Migration, Representation and the European Elections

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

The weary face of a construction worker begging for spare change stares out of a UK Independence Party poster. The builder’s green luminous waistcoat is the only bright colour in the image. The wall and pavement that frame him are dismally muted and grey. The caption floating to the left of the dejected figure asks ‘EU Policy at Work? British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour’.

The light at the end of this depressing scene comes from the right of the image. The yellow script, against a purple background in shouty capitals reads ‘TAKE BACK CONTROL OF OUR COUNTRY – VOTE UKIP 22ND MAY’.

UKIP’s poster campaign was launched at the beginning of last week and will include advertisements in digital media, to be run over the next month. Other posters in the £1.5 million campaign, funded by the multi-millionaire Paul Sykes, use different variations on the theme of the threat posed to British workers and governance by the EU and European migrants. In another poster, a close-up image of a hand with a finger pointing at the viewer states ’26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?’

The poster campaign has been criticized by politicians, church leaders and activist groups. Writing in the New Statesman, the Labour MP Mike Gapes had no doubts that the posters were racist and xenophobic ‘designed to win votes by whipping up animosity against foreigners living and working and contributing to this country’. The Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, tweeted ‘At a time when our country really needs to come together, the UKIP advertising campaign is deeply divisive, offensive and ignorant.’

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, has defended the posters, denying that they are racist. For Farage the posters are a ‘hard-hitting reflection of reality as it is experienced by millions of British people struggling to earn a living outside the Westminster bubble.’ As the week wore on, UKIP and its campaign were bedevilled by a series of controversies. A woman in one of its campaigns, posing as an ordinary voter turned out to be the Party’s events manager. At the weekend it was revealed that the construction worker in the poster was an Irish migrant.

If we step away from party politics, UKIP’s campaign raises important questions about the changing nature of forms of political representation and communication and what the sociologist Stuart Hall called ‘the politics of representation’; that is how meanings are actively produced and negotiated. For example, in the construction worker poster, the politics of representation would be concerned with how the image of the worker – his skin colour as much as his clothes and the impoverishment connoted by his begging cup – play upon ideas about the threat posed by cultural and racial others, not only to the British worker but to the nation.

What is especially interesting at the this time is how the meanings of one medium of representation can be intensified, challenged and reinterpreted by other mediums, so that meaning becomes distributed, twisting and turning across different channels of communication and audiences.

‘Power is shifting from hierarchies to citizens and networks of citizens. Social media tends to punish moderation and compromise. [It] tends to reward voices at the extreme.’ This was the message delivered to the European Parliament earlier this month by Alec Ross, a social media expert, who warned that mobile connectivity is making it harder for governments to regulate and censor citizens.

Certainly social media are playing an increasing role in British culture and politics. It was via Twitter that some of the shifting nuances of the ‘politics of representation’ played out with regard to UKIP’s poster campaign. Mike Gapes reported receiving several abusive responses to his tweet ‘Hope Ukip racist posters encourage all decent British Commonwealth and EU citizens to ensure on register by May 6 and vote on May 22.’ What struck Gapes was that most of the abuse that he received was not about EU migrants, but related to ethnic minorities and Muslims in particular. For Gapes, the way that the responses extended beyond the original focus of the posters on EU migrants to include other racialised groups showed something of how the design of the campaign was able to indirectly stoke wider prejudices about ethnic minorities and anti-Muslim sentiment. In other words, direct expressions of racism took place at a distance from the original scene of representations.

As governments, political parties, interest and community groups make more use of different media to communicate and discuss their concerns, the questions that we need to ask about how meaning is produced and circulates, become more complex and interesting. In this case, some of the most obvious forms of racism were ignited by responses to the posters and in response to those who critiqued them. The question that animated much of the debate last week was whether the UKIP’s poster campaign was racist. A more searching question to ask about such anti-immigration campaigns is perhaps not simply ‘Are they racist’ but ‘When are they racist?’











