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Race, Immigration and Community Relations in Contemporary London

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Race, Immigration and Community Relations

in Contemporary London

Ian Gordon and Tony Travers

for LSE London

London School of Economics

April 2006

This paper is intended to provide a brief summary of the key issues raised by the LSE seminar on Race, Immigration and Community Relations in Contemporary London. Few topics have generated as much interest and debate in recent years. The capital’s population has become steadily more cosmopolitan in recent decades, with large resident groups from many countries around the world. Most of these immigrants have moved to London to supply the skills and labour needed to maintain the capital’s economy. Some have fled persecution. Others choose to live in London simply because they prefer it to locations elsewhere. New populations have led to new challenges for city government and community relations. Such challenges will continue in the years ahead.

1. Background

Virtually all Londoners are descended, distantly, from people who came to Britain from overseas. London has been a centre of international trade since Roman invaders settled a city on the Thames two thousand years ago. People have moved in and out of the city as goods and services have found a market in it. There has long been a close link between the city’s position as a centre of commerce and the temporary or permanent settlement of foreign-born residents within it. However, the past 60 years has seen a radical change in the scale and nature of such internationalisation. Globalisation has had a profound effect on one of the world’s global cities.

After the Romans, invaders from Scandinavia, Germanic tribes and Ireland followed. Although the history of London – in common with the rest of Britain – is obscure for a period after 410AD, the evolution of Anglo Saxon England meant that a new population born outside Britain settled in the city. The Normans arrived in 1066, leading to an historic settlement between the City of London and the newly-arrived conquerors. Merchants from trading Europe followed, including Hugenots, Jews and other religious refugees. Black servants, slaves and seamen moved through the capital1.
London’s ethnic minority population is estimated to have been about 1,850 in 1440, 3,000 in 1501 and between 5,000 and 10,000 in the 1570s (between five to ten per cent of the population at the time).2 Thus, there would have been a visible minority of non-white Londoners well before the advent of modern ‘immigration’.
The development of Britain’s sea power and colonies provided a further stimulus to internationalisation, bringing immigrants from such places as China and Africa. Indeed, Britain’s status as a world superpower provided London with the magnetism to attract rich and powerful people from America, France, Germany, India and elsewhere. There were more Scots than in Aberdeen, more Irish than in Dublin and more Roman Catholics than in Rome3
Since 1948, there have been periodic arrivals of larger groups of new migrants. In the 1940s and 1950s, these new populations came predominantly from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. There were further arrivals from Africa during the 1970s. Since the early 1990s, international in-migration from a much wider range of states has occurred.
Earlier migrants became the residents who welcomed (or didn’t) later arrivals. Moreover, because London has long had a tradition of significant in- and out-migration to and from the rest of the United Kingdom, international migrants were not the only non-Londoners to live in the capital. Many English, Scots, Welsh and Irish (North and Republic) move in and out of the city each year.

Today, London-born residents of the capital may be white, black, Asian or of mixed race. Religion has joined ethnicity and nationality as one of the many ways of understanding the capital’s population. The title of this seminar refers to a number of subjects that are frequently confused. London is a complex place. This complexity is a strength yet also a challenge.

2. The Empire Windrush and after

Contemporary immigration to Britain started with the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in the summer of 1948. There was political outrage when news leaked out that 430 West Indians were heading across the Atlantic to the UK. A number of Labour ministers and their Conservative opponents immediately feared that immigration was out of control. The threat of immigration was inflated, as it still often is. Only a few years before the Empire Windrush brought its new migrants to Britain, Europe had seen massive movements of people around the continent Many commentators have argued that the real issue was not migration, but colour4.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was significant immigration from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. At this time, there was no immigration policy to constrain British citizens (as many from the New Commonwealth were) entering the home country. A long period of economic growth in the UK stimulated the need for a growing migrant workforce. The sudden arrival of many black and Asian Briton led to a rise in race-related violence and prejudice. A number of areas, including Notting Hill, Birmingham and Nottingham experienced rioting as white people reacted to the arrival of a black community.

As the result of political pressure, governments legislated three times within a decade to make immigration for non-white people harder. By 1972, legislation meant that a British passport holder born overseas could only settle in Britain if, first, they had a work permit and, second, could prove that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK. In parallel with efforts to constrain immigration, there were also initiatives to tackle racial prejudice with the introduction of two race relations acts.

Immigration between 1948 and the mid-1970s was the origin of much of Britain’s ethnic minority population. The vast majority of these migrants settled in London, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Bristol and a number of smaller towns in England. Very few black and Asian Britons moved to rural areas, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. This pattern has been broadly maintained in subsequent years. However, within most cities, including London, there has been evidence of a decline in ethnic segregation5.

3. The evolution of modern London

In 1951, the UK’s ethnic minority population (which would not have been referred to in these terms) is estimated to have been less than 50,0006. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a significant growth in immigration from the New Commonwealth. By 1961, the number of London residents born in the ‘New Commonwealth’ was 242,000, providing a broad approximation of the overall level of the ‘ethnic minority’ population. This number grew to 583,000 by 1971 and 945,000 by 1981. The ‘non-white’ population in 1991 was about 1.4 million, increasing to about 2 million in 2001.

