For 50 years voters have been denied an honest debate on immigration. Now we’re paying the price

Gary Younge writes: During the 1964 election Harold Wilson spent a day campaigning in London marginals, addressing crowds from the back of a lorry. Invariably he would be harangued by bigots demanding the repatriation of nonwhite people. Wilson faced the hecklers down. “Whom should we send home? The nurses in our hospitals? The people who drive our buses. Where would our health service be without the black workers who keep it going?” According to the late Paul Foot: “These questions were greeted with great roars of approval from the crowd, and the hecklers were silenced.”

Elsewhere that year a notorious election campaign in Smethwick, near Birmingham, saw the Tory candidate, Peter Griffiths, slug his way to victory on an anti-immigration ticket buoyed by the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.” When asked to disown that sentiment Griffiths replied: “I would not condemn anyone who said that. I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling.”

Labour won the election nationally, with a 3.5% swing, but lost in Smethwick because of a 7.2% swing against them. Later, in his diaries, the Labour minister Richard Crossman concluded that since Smethwick: “It has been quite clear [for Labour] that immigration can be the greatest potential vote-loser for the Labour party”.

For the last 50 years the British political class has refused to engage intelligently with the issue of immigration. The Tories brazenly stoke popular prejudice (Margaret Thatcher: “swamped by people with a different culture”; Michael Howard: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”) while Labour cravenly submits to it (Tony Blair’s bulldog; Ed Miliband’s mug).

Wary of making arguments that are moral or fact-based, Labour sought not to counter inflammatory rhetoric but to indulge it. The Tories understand that fear of immigration is how they get votes; Labour understand that’s how they lose them. The upshot is that precious few in the country understand what immigration is for, what drives it, or who benefits from it and why. [Continue reading…]

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