The birth of new street protesters: observations from the Stand up to Racism and Fascism demonstration in Cardiff (22 March 2014), part 2

In her last post, Roiyah ended her participant observation at a demonstration on UN Anti-Racism Day 2014 by asking ‘What drives activism? And in terms of immigration, is Wales so very different from other parts of the UK?’ Here, she continues to explore these questions.

Yes: in terms of immigration figures, it is evident that international migration to Wales is considerably lower than the UK average (Plaid Cymru, 2014). The demographic changes linked to international migration and to the rise of non-UK nationalities are less pronounced in Wales than in Scotland; the difference is even greater when comparing Wales with England. However, I do not think that this makes the issues any less vexed. Why should a slow rate of demographic change make it any easier to address the rising levels of anti-immigration sentiment? Should it weaken anti-immigration sentiment? The fact that this is not the case is borne out in part in the findings of a recent study, ‘Public Sentiments Towards Immigrants and Minorities: The Difference Wales Makes?’ (Welsh Government, 2012). The study captured data from the European Social Survey and the Citizenship Survey to explore sentiments towards immigrants and minorities in Wales, and how these sentiments relate to national identifications and bilingualism, as well as how sentiments in Wales compare to those in other nations and regions of the UK.

The study found that in many cases, though not always, people in the North and Midlands of England showed less favourable attitudes to immigrants than those in Scotland, London and the South East; the data on Wales revealed a pattern similar to that in the North and Midlands of England. The study also found that when Scotland and Wales (as devolved nations) are compared, the pattern is characterised more by difference than by similarity. Also evident (when comparing the 2008 and 2010 waves of the Citizenship Survey) was an overall increasing tendency for less positive views towards immigrants. However, the regional differences between Wales and other regions were less – or at least less clear – in 2010 than in 2008.

Another study conducted a year earlier to explore public opinion on immigration in Scotland in the context of the Referendum debates (Migration Observatory, 2011) reported results from a survey of 1,000 British adults. This also found that opposition to immigration was lowest in London and Scotland, with more negative attitudes towards different types of immigrants (asylum seekers, extended family, low-skilled workers, students and immediate family) in the North, South, Midlands and Wales than in either Scotland or London.

Rising migration has combined with heightened public debates around the impacts to make immigration and asylum among the most important political issues in the UK. Of equal importance is the national context in which such debates take place and policy is implemented. In terms of how racist, anti-immigrant or xenophobic attitudes interact with nationalism, this is likely to be different in Wales (and no doubt Scotland) than in England. In Wales, the discourse of tolerance towards others claimed through the experience of national oppression (by England) and through the framing of England as the ‘significant other’ (Williams and DeLima, 2006) has shaped political discourse. It is within this pervasive national narrative – which was clearly evident from the speeches made at the demonstration – that race and racism, immigration, and notions of belonging and inclusivity are most often articulated. However, therein lies the rub. Such sentiments need to be reined in, because the sentiment of tolerance in terms of minority ethnic groups can be seen to underpin the ‘hyper (in)visibility’ of minoritised groups: the awareness and acceptance in Wales of the long-established presence of diverse ethnic groups that exists alongside a lack of attention to the impact of such diversity on Welsh society works to render invisible those marked by racialisation. How will this play out within the context of immigration? How does this narrative sit with the findings from surveys on the individual attitudes of people in Wales? Indeed how does it sit with a much longer history of incidents of violence and evidence of conflicts and intolerance in Wales such as the race riots of 1919 and 1920 and more recently, the anti-immigration riots in North Wales in 2003?

This is not the whole picture. Of equal importance is the fact that immigration is not devolved; in this, as in other areas, policy is driven from Westminster. However, the long-standing political might of the Labour Party in Wales, the clear lines of distinction between the philosophical underpinnings of the parties in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay, and the competing immigration policy agenda emerging from political parties such as Plaid Cymru are all working to shaping the Welsh Government’s response to immigration in Wales, pushing forward the need to respond differently to the immigration policies and techniques employed by Westminster. Of equal if not greater importance are the ongoing commitment and campaigning of key anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations and campaigns – many with international links – which have long worked across a range of issues (e.g., immigration, the bedroom tax and Islamophobia) to challenge rising anti-immigration sentiment – within Wales and beyond.

