THE tone was largely one of consensus. At an event last week on
immigration, hosted by the St Paul's Institute in St Paul's
Cathedral, participants agreed that the debate in the UK had become
toxic, and that immigrants were scapegoats. At the evening debate,
organised by the human-rights organisation Liberty, the closest
that panellists got to disagreement was over a question from the
floor about how to engage with the white working classes who felt
alienated from policy-makers. Stephanie Harrison QC, a specialist
in immigration law, suggested that the answer lay in rebuilding
solidarity between workers. She called for the return of the
Communist slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!"
"You with nothing are in the same boat and have more in common
with others, irrespective of your race or nationality," she said.
"Those who have and those who have power continue to run society
for their interests and the very small number of people who already
have the power and wealth."
Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic
and Social Research, an independent research body, disagreed: the
slogan was not going to convince working class voters not to vote
UKIP. Better to challenge the untruths that they had been told.
"We have to say very clearly that anyone who tells you that
reducing immigration will solve youth unemployment . . . or make
the fiscal crisis better - those are lies," he said. "Secondly, we
have to offer real solutions to youth unemployment and
exploitation." Workers were suffering, he suggested, "because they
are not positioned to be successful, given Britain's plan in the
The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, said that,
after receiving feedback, he had developed sympathy for one
particular group: "People who had been living in a place for a long
time, and had seen that place change around them, in ways in which
they no longer felt it was theirs. . . They felt that when they
moved into that area 50 or 60 years earlier, they had bought into
it as it was then, and found it was hollowed out under their own
feet. They felt alien in their own community."
The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, appeared to be
uncomfortable with these comments, warning against a "licence for
prejudice"; and the Bishop had to clarify that he did not
necessarily agree with such sentiments.
Speaking after the event, on Tuesday, Bishop Walker said: "I was
going to go on to say that I have heard exactly the same from
longstanding villagers whose new neighbours are successful urban
émigrés. And I regularly hear the same from some long-time
churchgoers in congregations now led by more recent members and
newer clergy. It's not primarily about race, or asylum: it's about
how long-term change gradually marginalises the original
population. We need to understand and help people live with such
Ms Harrison told the story of a family who had arrived in a
Welsh town from East Africa in the 1970s. They were greeted and
helped with their bags by the villagers, despite its being the
middle of the night. "We have to have those messages about
working-class communities as well," she said.
A powerful testimony was given by Meltem Avcil, who was held
with her mother for three months at Yarl's Wood immigration removal
centre. She described being taken from her home at 6 a.m. by eight
officers, transported in a caged van, and searched on arrival. She
had witnessed sexual assault by guards, and her mother had been
traumatised. "She has not been the same again."
She is now working on the campaign to end the detention of women
who seek asylum.