities that must accommodate the new immigrant communities are the ones least equipped to do so. They themselves have the most limited opportunities for economic and social mobility. Yet they remain disenfranchised due to the political imperatives of middle England whilst political elites ramp up tensions in these very communities due to the way they triangulate around race.

It is this mixture of class poverty and race, together with policy issues around housing, public services and the labour market which has created such a rich seam for the BNP in many parts of the UK, especially when we see a national debate around race and immigration that heightens tensions in our community. To date, the debate around migration has been fundamentally dishonest in that it has tended to discuss the issues through a focus on the relative strength of the government’s immigration policy, rather than the actual material conditions experienced by both the migrant and the community within which he or she comes to reside.

A renewed focus on the material conditions within these communities would hopefully provide a more robust policy platform from which to manage population flows.