Ever since members of the Transport and General Workers Union marched in support of Enoch Powell’s racist attack on BME British citizens in 1968, the question of immigration has been difficult to the point of toxicity for Labour.
There is never an easy answer for the party. In the 1974-79 government Margaret Thatcher accused Labour of “swamping” the country with immigrants – a classic dog-whistle attack – and in government she introduced new legislation to slow down immigration from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
But she and other Tories supported free movement of people until Labour won power in 1997, whereupon the Conservatives started to raise the question of immigration, this time linking it to the tune of anti-European themes promoted by William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard thereafter and further encouraged by David Cameron after he became leader in 2005.
Unfortunately, the Labour government did not put in place measures to help local working class communities deal with the mass arrival of incomers that began to accelerate in the 1990s and became ever stronger as the new century opened.
For some Labour MPs the answer was to leave the EU but any resentment against immigrant workers pre-dated the UK joining the then EEC in 1973. Today, the appeals floated by senior Labour MPs and ex-ministers for suspending or re-writing the free movement of people as means to defeat Brexit are just silly and look like a last-minute panic response.
Instead, the real issue is to question some aspects of the last Labour government’s economic management, based as it was on an employment-rich labour market sustained by the lowest possible wages and helped by massive taxpayer’s subsidies to employers via the working tax credits system.
This undoubtedly kept unemployment low but for Labour voters who had lost good-pay jobs in the great de-industrialisation wave of 1980-2000, these low-paid jobs were a poor replacement for the trade union negotiated wages of the old blue-collar Labour-voting working class.
The Tories, BNP and UKIP kept blaming the EU for this in-work impoverishment and Labour had little answer. It was the long Labour years 1997-2010 when Labour lost its voice and a message on Europe. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown invested any of their leadership and communication skills to explain the benefits of the EU to the nation in the way David Cameron is doing today.
Support for UKIP and the BNP in local council and European Parliament elections strengthened after 2001 as the kind of anti-immigrant feelings amongst Labour supporters that had been suppressed but remained intact since the era of Enoch Powell had a voting outlet.
The fervent anti-Europeanism from Tory leaders Hague, IDS and Howard also put Blair and Brown on the defensive. Already by 2004, before the arrival of EU workers from East European countries, UKIP had surged past the LibDems to win 2.6 million votes in the European Parliament elections and Nigel Farage’s career was launched.
The question of “immigrants’ was raised constantly on the doorstep for Labour MPs in white working class areas from the beginning of the new century. Labour changed the law to allow many more cousin marriages from Pakistan and Bangladesh so that the Muslim population grew rapidly and as a Labour MP I met constant racist comments when canvassing for local and parliamentary elections after 1997.
There was resentment against the “Kosovars” – some of the 850,000 refugees from Kosovo who fled to escape Milosevic’s genocidal violence in 1999. Every Labour MP’s surgery was filled with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Eritrea and other countries where political repression or economic despair forced people to move north to Europe.
Blair and Brown also failed to implement in full EU laws like the Agency Workers Directive, the Working Time Directive or the Posted Workers directive – all of which were designed to help the indigenous worker and protect him or her from exploitation by the mass arrival of foreign workers willing to work long hours for very low pay. This made matters far worse.
Between 1997 and 2009 Labour sold 495,000 council houses and in Yorkshire and the Humber region built just 24. Working class families found their children without fair-pay jobs or affordable housing. Blaming “Immigrants” was an easy target.
The BNP and UKIP exploited resentment amongst British workers and won council seats while the BNP even gained its first two MEPs in the 2009 European Parliament elections.
Labour seemed keener to help the Mike Ashleys and Philip Greens of the business world who loved the flow of cheap, docile, foreign workers from East Europe than to try and implement EU directives designed precisely to help British-born workers.
But the problem of immigration was not about Poles filling Catholic churches or Lithuanians picking fruit that otherwise rotted on trees because white working working class Brits would not do what they called “immigrant jobs.”
It fused with fears over the rise of Islamism, and after 2011 with Libya becoming an open door through which Arab and sub-Saharan migrants flooded into Europe with many aiming for the UK.
Of course after 2010, and the arrival of a government that was unfriendly to trade unions and workers’ rights the anger and resentment of British workers only became worse.
Rolling out Gordon Brown to persuade Labour voters to vote Remain may be too late. The damage was done between 1997 and 2010. So, if Brexit happens, it would be wrong to blame Jeremy Corbyn. The rot set in long before he arrived as Labour leader – and even if he cannot find the words or the inspiration to save David Cameron and the UK as a whole from Brexit.