Tuesday, April 20, 2010

General election in Lewisham - racism rears its head

Not planning to spend too much time on the election at Transpontine, and certainly steering clear of party politics. However, I cannot let some of the disgraceful comments attributed to candidates in the Lewisham Deptford consituency pass without comment. In a feature on immigration at BBC News (19 April), the parliamentary candidates of all the three major parties come out pretty badly. Of course they may have been misquoted - in which case let's hear them back pedal pretty quickly.

Worst of all was... can you guess? They 'said areas like Lewisham could not sustain high rises of immigration because standards in services like schools, housing and hospitals had fallen "well below par". She added: "In the past 13 years, Labour has operated an open door policy on immigration, with the UK seeing the largest sustained rise in our history. I'm still surprised every time I knock on someone's door and find that despite living here most of their life, they can hardly speak English." '

No this wasn't the BNP candidate, but Gemma Townsend who is standing for the Tories. The comment about people's language is nonsense - how does she know how long they have been living here, if they can't speak English? Maybe I am underestimating her, perhaps she is polylingual and is able to converse with them in Bengali, Somali, Spanish and Polish about their personal histories. The comment about the open door policy is also nonsense, unfortunately. Try telling that to people locked up in detention centres or dragged on to planes for deportation. But the suggestion that there is some link between migration and falling standards in public services is plain racist in so far as it seeks to blame migrants for totally unconnected social problems. Whether standards have actually fallen is a moot point, but in what way could migrants be held responsible for failings in health care? In London, the health and social care system is largely dependent upon migrant labour - far from damaging it, migrants are keeping it going. As for education, are migrants really dragging down standards? In many schools migrant children do at least as well as their English-born counterparts.

As for housing.... well, over to the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tamora Langley: 'People are frustrated by seeing immigrants placed in council housing when they, or their children, have been on the waiting list for years. Particularly in Lewisham Deptford, where the Labour-run council has lost money that should have been ours to spend on upgrading social housing, people feel let down, and some wonder if immigrants are getting a better deal'. Of course there is a shortage of social housing, partly because of the 1980s Tory policy of selling off council homes and partly because Labour then placed a moratorium on building new council housing. But to talk of immigrants jumping housing queues is again pandering to racism. It a BNP-fostered myth- a study last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that migrants are actually under-represented in social housing - only 1.8% of social tenants are immigrants who have moved to the UK in the past five years. Of course many of the British-born people who live in social housing are black, which is actually the subtext of a lot of complaint about 'foreigners taking our housing' - racism from people who think that only white people really 'belong here'.

What of the Labour candidate? Joan Ruddock avoids saying anything negative and talks about her constituency work helping community groups 'access grants and establish self help groups '. This may be true, but tiptoes around actually saying anything about policy. I sometimes wonder how someone like Ruddock sleeps at night knowing, for instance, that her party's immigration policies are leaving children locked up in prisons, sorry detention centres.

Green Party candidate Darren Johnson does say "I support an amnesty for migrants who have been here for a number of years". In the context of national politics this seems almost unthinkably radical, but is actually the Strangers into Citizens position that is supported by Boris Johnson as well as the previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Lots of migrant organisations are supporting this call, though others have wondered whether this could be used as an excuse to be even more intolerant of those who don't fit the criteria for an 'amnesty' - is it 'regularisation for all' or only a minority? This is the real debate about immigration that we need to have - how do we best recognise the reality and humanity of the hundreds of thousands of people living, working, loving and having kids in London regardless of what papers they hold? Everyone knows, including the Borders Agency, that most of these people are here to stay.

One of the rarely commented on positive results of mass migration is that it undermines the electoral success of explicitly racist politics. It may be true that in some areas the perception of an influx of migrants can be manipulated to create a racist backlash - as the BNP have done to a certain extent in Barking and Dagenham. But the bottom line is that once migrants and their descendants reach a critical mass beyond a small scapegoated minority, it is very difficult for openly racist candidates to get elected. Apart from anything else only a tiny number of immigrants and 'non-white' people are likely to vote for explicitly racist candidates which means that the latter could only be elected if a very high proportion of 'white British' voters support them. In the 2001 census, one third of Lewisham residents were defined as 'non white'. In Lewisham Deptford today the proportion is probaby higher - suggesting that playing to the racist gallery in elections round here is flirting with political suicide. Time will soon tell.

(Update - shortly after posting this, Lib Dem candidate Tam Langley commented at this post that it is not her view that immigrants are jumping the housing queue - in the BBC story she was reporting the perceptions of some voters, not her own perspective. It is true that her statement on immigration on her blog is much more positive. Taken on their own, TL's comments in the BBC article appear to acknowledge but not challenge the perception that 'immigrants jump the housing queue'. Of course the BBC journalist put their particular slant on the story, and may have left out other comments that make this clearer).


Rob Blackie said...

Actually you have misunderstood my comments. I'm reporting what people have said to me on the doorsteps - not what I believe! Of course you are right that there is a myth that immigrants jump the housing queue. But it’s a myth that a lot of people believe.

It would be particularly strange of me to pander to these beliefs rather than challenge them when my family includes immigrants living in council housing.

Since a lot of my potential constituents ask me for an opinion on immigration I’ve published my views on my blog here:

Tam Langley

. said...

Fair enough, I will link to your statement which does seem to be at odds with the tone of the BBC article.

Raven said...

Good post. Something that definitely needed to be picked up on.

A said...

It's good to see TL clarify, though it does smack of your 'rowing back' prediction, Transpontine. TL - through her spokesperson? - doesn't say what else she said to the BBC journalist, or whether in the interview she did seek to challenge the 'jumping the queue myth'. If she did, is she angry with the journalist for leaving it out and making her look like a racist? At the moment this has a rather cynical smell to it; it would be good to get a clarification about whether she thinks she was edited down by the BBC.

Gibbons said...

At the hustings the conservative candidate also supported the amnesty (pretty sure they all did tbh though Joan Ruddock pointed out that Labour had already effectively held a number of amnesties?), and regarding the lack of English, it was just illustrating a (presumably party) policy that would see English lessons provided to all new arrivals. I can see how it may come accross in print, but that was not how she came accross in person at all (or Tam for that matter).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, I was also horrified when I read that article. I'm glad that Tamora has clarified her position now - either she was well and trully stitched up by that journalist or she didn't choose her words at all wisely. It's lack of social rent housing, not immigration that is the big concern for many in the constituency.