To the Sun, it is a “city in crisis”, to the Express, it’s an example of “Britain’s migrant squatter shambles”, and to the Mail, “the town the Poles took over”. If ever there was a locality depicted as epitomising the impacts of immigration, this would be it. A once quintessentially English city steeped in ancient history is how Peterborough in Cambridgeshire is commonly portrayed: but the emphasis is on ‘once’.
Almost entirely absent from the invective is the violence and hostility to which these same migrant workers have been subject over the past decade — racist attacks which in their most extreme manifestations have seen asylum seekers firebombed, more long-standing residents hounded from their homes and eastern European migrant workers brutally victimised.
Last week the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) published the third in a series of investigations into the UK’s ‘new geographies of racism’. These investigations, of Plymouth, then Stoke-on-Trent, and now Peterborough examine how a shifting pattern of racist violence, once commonly concentrated in impoverished inner and outer areas in large conurbations, is now moving to rural areas, towns and smaller cities.
Peterborough has experienced rapid population change as a result of immigration from countries entering the European Union. Such is the level of exploitation that some migrant workers have been forced to endure – in employment and in housing – that they resorted a few years ago to living in tents, reminiscent of shanty towns. The populist rage from many quarters was palpable – not at the fact that such poverty was alive and well in modern-day England, but at the audacity of them remaining in the country when they were no longer in work.
Lauding a scheme to round migrant workers up and remove them from the UK, one local MP, Stewart Jackson, described them as ‘vagrants’ and a ‘drain’ on his constituents, telling the Daily Telegraph, “If they are not going to contribute to this country, then, as citizens of their home country, they should return there.” In the meantime, some angry residents took matters into their own hands. Fire-fighters reported an arson attack on one group of eastern Europeans’ tents, the culmination of a persistent hate campaign.
According to Labour Leader Ed Miliband, in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) back in June, “It was a mistake not to impose transitional controls on accession from Eastern European countries. We severely underestimated the number of people who would come here. We were dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price.” His words were latched onto gleefully by the Conservatives and the right-wing press as tacit acknowledgement that they had been ‘right’ all along about immigration: local services have buckled under the strain of too many people; towns and cities have been being overrun; there aren’t enough affordable homes; British people have been frozen out of the job-market; crime has rocketed; numbers have to be reduced; borders are too porous.
By arguing (with a nod to Gordon Brown) that concern about population and neighbourhood change is not evidence of ‘bigotry’, Miliband was condemned as deeply hypocritical, but lauded as paving the way for an honest national discussion about immigration. His speech was ‘historic’, according to one of the Mail’s columnists, “in the sense that we can now perhaps discuss immigration without being dubbed racist”. It was as if the litany of headlines about the perils of immigration had never happened; as if the debased “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” electioneering campaign (among others) never took place; as if immigration was not, on the contrary, one of the subjects endlessly debated, critiqued and attacked over the last decade – a debate that shows no signs of letting up.
Peterborough shows what can happen when demand for exploitable workers meets a policy drive to spit them out when they are no longer of economic use, and when the reporting and interpretation of such matters to the wider public is dominated by media-owners and opinion-formers with a vested interest in demonising and vilifying migrant workers.
If we are to discuss globalisation, a good starting point would be to look at the connections between the processes which have ravaged industries, transformed local economies and left working class communities stagnating on the one hand, and sucked in a new highly exploitable migrant working-class on the other. It is this collision, between an immobile and a highly mobile working-class (for want of a better term) which is coming to define some of the tensions and frustrations of the first decades of the twenty-first century. And it can easily turn into resentment, hostility and xenophobic violence.
The reality is that the ‘discussion’ – if it even warrants such a term – that dominates at the moment is one which is completely blind to this wider context. Instead, many of the same people who argue that cries of racism have silenced talk on immigration, prefer to condemn migrant workers, whilst blaming those British people who are unemployed for not competing with them at the lowest end of a brutal labour market.
The erosion of welfare and labour and employment protections impels people into the most temporary and precarious jobs. If left unchecked, not only may it spell out the destruction of whatever semblance of social protections remain for workers in the UK, regardless of their ethnicity or immigration status; it is likely to foster antipathy within and between those communities who are forced into fighting it out for increasingly dirty and dangerous jobs.
Our common interest lies in working towards improving the social protections and workplace conditions available for all workers.