Voters Suffer Immigration Hangover
Influx of foreigners remade quaint town, some say, spurring a disaffection that could cost Labour votes
By Alistair MacDonald
The Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2010
Boston, England — The national firestorm that erupted after Prime Minister Gordon Brown branded a woman 'bigoted' draws its fuel from places like Bostona quintessentially English town of medieval lanes, an ancient marketplace and an overnight boom in immigration.
Foreign-born residents made up less than 3% of this east England port town's population just a decade ago. Now they account for one in four residents, the government estimates. The town's winding streets ring with Latvian, Polish and Portuguese.
Mark Rawlings, who works for an auto breakdown business, says he doesn't remember knowing a single foreigner when growing up in Boston. 'It just went like that,' he said, snapping his finger. 'So suddenly, and we can't cope.'
The foreign influx into this and other U.K. towns is shaping Thursday's national vote, the culmination of the tightest British race in decades. The issue zoomed to prominence last week when Mr. Brown, the Labour prime minister, was caught on a live microphone calling a voter he had just met 'bigoted' after she had asked about the influx of eastern Europeans in her town.
The south east London borough of Barking and Dagenham is hosting one of the U.K. election's most bitter battles that centers on national identity and immigration policy; between the governing Labour party and the ultra-right wing British National Party, which favors an immediate end to immigration and the repatriation of foreigners.
Media seized on the gaffe. But the exchange also underscored a preoccupation with immigration among some white working-class voters, long a Labour bastion.
It was Labour, in power since 1997, that threw the doors open to new arrivals. Foreign workers helped feed the past decade's economic boom, in part taking many low-paying jobs Britons didn't want. By late last year, some 14% of the U.K.'s working-age population had been born abroad, up from about 8% when the party took power. But now that the U.K. economy has soured, more locals are entering the scrum for low-wage jobs and some complain that immigrant workers have helped suppress wages.
The disaffection is expected to push some working-class white voters toward to the Conservative Party and, on the margins, toward small far-right groups such as the British National Party. In recent polls, U.K. voters have named the economy as their chief concern. Immigration consistently ranked among the next few issues that voters said would influence their decision, along with health care and education.
Immigration has reshaped the U.K. for centuries, with a post-war wave turning London, Manchester, Glasgow and others into multicultural havens. Many in Boston and beyond say they like the U.K.'s immigrant-driven cosmopolitanism but say the recent influx came too fast and was poorly managed.
This port town has a history of migrant issues. It was here, in 1607, that Pilgrim fathers were arrested after their first attempt to emigrate from Britain. Now, the flow is in the opposite direction.
Unlike the U.S., whose rancorous immigration debate largely centers on undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, the U.K. is host to immigrants who are often in the country legally. Many are from eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004, and have flocked to the fertile flatlands of east England to work in agriculture.
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Locals say newcomers are putting downward pressure on wages. At 350 ($465) a week, the average wage in Boston is well below the 400 average for the rest of Britain.
Laima Bezzima earns far less. Ms. Bezzima, who boxes flowers in a factory outside Boston for 5.80 an hour, says such work would earn her the equivalent of 2 an hour in her native Latvia, where unemployment has been over 22%.
'Horticulture in Lincolnshire couldn't function without' immigration, saidAlison Pratt, an official at the National Farmer's Union.
The influx has sparked a wave of self-examination and finger-pointing. Some locals say newcomers are transient, with few trying to integrate, and crime has increased.
A 2008 report from police trade body the Association of Chief Police Officers police report concluded that eastern Europeans hadn't triggered the crime wave described by some, but had increased other offenses involving sex trafficking and extortion.
Council leaders in Boston have complained that local budgets and amenities are under strain. This is because the Office of National Statistics figures used by the government to calculate the money it gives Boston to run local services estimates a population of 61,000, whereas the council claims that transient migration puts that figure at 5,000 and 10,000 more.
The immigrant influx has also helped transform an issue that was once the preserve of the right into part of the mainstream political dialogue.
In 2007, Labour Minister Margaret Hodge, who represents the east London constituency of Barking, was decried by her own party for saying that established families should take priority over new economic migrants in the allocation of public housing.
Ms. Hodge, a Jewish Egyptian immigrant who came to Britain as a child, says she champions immigration but that it has to be managed. 'If you get this sudden transformation of your world around you, if your neighbors change, if your English butcher becomes a Halal butcheryou are bound to feel unsettled,' said Ms. Hodge. For politicians 'not to acknowledge and respond to that is daft.'
Increasingly, political leaders are acknowledging it. In 2007, Home Secretary Alan Johnson accused Ms. Hodge of using the language of the BNP, a party that advocates the repatriation of nonindigenous Britons but which has yet to gain a foothold in national politics. In a shift late last year, Mr. Johnson said some communities had 'legitimate concerns about the strains' that come out of sudden immigration.
In Ms. Hodge's Barking constituency, some predict the BNP could win its first-ever parliamentary seat in Barking on Thursday. More broadly, the mainstream Conservatives are expected to benefit.
For many voters, Labour's acknowledgment that immigration is an issue is a deathbed conversion.
In June 2009, Labour was wiped off Boston's political map after losing all three of its seats in council elections. The U.K. Independence Party, which wants a five-year freeze on immigration, polled 9.5% of the local vote in the 2005 election, their highest results in the country.
In Boston, local BNP candidate David Owens says he expects to lose heavily to the Conservatives on Thursday. But watching mainstream politicians on TV increasingly debate immigration, Mr. Owens allowed himself a smile. 'It's very pleasing,' he says.
Election 2010: Parties clash over immigration and EU
The BBC News (U.K.), May 4, 2010