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Gary Younge
The boundaries of race in Britain today

It is a trip from the constituency with the lowest proportion of ethnic minority voters in England to the one with the highest that reveals not only the uneven range of Britain's physical landscape, but its racial landscape too.

Look at the CD racks in towns, the restaurants in the smallest village high streets or watch a football match on any pub television and you get a sense of how much British culture has changed as a result of postwar migration. In contrast, listen to the election debate about immigration and you'll realise how little our political culture has altered.

Having receded as a decisive electoral issue for the best part of a quarter of a century, "immigration" is back. In a Populus Tracker poll in the Times last week, immigration and asylum emerged as the fourth most likely issue to influence votes. At the same stage in the elections of 2001 and 1997 it did not rank at all.

And it is back in an ugly manner reminiscent of the racially-charged 1960s, when in the 1964 Smethwick byelection Conservative Peter Griffiths won with the slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour." Cast an eye over the 2005 election literature of Bob Spink, Tory candidate for Castle Point in Essex, which asks: "What bit of 'send them back' don't you understand Mr Blair?" and it seems little has changed in the intervening years.

In the constituency of St Ives, once a true-blue Tory constituency until the Liberal Democrats won it in 1997, a black face can still turn heads and twitch curtains. With around 0.1% of the voters of black or ethnic minorities the tidal wave of change that has swept through most of Britain since the arrival of Windrush almost 60 years ago has barely caused a ripple here.

"A lot of people have not looked at themselves or their organisations for quite a long time here," says Eileen Bortey, chairwoman of Cornwall's Council for Racial Equality. "You still get quite senior people who should know better referring to 'coloureds' and 'half-castes'." In Padstow, they still take to the streets in black face and Afro wigs to sing minstrel songs for their annual Darkie Day celebrations.

Meanwhile the temporary and low-paid jobs that prevail in Cornwall, the poorest county in Britain, have been filled by up to 20,000 migrants from eastern Europe and other poorer parts of the EU. "They are mostly in agricultural work, care homes, hotel and catering," says Jonny Lovell, diversity officer of West Cornwall Together. "A lot of them do seasonal work and other jobs where there are not enough local people to fill the vacancies."

So even here, where most migrants are from the home counties, immigration plays big.

"It's the one resonance issue that's favouring the Tories," says Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives, who has a 10,053 majority. "On the doorstep people aren't saying: 'I'm voting Conservative because of their tax spending plans'. People have been saying, 'We only came down here to get away from the blacks', and there was no self-consciousness about saying it out loud. I'm very disturbed about it."

In Croydon Central, Conservative candidate Andrew Pelling's leaflets show a world map with an arrow pointing to Croydon with the headline "Unlimited Immigration'.' In Perth, where Douglas Taylor seeks to stop hordes of foreign jobseekers heading for the north of Scotland, the message is: "Voters face a clear choice at this election - unlimited immigration under Labour or fair and controlled immigration with the Conservatives."


The question of how to regulate the flow of people into a country with an ageing population and acute labour shortages in certain areas is an important one. But the debate in Britain has been chronically misinformed. A Mori poll from 2003 showed that Britons overestimate the proportion of immigrants in the country by between three- and four-fold. And asylum and immigration - two quite separate if related issues - have been conflated in the national conversation as though they are synonymous.

For many people "immigration" is a code word for non-white people, regardless of where they are from. "No offence," said a ruddy-faced retired man I met in Portland, Dorset, just before he caused offence. "You've got a job. You've done well for yourself. But a lot of them come here with their hand out and there's got to be limits."

The Conservatives deny they are playing the race card. "Maybe they're not playing the race card," says Andrew George. "But they're playing the immigration card and that's right next to the race card in the deck."

Either way it seems to be having some effect. In the constituency of Dorset South, with Labour's slimmest majority of just 153, Jim Knight says it plays well with the pensioners, who may be struggling and feel resources are being diverted from them. "It could just put enough of our supporters off turning out."

Mr Knight's opponent, Ed Matts, made national news after he doctored a photograph of himself that turned a protest supporting a refugee family's right to stay in the country into one calling for controlled immigration. But no one I spoke to in Weymouth seemed that bothered by it and, with the exception of a passing, mocking reference at a hustings in Portland, the issue was not addressed.

However, over the past week it has become clear that in using the immigration card the Conservatives may be overplaying their hand.

