A note on Clacton - Why the concern over migration?
The looming by-election at Clacton-on-Sea is likely to prove memorable for a number of reasons. The first is that it is overwhelmingly likely to provide us with the first UKIP candidate elected as a Member of Parliament.
In itself this ought not to be a cause for massive alarm – by-elections often produce freakish results that are reversed when politics resumes its normal standards of deference to the status quo. The danger comes from the fact that a skittish media and over-wrought politicians assume that what happens in the Essex seaside constituency might serve as a template for the way to conduct the general election campaign which will take place over the following seven months.
Whatever the merits of its invigorating North Sea costal location, Clacton is not a place that can be taken to be representative of modern Britain in terms of its demographic make-up. The local authority district of Tendring, of which Clacton is part, reports the fact that one in three of its residents is a pensioner. One in five children live in poverty, and one in seven residents live in what is described as a deprived area.
Commentators on the state of modern Britain use the term ‘left behind’ to describe the plight of towns and districts which have been left out of the sort of economic and social development which has sustained some parts of the UK over the last few decades. Clacton and its surrounding area falls firmly into this category. An older population, recording around 8% lower rate of economic activity then rest of the UK, and 10% below the Eastern England it is located in, clearly has problems and we can expect that the grievances of the local community will be to the forefront of the by-election campaign.
There is huge irony in the fact that opinion polls showing the viewpoints of local people place immigration at the top of the list of the causes of the hardships they are experiencing. The district in which the constituency is located showed up in the 2011 census survey as having an 8% share of residents born outside the UK – a figure which is around half the rate of other, more prosperous regions of the UK.
As evidence of immigration as normally understood (i.e. non-British nationals coming to live in the UK) even this figure is reduced by the fact that the biggest group of the non-British-born, excluding those from Ireland, recorded Germany as their place of birth - 625 German-born compared to the next biggest group, Polish-born, with 473. The German-born figure includes a large number of people who were born in the 1950s and 60s to British armed forces personnel stationed in military basis in the Rhineland region at that time. A group of 713 Africa-born shows up in the census statistics, most being assumed to be people of Indian subcontinent descent - most being people born in Uganda and Kenya - who are part of the local business community.
The issue which caused Mr Carswell to walk out on his party – the European Union - appears to be one that does not significantly trouble local voters. The poll conducted by the Daily Mail over the weekend shows that amongst even voters who style themselves as UKIP supporters only 13% rate the EU as their top concern, as against 47% who see problems with immigration.
The particular significance of the Clacton by-election is that it will see the way in which the issue of immigration plays out across the politics of the contending parties, even in the absence of credible evidence that it is a source of problems for local people.
The challenge for those of us who expect to be arguing for a different perspective on what immigration means for Britain at this time will be to probe these moods and anxieties to see the points at which they begin to unravel as local voters are required to check the reality of their lives against the solutions being offered by the candidates.
There might yet be opportunities for constructive, focused interventions in the public conversation which is bound to arise from Clacton. We should be keen to watch, listen and learn, and do the best we can to shift the discussion away from imagined grievances, and towards the measures needed to deal with real hardship.