28 AUGUST 1964, Page 5

Political Commentary

Colour and the Election


Two weeks ago the Birmingham Planet, a newspaper owned by Mr. Woodrow Wyatt, the Labour MP for Bosworth, carried an article, Prominently displayed, entitled 'Commonsense about Immigrants.' It was by Alderman Norman Tiptaft, a former 'independent' Lord Mayor of liirmingham. Twenty column-inches of newsprint is scarcely enough to contain the Alderman's indignation at the 'pitifully slack' way in which the Government drew up the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill and the 'milk-and-water manner' in which the Act has been administered. 'Unless,' he thundered, `the Government is prepared to take action to stop the flow ... thousands of Con- servative voters, not necessarily members of the Conservative Party, will not vote Conservative this time.' Last week, Mr. Wyatt's paper con- tained a letter, specially holed in a pretty wavy line and adorned with a photograph of its author, the Conservative city councillor, Mr. C. A. Col- lett. The councillor outlines a nine-point plan for dealing with immigrants. Some of his points laY down stringent qualifications for entry to the Country. Others merely state the treatment they Should receive when they get here—'they would not be eligible for NH benefit until they, had Completed twelve months full employment,' they Should be allowed to send money home only through accepted Government channels. No vote for ten years. They should, when their turn Comes, be accommodated in sub-standard houses, for a trial peribd.. • Meanwhile, five miles away in Smethwick, Mr. "ter Griffiths, who is the Conservative candidate standing for Parliament against Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker, regularly fills his allotted space in the Smethwick Telephone with his own ex- hortations on the subject. Mr. Griffiths' general attitude can be summed up in the words he wrote O n July 3. `Smethwick rejects the idea of being a Multi-racial society.' But since there seems to be almost universal agreement that he will become

MP for Smethwick in October on the strength of this issue, I quote more fully from his latest Pronouncement on the subject on July 31. 'Surely if more houses are built they should go to British people first . . . in any case, would more houses end the nuisance and filth? Would more houses end the knife fights? Would more houses make the streets safe for young women and girls? . . . A Labour Government would mean a 'flood of immigrants as soon as the Act was lifted. Your protests and mine would be stifled by the threatened law to "outlaw incite- ment" which could mean just anything its spon- sors chose.'

I give these quotations at length because it seems to me that much of the recent discussion of the immigrants problem and its political significance has been conducted in a vacuum. The statement at the end of July by five of the seven Birmingham Conservative MPs praising the Government's Immigrants Bill and talking of the 'frictions' engendered by overcrowded houses, un-

equal opportunities, and job discrimination was comparatively mild in itself but it was rightly and immediately understood, in the hysterical atmosphere which is being whipped up in Birmingham, to give respectability to the views of the Griffiths, the Tiptafts, and the Collett& What is just as significant is the fact that the Conservative Central Office has never publicly disowned Mr. Griffiths and his views or indeed Mr. Collett. Likewise; Labour MPs and candi- dates in Birmingham have never launched a major counter-attack in defence of coloured immigrants, nor has Transport House made a serious national appeal for tolerance. Party leaders, surveying the scene from London far, prefer to shrug. 'It is better to ignore extremists.' they say, 'and Birmingham is not Britain.' How far is this honest, and how far is it correct?

No one need pretend that Birmingham has no genuine problems. Ten years ago the city had 4,000 coloured immigrants. Since then, drawn by the overpowering aura of prosperity, money, and full employment, they have poured in. There are now, in a population of 1.1 million, nearly 80,000 coloured immigrants, of whom about 40,000 are West Indian and 20,000 are Asian. They crowd into the engineering works, they practically staff the city's transport system and the hospitals. And they take up housing.

In 1959 the Corporation calculated that they were 30,000 houses short. They are building coun- cil houses at the rate of only just over 2,000 a year and patching up old sub-standard houses at about the same rate. They calculate that the de- ficiency by 1971 will be more than 43,000. In any case, under the city's ruthlessly applied 'Brummies first' allocation system you have to live for five years in Birmingham before even getting on to the waiting list for council houses; and you will probably wait. more than ten years after that. A coloured immigrant may be living in a single .room with a family of four and be working at night and still not compile enough points for housing assistance. It is true that since 1959 the treasurer's department calculates it has made about 4,500 loans to coloured im- migrants for house purchase; but that hardly solves the problem. Building societies are not helpful, and the current rate of interest de- manded by local coloured moneylenders is 70 per cent on the total sum loaned, over seven years.

The dismal result is the familiar one of bulging • and dilapidated colOured lodging-houses. A Paki- stani will buy the last fifteen years of the lease of a large late-Victorian house in a declining inner suburb of the city, pack in six or seven or eight families at £3 a week per room, and sit back on the profits without keeping up the property. The city health authorities can and do prosecute if his house becomes scandalously in- sanitary or overcrowded, but they dare not press too many landlords too hard for fear of finding themselves landed with endless and cumbersome court proceedings, an astronomical bill for com- pulsory purchase orders, or at the least with no- wh:.tre to put the evicted tenants.