It is important to note that from 1945 until the mid-1980s, London’s population declined from about 8.5 million to 6.7 million. The new migrants were moving into London – and other cities – that were often suffering population and economic decline. Immigrants generally moved into deprived areas of cities and were subject to a poor quality of life. Often, the ethnic minority population has been seen (generally by benign researchers) as a proxy measure for urban stress. This association has led to an unfortunate link being inferred between London’s minority residents and the poverty of the areas into which they originally moved.

Latterly, a number of the non-white migrant groups that arrived in the 1950s and 1960s have started to out-perform the white population in terms of educational and other measures. This is not, however, true in every case. A complex web of institutional attitudes and individual characteristics have impacts that are still not fully researched or understood1.

4. Education and achievement

In England as a whole around 12 per cent of primary school pupils are non-white, but in outer London, 30 per cent of pupils are from minority ethnic groups, while in inner London, there is now a ‘majority minority’ population in state primary schools. At borough level, in Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Brent, two-thirds or more of primary pupils are non-white, implying that in particular schools the white ‘host’ population is likely to be in a very small minority. A fuller discussion of the impact of ethnicity and immigration on educational achievement can be found in the book Working Capital7.

There is considerable geographical diversity within the minority ethnic population, with Black Caribbean, Black African, Black Other and Bangladeshi pupils concentrated in inner London, and Indians and (to a lesser extent) Pakistanis in outer London. Across Greater London a third of all school-children have a mother tongue other than English, though no other language is used by more than five percent of pupils, while overall some 300 different languages are spoken by London schoolchildren. There is little sign of this diversity in the wider metropolitan region, however, where the (preponderantly white) ethnic mix is very similar to that in the rest of England, outside Greater London.

The position and experience of ethnic and linguistic minorities within the educational system is significant from several different perspectives, such as: relative levels of achievement and their knock-on effects in the labour market; the experiences of particular groups within schools and through the educational process; the impact on the system of recent waves of refugees; and finally the more general quality of inter-group relations within schools and the communities associated with them.

There are substantial differences in school attainment by pupils from different ethnic groups, though these are not simply between whites and non-whites – or between native and non-native English speakers – and are on a smaller scale than differences between social class groups. Indeed, much of the inter-ethnic variation in exam results appears to be a reflection of differing degrees of (dis)advantage associated with parents’ socio-economic and family status, rather than something peculiarly ‘ethnic’.

Of course, this observation begs the question as to why there should be such variations in status. And it is the simple fact of difference in outcomes along ethnic lines which is most readily noted, by the pupils involved and their families, as well as outside observers. While Indians and some others have fared relatively well, national studies point to increasing disparities between the attainments of white pupils and those from some minority groups, both over time and during their own passage through the system:

5. Recent immigration
The relatively rapid growth in London’s economy in much of the period since the mid-1980s has stimulated a need for a large number of international in-migrants. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a net increase in the overseas-born population of London of 75,000 to 100,000 per year8. Overall, London’s population has grown from a low-point of 6.7 million in the mid-1980s to about 7.5 million in 2006. The population is projected to grow to over eight million by 2016. Much of the net increase in the capital’s population in recent years can be attributed to international in-migration.
The breadth and scale of recent in-migration has led to the development of many new populations of foreign-born residents. These newer migrants are from many different countries, ranging from the United States, France, Germany and Australia to states in Latin America, Africa and the former Soviet bloc. According to the 2001 Census, there were 47 communities of over 10,000 living in London.
Among the largest groups in 2001 were India (172,162), Ireland (157,285), Bangladesh (84,565), Jamaica (80,319), Nigeria (68,907) and Pakistan (66,658). The largest European countries represented are Germany (39,818), Turkey (39,128), Italy (38,694), France (38,130) and Spain (22,473). There were also 45,888 Cypriots, 45,506 South Africans, Australians, 27,494 New Zealanders and 23,328 from Hong Kong. Latin American countries included Brazil (8,162), Argentina (2,557), Ecuador (2,301) and Chile (2,054). Among the smaller national groups recorded were Uzbekistan, Belize, Moldova, Curacao and El Salvador, each with 200 to 300 London residents9.
In a number of cases, the numbers recorded from an individual country probably fall well short of the total population now in London. Temporary residents and those who did not, for whatever reasons, fill in Census forms will certainly add to the numbers shown. Moreover, the five years since the Census will have added perhaps another 400,000 to 500,000 non-British born to London’s population.

