Immigration Could Sway Coming Vote in Britain
LUTON, England — When Mohammed Qurban stood outside the Jamia mosque in the heavily Muslim Bury Park district on Tuesday and spoke anxiously about Britain’s record-high levels of immigration, he was reflecting a powerful undercurrent that could help tip victory in dozens of constituencies in Thursday’s general election to the main opposition groups vying with the governing Labour Party for power, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
“I think this country is coming overpopulated, too many people coming in from everywhere, especially Europe,” Mr. Qurban said, as fellow worshipers nodded in assent. In particular, he said, thousands of Poles in Luton were taking jobs from the children and grandchildren of a previous generation of immigrants like himself, those who arrived from Pakistan in one of Britain’s early waves of migration in the 1960s.
The conversation with Mr. Qurban, and at least a dozen others like it with Muslims in Luton, captured a shift of potentially far-reaching significance. The most strident opponents of large-scale immigration have traditionally been white, native-born Britons, and their favorite target immigrant blacks and Asians, particularly Muslims.
The incongruity was not lost on Mr. Qurban, 56, a rental agent who seemed keen to separate himself from the skinheads and others whose anti-immigrant agitation has sometimes turned violent. “This is my town, this is my bread-and-butter,” he said. “I’m a law-abiding citizen, never crossed the line, that is definitely out of order. The Poles have a problem at home as we do in Pakistan, no jobs, no money. I want to go along with them. But definitely, it’s up to the government to put a cap on it.”
The Poles, of course, are not technically immigrants. As part of the European Union, Britain is subject to its labor laws, which guarantee free movement of workers among member nations. With the financial crisis and the evaporation of millions of jobs, these legal migrants — accounting for 40 percent of the inflow in Britain — have stirred tensions throughout the union. The other 60 percent are foreigners, most of them illegal immigrants.
Voters consistently rank the high level of immigration as one of the most pressing issues, after the recession-hit economy, the state-run health service and crime. But since the 1950s, when Caribbean immigrants gave the country its first experience of large-scale, sustained population inflows, it has been an issue that has carried the potential for electoral disaster. Then and in succeeding decades, when new arrivals began arriving in large numbers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, any politician advocating stricter curbs risked drawing charges of racism, as well as alienating increasingly important voter blocs.
But this election has been different, with all three major parties saying something must be done to reduce migrant flows that have brought a net inflow since Labour came to power in 1997 of about two million foreigners, many of them people who found their way into Britain without prior approval.
That has been enough to have government statisticians predict that the population of Britain, already one of Europe’s most overcrowded nations, could grow by nearly 10 million, to 70 million, within 20 years, according to the Office for National Statistics, a government agency.
Luton, a city 50 miles northwest of London where a fifth of the population of about 100,000 are of Asian origin, has been a microcosm, in many ways, of the challenges immigration has posed. The party winning the constituency of Luton South, where most of the city’s Muslims live, has won every general election in Britain since 1951.
For the last decade, Luton has been a byword for many of Britain’s social and economic afflictions, as well as for tensions over immigrant communities. It has long been a down-at-the-heels neighbor to the more prosperous cities and towns that surround it. A major blow came in the last decade, when General Motors closed a local car plant, with the loss of more than 30,000 jobs.
When four Islamic suicide bombers attacked London’s transit system on July 7, 2005, killing 56 people, including themselves, they set off from Luton. Last year, Muslim extremists caused an outcry when they disrupted a parade for British soldiers returning from Iraq. Soon after, a Luton mosque was firebombed.
But there has been little sign of ethnic tensions in the current campaign, in which Luton South has been singled out as one of about 100 Labour-held “marginal” seats the Conservatives need as part of their strategy for winning the election. Conservative hopes have been raised by the disgracing of the departing Labour member of Parliament, Margaret Moran, who said she was stepping down after drawing headlines in last year’s scandal over parliamentary expenses.
But the immigration issue is the one that could cut most into the Labour vote. Labour, traditionally strong with immigrants, has defended its record by saying that new rules since the last election have brought arrivals down sharply from a high of 330,000 in 2007 to 250,000 in 2008 — though much of the difference was accounted for by Europeans who chose voluntarily to go home. The Conservatives have said they will introduce a cap on the total numbers, reducing the inflow by as much as 50 percent.
Liberal Democrats also favor a reduction, but would grant an amnesty to an estimated one million illegal immigrants who can prove they have been in Britain for 10 years.
Even the far-right British National Party has changed its policy, bowing to court rulings that threatened it with a ban unless it shed its whites-only dogmas. Now it favors an end to all immigration, although it says people from “alien cultures” should be offered $75,000 each to accept “voluntary repatriation.”
“It’s not about race,” Nick Griffin, the party’s leader, said in an interview over the weekend as he led a noisy protest against David Cameron, the Conservative leader, in the London suburb of Romford. “What we’re saying is, ‘Britain is full up. The door is closed.’ ”
An influential immigration-monitoring group, Migration Watch, says it, too, sees the issue as having moved beyond race. “It’s about numbers and space, not about race,” said Sir Andrew Green, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who leads the group. “We’re a very small island, and the issue is what it will mean to the country if the population grows to 70 million in 20 years’ time.”