This appalling housing problem produces the usual side-effects. White neighbours object to vast

• houses full of people who chatter and play loud music to all hours of the night, who en- shroud themselves with strange and pervasive cooking smells, who don't keep up their gardens or their curtains, don't paint the woodwork, and in general lower both the tone of the neighbour- hood and the value of white-owned proPerty. These genuine grievances are often magnified by ignorance and fear and are compounded by gossip—the blacks all have VD or leprosy or consumption: they are all criminals, they are

dirty, they are sex maniacs: their women breed like rabbits and take up all the maternity beds, their children can't speak English and hold back our kids at school. So it goes on.

All this has happened elsewhere, but it has either happened to a smaller extent or with more transient effects. One cannot help coming away from Birmingham with an overpowering feeling that what has made things different here, apart from the ferocious housing shortage, has been that no real attempt has been made by the local political leaders to educate public opinion. The city council, controlled by Labour for the last thirteen years, employs an overworked liaison officer with two assistants who does his best to cope with the problems of the immigrants them- selves, but it is only within the last few months that any systematic thought has been given to looking at integration from the other side—to explaining the customs and provenance of the newcomers, to get the races mixing, to con- sciously propagandise the good done to the city either collectively or singly by the coloured im- migrants. Indeed, the official line of City Hall is the cant that there is not a colour problem at all here, but only problems of housing, health, and so on. This has had the practical effect that a class of people who need extra help have, even in theory, been entitled only to as much help as anyone else, and in practice, because they are newcomers, have had less than others. The psy- chological effect has been that the citizens of Birmingham have been encouraged to pride them- selves that they don't mind black skins, only bad habits. This is often patently untrue.

Worse, while the colour issue has been damped down in this superficial way with one hand, the higher politicians have either surreptitiously fanned it or have refused to talk about it at all. The Conservative Party in Birmingham has great temptations to make the most of the issue— or, indeed, any other they can lay their hands on—since, of the thirteen Birmingham con- stituencies, five have majorities either way of fewer than 1,500 votes. Labour, by voting against the original Immigrants Bill and its con- tinuation last November, is identified with free entry of immigrants, however much the party leaders have qualified and explained (which is not much). One Labour candidate in Birming- ham calculated for me the other day that he could lose up to 5 per cent of his votes on the issue, depending entirely on how much his opponent chose to play it up. Many Conservatives have made the same calculation, and in these circumstances it is hardly surprising that officials and candidates on that side are evasive when asked what they are going to do about it. 'My dear boy,' they will say, 'we don't want to play it up. But you see it is an issue whether we pur- sue it or not.' It is to the great credit of four Conservative candidates (one marginal) and three Conservative MPs (one marginal), that they have let it be known that they will not make immigration an election issue. But one doubts whether positive Conservative denuncia- tions of racial prejudice in the city will be any more frequent during the campaign than they have been in the past five years.

Labour's dilemma in this situation is just as painful. No one. I have met would disagree with the conclusion of the recent Gallup Poll that potential Labour voters are even more in favour of the complete prohibition of immigrants than Conservatives. The overtly liberal Labour can- didate is bound to lose votes. Again, he can't make too much of the Labour Party's policy on the physical problems of immigration, especially bad housing, without running up against the fact that improvements for immi- grants will probably mean less for the Brummies. Nor can he hope to cancel out the 'white back- lash' with coloured votes. It is true that, when they vote, the immigrants will probably vote Labour: but it is generally calculated that, at any rate in Birmingham, only about half of the coloured voters are registered. Registration means disclosure of the number of people in a house, and possible unpleasantness with the health authorities and the tax man.

The truth is, of course, that it is now too late before this election to break out in Birmingham from the vicious circle that combines ignorance and prejudice with timorous or unscrupulous leadership. This picture is the more depressing because of the contrast with relatively good progress elsewhere. In London, with the excep- tion of Southall and Eton and Slough, the situa- tion has become considerably better over the last five years. Political proof of this improve- ment is that officials of both parties believe in London that Labour can now gain more from immigrant votes at this election than they lose from white malcontents. Bristol remains a problem, but Nottingham and Bradford and Leicester, where there could so easily have been trouble, are apparently integrating with slow but reasonable success.

The factors which seem to help in these places are (a) time, (b) imaginative work by local gov- ernment, (c) hard work by either or both political parties among the immigrants, (d) open denun- ciation by local leaders of colour prejudice in all its forms, (e) not too much pressure on housing. But one should not assume that these are enough. There are now about 750,000 coloured immi- grants and their dependants in Britain. Ben if the rate of entry is cut considerably there N‘ ill be by natural increase about one and a half mil- lion by 1975. And it is not at all improbable that there could be four million by the year 2000.

In that case the problems we are now facing will seem childishly simple. If the American mistakes are to be avoided we shall presumably have to decide whether, for instance, to encour- age or discourage ghettoes, and what to do about miscegenation; and we shall have to dis- cover far more about the psychology of pre- judice, to say nothing of the practical problems of housing and education that are involved. The Labour Party, it is true, has a study group work- ing on the subject whose report (significantly enough) will not be issued until after the election; but it will be surprising if it has managed at this stage to do more than scratch the surface. Who- ever wins the next election has a great deal of thought to do.