segunda-feira, 20 de junho de 2016
Immigration and the EU referendum: the angry, frustrated voice of the British public
Immigration and the EU referendum: the angry, frustrated voice of the British public
Up and down the country, voters feel let down, misled and neglected by politicians who ignore their fears about the effects of EU enlargement
Monday 20 June 2016 07.00 BST
The blaring sound of the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go crashed out of speakers precariously attached to the upper deck of Ukip’s open-top bus. An activist held on to her hair in the wind as the purple bus sped across north-west England to the sound of horns, mostly supportive.
The driver pulled into the market town of Leigh, and Chantelle, a local woman whose daughter is playing nearby, smiled towards the towering image of Nigel Farage painted on the side of the bus.
“I’m just fighting for my little girl to get a place at primary school,” she said, as she articulated – almost apologetically – why she will be voting out. “It’s all the foreigners, there are too many.”
A Polish accent cut in to warn of “the consequences of all these millions of people coming to this little island”.
A blonde woman in sunglasses nodded in agreement. “The rape’s gone up, the deaths, the crime rate, it’s all gone up.”
The scene, in an ordinary northern town on a sunny weekday, felt raw. Views that might once have been considered controversial were slipping freely from the tongues of not just local white British people, but black people too, and even from first-generation immigrants from eastern Europe.
Immigration has become the most talked about issue in this referendum, as people grapple with claims and counter-claims about how British society is changing and whether there is a need to take back some sense of control of the country’s borders and, perhaps more so, people’s lives.
The death of Jo Cox last week, on the same day that Farage unveiled a poster of fleeing refugees under the banner “breaking point”, triggered a fierce debate about whether the language being used by out campaigners had become toxic and dangerous.
Not that the thorny issue of immigration was one that Cox ever sought to dodge. As recently as last week, she wrote a piece for the website Politics Home arguing that Britain had reaped many benefits from welcoming skilled immigrants. But she also acknowledged that, across the country, people faced “everyday worries about job security, school places and GP appointments”.
Cox had heard the kind of worries being brought up in Leigh, as well as those in nearby Nantwich, Cheshire, where a teenage boy held up a sign as he chanted: “We want our country back.”
She argued that “legitimate concerns” had to be dealt with but said the answer was not Brexit, which she warned in the article would not bring down immigration.
It is not the sort of argument that has won over a woman from Wirral, who converted from the Tories to Ukip because she said that local people felt they were always at the back of the queue in the north-west. She claimed a child died waiting for an ambulance when 11 were dispatched to an accident involving foreigners, and suggested a school application form in her area had “priority for immigrants” at the top.
Asked about the proportion of immigrants in Leigh, Chantelle replied: “I’d say 80%, maybe 90%.” In fact, the most recent census (admittedly a few years out of date) suggested more than 90% of people in the area are white and UK-born.
And if there really is a school form that puts immigrants ahead of British people, it is not online and the council has no knowledge of it.
But highlighting the low number of foreigners in the wider area seemed meaningless in the face of genuine fears about how society was changing, and genuine frustrations for Chantelle regarding a school place. And even if immigration was serving as a proxy for something else, it was something that people like her were desperate for politicians to address.
“I work full time, my husband works full time, I pay full rent and I can’t get anything,” said Chantelle.
The local MP is the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, who said whatever the migration rates, Leigh had changed dramatically, from a mining town with “solid employment” and tight communities to a place where work was “massively less secure” and wages lower.
And he also warned that “blanket statements” about immigration often jar with people because regional or national statistics don’t tell you what is happening in their lives. Maybe Chantelle, he said as an example, lives on a road with a majority of immigrants. And even if perceptions are wrong, there is still a feeling of insecurity and inequality that needs to be acknowledged.
“This debate has been so dysfunctional for so long, it’s depressing,” he argued. “Most people are not xenophobic or racist, but life’s not easy and it doesn’t feel like people listen enough.”
Views like those expressed in areas of relatively low immigration in the north-west are echoed across the country in higher immigration areas, by migrants themselves in London, and by young people in Oxford.
