A rich collective history

Candida Perera

Shaping the national debate post-Brexit

Many of us who had campaigned to remain woke up to a sense of deep and inexorable loss when it was announced the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Although the polls had indicated a close race between the two campaigns, many had expected the UK to remain in a long and fruitful union with its European neighbours. However, it was not to be and the referendum revealed a nation ill at ease with migration and the principle of free movement.

Since 1945, the UK has seen different waves of migration – firstly, with Commonwealth migrants, and, more recently, with European migrants from the accession states. These are different phenomena, but key insights can be drawn from the former to shape our understanding of the latter. Mapping Labour’s political offering over the past 70 years brings to the fore a rich collective history. It from this vantage point that the Labour party should work to frame the wider national debate around freedom of movement, citizenship and British identity.

1. Labour should have an open and honest discussion around the challenges and opportunities associated with freedom of movement

Successive governments have failed to have an honest discussion about Britain’s changing role in the global world. The movement of people through Commonwealth migration very much mirrors the increasing freedom of movement we see in the present day. Over the last 70 years, western European economies have used migration as an economic tool to plug acute labour shortages and bridge the skills gap. However, the transactional use of freedom of movement came at a cost both to those coming into Britain, and to the low-paid communities who were already here. Like European freedom of movement, the 1948 Nationality Act gave all inhabitants across the Commonwealth the right to live and work across the British Empire, providing communities with the new and unified status of “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”. However, the government at the time failed to enshrine equal civil rights amongst all citizens. This meant that commonwealth migrants were subject to systematic discrimination. Indeed, many commonwealth communities experienced unfair and unequal access to housing, employment and education, with the now infamous term: “no dogs, no Irish, and no Blacks” being displayed across lodging houses across the country.

Fast forward nearly 70 years, and the issues related to unequal access and unfair treatment still persist. The lack of a common bill of rights that, at a minimum, ensures each citizen has access to a full living wage which supports the increasing cost of living; secure employment with long-term certainty & financial security and clean and affordable housing, has meant that low-paid migrants are more likely to be subject to sub-standard public services. As a result, low paid European migrants are more likely to suffer from the in-direct discrimination. Despite being disproportionately over-qualified, Eastern European migrants are more likely to be in low-skilled low-paid jobs. Estimates show that as many as 60 per cent of over-qualified Eastern European migrants work in low-skilled sectors. This means that they are more likely to experience low-pay, earning £3 an hour less than British counterparts. In addition to this, EU migrants are more than four times more likely to live in overcrowded households, inhabiting housing stock at the lower end of the private rental sector.

Just like the Attlee government decades before, New Labour failed to have an open and honest discussion with the electorate. Indeed, the post war government failed to foster the dialogue around freedom of movement, its economic opportunities and potential challenges. The resident population of Britain was not adequately prepared for the economic necessity of commonwealth migration.

The response of the then Macmillan-led Conservative government, was reminiscent of the leave campaign in the run up to the EU referendum. Both sides recklessly chose to simplify the complexity of migration to a singularity. Instead of tackling the real issues around persistent inequality and deprivation, party politics often focused on simplistic rhetoric and quick-win solutions. The narrative pushed by successive governments, was that commonwealth migration was something that had been foisted on the nation, with little benefit to the country. We know however that commonwealth migration played an instrumental role in bolstering economic growth well into the late 60s.

Such miscommunication was further compounded by the age-old spectre of persistent inequality, poor government planning, and an increasing mismatch between demand and supply of scarce resources. Indeed, without adequate investment in public services during the second world war, housing provision came under acute pressure once the war ended. The early post-war years was a world which very much mirrors our own, with rampant inequality and poor access to services. As a result, some of the most disadvantaged groups, such as the working-class people living in Notting hill’s urban slums, often failed to see the benefits of this so-called economic “golden age”.

2. Labour should be confident that its social democratic tradition still speaks to the modern challenges of today

The bold legislation of Labour’s Wilson government, towards the later stages of the 60s, speaks of a party confident and at ease with its social democratic values. It is these value that should stand resolute. Despite such principles, at times, seeming somewhat anachronistic – in direct opposition to the national mood of time; the Labour party must lead the way in shaping the nation’s social and cultural mores. Labour’s legislation to enfranchise civil rights and outlaw discrimination (through the Race Relations Acts of 1965, ’68 and ’76) represents one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern history. This legislation came at a time when there were acute challenges around racial inequality and discrimination in the UK. Yet, Labour responded effectively, offering expedient solutions that went beyond the status quo. In fact, the introduction of the 1965 Race Relations Act captured the turning mood towards domestic race-relations, with the US instituting its landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and ’68 at the same time. The Conservatives’ Smethwick campaign, using the slogan “if you want a n***er for a neighbour, vote Labour”, will be consigned to the history books as an example of one the most disgraceful acts of politically sponsored racism in modern times. Like successive Labour governments before, the current Labour opposition needs to make the case for social democratic values in a language that speaks to the national social and economic reality.

3. Labour should take a leading role in shaping the discourse around British identity

In order to have a meaningful discussion around what it means to be British in an increasingly fluid population, the paradigm around identity must be accurate and authentic. It must work hard to represent and celebrate the genuine contribution that all communities have made to our cultural values and British heritage – be it by race, class, gender or sexuality.

Previous governments have often failed to create a national identity that accurately captures the inextricable link between Britain and its ex-colonies, and now Europe. Administrations in post-war Britain often supported the notion that British identity was strictly mono-cultural, yet failed to create an identity that recognised the contribution of commonwealth communities in the building and shaping of the country. This approach to identity was bolstered by the historical misnomer, that commonwealth communities only began cultural exchange after 1948. Such discourse emphasised the idea that commonwealth migrants were the “other”, ultimately leading to large swathes of British citizens being marginalised by their own society.

In the European migration context, striking parallels can also be drawn. Indeed, British cultural identity has been shaped by the Hanovers, the Saxe-Coburgs, and those who would later go on to be called the Windsors. I would argue that such migration falls at the heart of British identity, and is not an anomaly but the norm. Indeed our rich cultural history has been shaped by a wide array of European communities such as the Normans, the French Huguenots and the Eastern European Jews. Indeed, it if we peer more closely over the vast swathes of history, we see a nation shaped by the global flows of migration and a country whose identity, on closer inspection, is indeed truly multi-cultural.

Image: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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