This is still not the whole picture, but it is a start.



He wants to know what racism is

I am still left with a burning question: what does it take to make people march? Although deeply aware of the impact of the immigration policies on people, and having spent my whole academic life seeking to lay bare the impact of structural inequalities on population groups, I had never attended a march. Passionate – yes. Passionately active – no. Looking at the people gathered for the demonstration, I could sense both those for whom activism was a part of their lives, and those for whom such activity was new and unknown. Time and time again, people told me they came because they wanted to show their support, because it was important to stand with others around the UK and the world to protest against racism, and because they needed to feel they were doing something. I think I have subconsciously thought that my research activities were enough; they have been my contribution. Perhaps it is time for a re-think. My husband is active and so was happy with the event. It was my son’s first demonstration; listening to the speakers, he wanted to know ‘why people get killed because of how they look … that is not right’. I did not know what to say.  The loss of innocence – for him.  The birth of new street protesters – him and me.


‘Proud to be Welsh and Somali, Welsh and Pakistani, Welsh and West Indian’: observations from the Stand up to Racism and Fascism demonstration in Cardiff (22 March 2014), part 1

By Roiyah Saltus

I knew my quest to take part in the march in Cardiff had taken a decidedly bleak turn when I found myself looking around for a police officer to ask for information. Having started off very early – too early, in fact – in order to get to the park in time to lock my bike, mill around and ask if any help was needed, I had decided to go for a coffee in the new cafe nearby. Refreshed, I set off again to the park, only to discover that the address I had scribbled on a scrap of paper was not right. The next hour saw me cycling the length and breadth of Cardiff, from Bute Castle (city centre) to the Synedd (Cardiff Bay) via Grange Park and Lloyd George Avenue, and then back down Bute Street into town – and finally to the blocked-off area of the municipal district.

Image of demonstrators at Cardiff against racism and facism, 22 March 2014

The cycling around gave me time to think and reflect. How was it possible not to be able to find 500 souls marching in the city centre? Aside from the busy weekend shoppers, there was a large Nescafé pop-up shop giving out free coffee, street performers were keeping the crowd’s attention, and the supporters of the two premiership football teams were flashing their colours. Town was busy and people were bustling around; the very many worlds people inhabit were suddenly very apparent, as were the competing interests and priorities that people are faced with on a daily and hourly basis.

Stand up to Racism and Fascism logoBut wait! This was my first protest march. My protest had always been via community-focused research rooted in the priorities of grass-roots organisations, but never community activism. I could have been lining up for free coffee rather than cycling frantically looking for 500 people marching through the high street. What is it that makes people march or not? As deeply interested as I have been in all manner of struggles, why was this the first time I had attended a march in the UK? Would I have attended had it not been for the work I was doing on “Go Home”: Mapping the unfolding controversy of Home Office immigration campaigns, an 18 month research project that explores the impacts on local communities and national debate of current publicity campaigns about migration by the UK Home Office? What drives activism? That was when the quiet unease set in.

Keenly aware of the rise of the Right, the impending European elections, and the increasing negative anti-immigration discourse dominating both UK and European politics, the Wales branch of United Against Fascism (UAF) had used the slogan ‘DONT LET RACISTS DIVIDE US’ in their leaflet about this demonstration. This was not a stand-alone demonstration: similar ones were taking place in London and Glasgow. Organised to coincidewith UN Anti-Racism Day, they were part of an international day of action, with demonstrations taking place across the globe – from New York to Athens to Sao Paulo. According to reports, there were 7,000 or more on the London demonstration, with 1,000 in Glasgow and 500 in Cardiff.