"I'm surprised at how prominent Michael Howard has made immigration," says Tariq Modood, a sociology professor at Bristol university and author of Multicultural politics: Racism, ethnicity and Muslims in Britain.

"When Mrs Thatcher made a great play of immigration she referred to it just once. She never had to go back to it again. The message was clear. I'm surprised that Mr Howard feels he has to go on and on about it. He risks alienating some voters. If people keep calling him a racist then it will have an effect. He risks losing control of the issue. If you unleash a rottweiler it may go and do something you didn't want it to do. He may be bolstering the prospects of Ukip or the BNP."

Senior Tories have started to express their surprise too. They fear that concentrating on immigration and all it implies will have the same ultimately negative effect as campaigning against Europe did in 2001.

Steve Norris, the former Conservative mayoral candidate for London, said: "I think the people who, for example, might agree with the Conservatives on a lot of issues but who find the concentration on immigration vaguely distasteful, are just as likely to say, 'No thanks'."

Michael Portillo, the former defence secretary, said: "The most important thing for the Tories to prove to people is that they have changed. I think that by having immigration as such a big part of the campaign it suggests to people they haven't."

The immigration issue may rally the Conservatives' depleted base. But if it bolsters their reputation as what former party chairwoman Theresa May calls "the nasty party", it could repel waverers while motivating disaffected Labour voters to return to the fold.

Immigration is important to almost a fifth of Tory supporters, three times the proportion of Labour voters.

But the strategy risks scaring off women voters to whom, polls indicate, the issue is of far less interest than men. A Populus poll revealed that only 32% of voters identified with the slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" - the lowest rating of all three party's slogans.

Mr Modood argues that even though race and immigration did not play a huge role in 2001 any fragile consensus was breaking down even four years ago.

"2001 was a pivotal year," he says. "There were the disturbances in the northern cities, the appointment of David Blunkett as home secretary, and the terrorist attacks on September 11. Between them they contributed to a change of tone."

Mr Blunkett conflated immigration and race when responding to the riots in Bradford with calls for citizenship classes and language lessons, as though those involved were foreign.

"We have norms of acceptability," he said shortly before the reports into the disturbances was released. "And those who come into our home - for that is what it is - should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."

Last Friday Tony Blair delivered a speech about race in Dover against a backdrop not just of the white cliffs but of entirely white faces.


By the time you get to Romford Road in East Ham, where a jumble of different languages mingle in the air and the shop signs call you in Cyrillic and Arabic as well as Roman script, the still bay of St Ives could be another country.

According to Operation Black Vote, with 53,166 black and Asian voters East Ham has the highest number of minority voters in the country - a rich mix of people of Bangladeshi, African and Caribbean descent.

On the eve of St George's Day, the Conservative candidate Sarah Macken is handing out leaflets outside the Shahjalal mosque, within the sound of Bow bells. She is attempting to convert Muslims to the Tories, but she doesn't have a prayer; Labour has a majority of 21,032.

But unlike Humfrey Malins, the Tory immigration spokesman, who put out two leaflets - one in Urdu to Muslim voters boasting about his record of helping procure visas and visits, the other to white voters pledging to be tough on immigration - Ms Macken is handing out only one leaflet and hers does not mention immigration at all.

"There are good community relations here and for that to endure there has to be absolute confidence in our immigration controls," is all she will say.

Most people take the leaflets politely, although one man berates her, telling Ms Macken that a party that supported the war in Iraq and anti-terror legislation should have more respect than to leaflet a mosque.

Most of those asked say they are definitely not voting Labour because of the war. Most end up conceding that they did not vote last time either. Nothing much about the immigration debate seems to have troubled or surprised them. It's as though the election were taking place in another country, where they just happen to feature prominently in the national paranoia.

So where immigrants and their descendants are many, immigration barely plays at all; where they are few the issue plays big.

With a few exceptions, most of the key marginals, including Dorset South, have a low proportion of minority voters.

So immigration could yet prove decisive - but it's unclear which party the issue will eventually favour. Since Britons rarely tell the truth about race, to pollsters or anyone else, it is difficult to tell.

But one thing emerges of the journey from St Ives to East Ham.

The receptive audience the Conservatives have attracted in highlighting immigration suggests that despite all the contributions of black and Asian athletes, authors, musicians and midwives over the past 50 years, this nation's multicultural fabric is not woven half as tight as some might like to believe.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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