But perhaps they are sharpest in Peterborough, in the east of England, where the streets have visibly transformed as the number of European migrants has increased. Here the percentage of people who are white and UK born is down to 71.1%.
Emily Fisher, a former youth MP and now a Conservative out campaigner, walked along a road lined with Polish, Portuguese and Turkish shops. Amid the clash of accents and the smells of foreign food, she pointed to a man sitting in an England shirt, gripping his pint, who said he too would be voting out.
Fisher argued that it was nothing to do with race. Peterborough just “can’t cope” with the pressures on its schools and hospitals, she said.
Is she right? There is no consensus among academics about the impact of immigration, with studies drawing different conclusions. One piece of research by University College London looked at taxes paid and benefits taken, and found a net contribution by European immigrants of more than £20bn over 10 years. But once the cost of public services is taken into account, that number is squeezed, with some concluding that the overall impact is, at best, neutral.
At Beeches primary school in Peterborough, where 26 languages are spoken, the headteacher, Tim Smith, admitted there were pressures, but also spoke of a strong culture of tolerance in his classrooms. Besides, he added, this is nothing new.
“Peterborough has been a reception site for immigrants for at least 60 to 70 years since the second world war. The school logbooks at the time say, ‘What are we going to do about all the Italian children?’”
At a health centre in the heart of the most changed part of the city, Dr Esther Green also talked of challenges. “Appointments can take longer, sometimes due to language issues,” she said. “I think there are great advantages to people coming in, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact.”
Vote Leave has focused heavily on NHS pressures, arguing that a decision to leave the EU would reduce waiting times by cutting patient numbers.
But at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, Dr Petar Dimitrov, a consultant anaesthetist from Bulgaria, warned that stricter controls could squeeze the NHS by taking away doctors and nurses who come from Europe.
“Have a walk at three in the morning in the hospitals and look at who is cleaning the hospitals and looking after the patients,” he said, arguing that he finds it upsetting that Bulgarians are now so stigmatised in Britain.
Dean, who runs a carpet cleaning company in London, argued that most eastern Europeans come for work, not for benefits, a point backed up by the statistics.
But it is also true that, as a Bank of England study has suggested, rising numbers of immigrants in low and semi-skilled sectors, including bar work and cleaning, does push down wages slightly.
And whatever the numbers, anger and frustration at the issue is causing Labour a problem in its heartlands.
Deborah Mattinson, the founding director of Britain Thinks, warns there is a risk of a backlash for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. “When you hear Labour politicians talking about the leave campaign they use language that doesn’t just denigrate the campaign, it denigrates people who feel concerned about immigration,” she said.
As the referendum approaches, pro-remain politicians are trying to sound tougher on the issue of immigration. Their sense of urgency is palpable, and it is clear why.
Back on the Ukip bus in north-west England was Steven Woolfe, the party’s mixed-race migration spokesman, who grew up on a council estate.
“There is a new class war being developed,” he said. “This referendum is making clear to me that it is between the rich and the poor.”
But there is an alternative vision too, being presented by the campaigners like the effervescent Amina Lone, whose job it is to reach out to minority voters.
At a market in Dalston, London, her message to first, second and third-generation immigrants, many of whom also feel alienated, was that breaking ties with Europe was not the answer.
“People are scared of a world that is changing, of losing influence, of politicians they don’t trust. I understand that. I am from the same community and wanting someone to blame is understandable.”
But she said Farage was making promises that he could not keep.
Lone’s arguments were echoed by Cox before her untimely death.
She, too, took the sentiments being expressed seriously, but came to a different conclusion from her political opponents. In her maiden speech, Cox spoke of the rich diversity of her own Batley and Spen community, arguing that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.
Those are words that will never be forgotten. On Wednesday, when Cox should have been celebrating her 42nd birthday, her friends and family will come together with tens of thousands of others in London, Yorkshire and across the world to try to bind her legacy with the words of that maiden speech.
Under the banner “more in common” they will hope to articulate Cox’s vision of a better Britain: one in which people’s worries about jobs, schools and the NHS are addressed, but immigration and diversity also celebrated.