Hip Hop Over Borders leafletI got to the demonstration just in time to see the end of the march and the start of the speeches. I heard someone mention the fact that the size of the demonstration had dwindled noticeably, although there were still quite a few people who had stayed for the speeches. When I asked people in the crowd why they were there, the most common answer was to be part of ‘something bigger’ with reference to the other demonstrations taking place; also, many thought it was important to ‘make a stand’ or ‘do something’. Others spoke about the event taking place later in the evening, set to bring people together through music – the Hip Hop Over Borders club night. It seemed that this was to be a release of sorts – a way for people to protest but also a time to re-group and enjoy themselves.

The atmosphere during the speeches was subdued but attentive. They were held in a small area of the municipal district – close to Cardiff Town Hall and just down from the Welsh Assembly Goverment’s main building in Cardiff. We were also a few hundred yards from the Central Police Station, although there were no uniformed police officers in attendance. Many well-known campaigners, as well as a few new Assembly Members and activists, were on the list of speakers.

The speeches drew on several themes. One was the pride people felt about the groups and organisations that were demonstrating. Trade-union banners flew alongside banners representing the views of Plaid Cymru, migrant workers’ groups, anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners, as well as those of Muslim, Christian and other faith communities – including the Muslim Council of Wales, No Borders South Wales, the Anti-Bedroom Tax & Benefit Justice Federation, Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and  the Socialist Party – as well as Assembly Members, community leaders, and individuals who were keen to show support. It was not just the coming together of a range of political and social interests that was being celebrated. This diverse grouping seemed to suggest a sense of unity among different population groups, with the Chair of the Muslim Council of Wales stating that ‘we are working together to make Wales a multicultural and multi-faith nation – we are all Welsh and are proud to be Welsh’.

Demonstrators at Stand Up to Racism and Facism, Cardiff, 22 March 2014Added to this was a strong call for caution and consternation against the rise of anti-immigration and racist discourse emanating from Westminster. Alun Michael, a Wales Police Commissioner and long-standing Labour Assembly Member, talked about the fact that many people are ‘proud to be Welsh and Somali, Welsh and Pakistani, to be Welsh and West Indian’ and the need to continue to hold this pride close and to ensure that the ‘narrow nationalism, extremism and racism’ gathering strength in Europe does not ‘reinfect’ the people of Wales. He ended by saying that this was an opportunity to celebrate the positive stance held in Wales with regard to ‘unity and internationalism’.

Several other speakers developed the theme that the policies and rhetoric emanating from Whitehall need to be quarantined and contained, and that there are clear distinctions between the ways in which immigration is being articulated in Wales and in England,  with a need to cut off at the border the ‘Tory’ approach to immigration. Within this context, activities such as the ‘Go Home’ campaign are very much rooted in the approach being taken in England. Many of the speakers considered Wales a much more tolerant nation – a place where multiculturalism and diversity are sources of pride and not problems; where the positive impact of immigration on society is welcomed and not denied; and where the fight against anti-immigration, racism and fascism is to be addressed not only within the context of other places in the UK – England in particular – but also within the wider context of Europe and the resurgence of a narrow, damaging notion of nationhood and belonging.

Demonstrators at Stand Up to Racism and Facism, Cardiff, 22 March 2014Cecilia Love, a recently elected Labour Councillor recounted the fact that we need to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, that communities are feeling like they are being ‘attacked’, stressing again the importance of working in partnership to address these issues. Another speaker made links with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and the need to continue to fight the ‘good fight’. Jill Evans, Assembly Member of Plaid Cymru, discussed the political climate creating fear and hatred and, moreover, the fact that much of the anti-immigration discourse is not based on fact. She drew on a recent briefing paper produced by her party detailing its stance on immigration, on the need for Wales to play a greater role in determining its own immigration policies, and on the party’s wish to make Wales a nation of sanctuary.

The speeches lasted 30–40 minutes, with the winds picking up and rain eventually coming when the last speaker rose to address the crowd. With the question on what drives activism still unanswered, I left the demonstration with another question: in terms of immigration, is Wales so very different from other parts of the UK?

In Roiyah’s next post she explores this question – stay tuned!