6. Ethnicity, immigration and the London labour market
During the past decade or so, employment has risen steadily in London. Unemployment has remained low. It would appear that new migrants have been relatively easily absorbed into the labour market10. Indeed, recent research suggests that “London still often provides more opportunities for outsiders than insiders, with a booming economy but 660,000 inactive or unemployed”11.
Foreign-born workers comprised 27 per cent of its workforce in late 2003 compared to 5 per cent in the rest of the country, and 18 per cent in the city ten years earlier. Proportionately they were most important in the hotels and catering sector, where they accounted for 63 per cent of workers, though the sector actually employs only a small proportion (8 per cent) of all foreign-born workers, the rest being spread across the full range of occupations and industries. Foreigners are more heavily represented in lower level occupations (42 per cent of those in elementary occupations compared to 25% of professionals, managers and associate professionals), although typically they have spent more time in education (with a median age of 19 for completion of full-time education, against 18 for home-born Londoners)12.

A third of the working migrants had been in the UK for 25 years or more, while another third had arrived since 1995. The size of the latter group reflects both rising immigration during the 1 990s and the presence of many who only plan to stay in London (or the UK) for a few years. The most recent arrivals include many well-educated younger people from continental Europe, the Old Commonwealth, and the United States. The International Passenger Survey indicates that the majority of such immigrants expect to stay only one or two years. Despite this element of turnover, the proportion of foreign-born workers in London has increased by five percentage points over the past ten years.

A substantial factor in the overall increase in immigration to London has been the group formally identified as ‘asylum seekers and visitor switchers’ who accounted for 42,000 of the 95,000 net migrants into the city in 2002 down from a peak of 75,000 out of 122,000 net migrants in 2000 reached before the introduction of the government’s dispersal policy. The impact of these immigrants on the London labour market is not at all clear, although among those adults in London who arrived from the main origin countries for asylum seekers from 1990 onwards, the LFS records that fewer than 25 per cent were in work at the end of 2003 (against about 50 per cent among those from other Third World countries and 75 per cent among those from advanced economies). The speed with which this group can be integrated into the labour market appears critical to the projected substantial expansion of the city’s labour supply included in the London Plan.

London’s enhanced success in terms of employment and earnings growth over the last cycle has not been matched in terms of either employment or unemployment rates. In 1990 the city’s unemployment rate of 6.7 per cent of the economically active population was in line with ILO-definition national average while the employment rate of 75.4 per cent of all 16-60 year olds was also close so the national average of 75.7 per cent. However, by autumn 2002, and at a similar point in the economic cycle, the national unemployment rate of 5.3% was significantly lower than it had been in 1990 whereas in London the rate was actually slightly higher at 7.0 per cent.

For employment, the contrast was even clearer, with the national rate rising to 76.7 per cent over this period, while the London rate fell significantly, to 70.9 per cent. In part this contrast reflects some narrowing of the employment gap between north and south, and in part the fact that labour supply as well as demand in London has been rising, with an increase of about half a million in the city’s working age population over the period. It must, however, also reflect a further worsening of the competitive position of some of those particular population groups who remain concentrated within (inner) London. Generally, tighter labour markets tend to improve access to mainstream jobs, but reintegrating those who were marginalised in the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s is an important and continuing challenge for both supply-side and equal opportunities policies in London.
The volume of international in-migration to both Britain has increased in the past ten years, with London receiving at least half of all migrants. Official projections suggest that for the UK as a whole, there is likely to continue to be a steady in-flow in the years ahead. There is no reason to believe that London will not continue to receive a large share of such international migration, further adding to its cosmopolitan make-up.
7. Political management
Migration into a major city such as London is a complex and often controversial issue. The politics of immigration and race have always been challenging and remain so. Worse, within national political debate, issues of immigration, race, nationality and asylum are often hopelessly conflated. Religion has latterly emerged as an additional complexity.
London seems to have had a reasonable record in assimilating millions of new overseas-born residents. However, there have been radical changes in the number and origins of immigrants in the past decade. 2004 saw the highest level of net international in-migration ever recorded13. Because such a large proportion of UK international migration is into London, it is inevitable that the global will meet the local far more frequently and more intensely than in most of the rest of the country. The changing numbers and profile of international migrants have led to intense political pressures on many London boroughs.
In particular, there appears to be a risk of racial tension in areas where a long-standing white working class, living in a homogeneous housing area with strong family and neighbouring networks, has experienced multi-dimensional change: the loss of traditional jobs in docks or factories, the arrival of newcomers to the public housing estates, the gentrification of working-class streets, and the loss of a tight sense of community. Long-established populations see rising crime everywhere and they seek to contest it, often by informal means. Their sense of intolerable crisis can reach very high levels on the most problematic estates, where different groups are brought together in layouts which provide little protection against crime or mayhem. These are among the unhappiest neighbourhoods in contemporary London: places where perceptions of the quality of neighbourhood life, especially by contrast to how it once was, are of the lowest14.
The issue of policing an increasingly diverse and complex city has proved problematic. Confidence in the police is lower than it was in the past, particularly among younger people and minority ethnic populations. The 1981 Scarman Report and 1999 Macpherson Report published findings that contributed to significant changes to the style of London policing. Latterly, steps have been taken to improve the relationship between the police and minority communities. However, the Metropolitan Police still has a relatively small number of black and Asian officers compared to the London population.
Thus, the management of areas containing large numbers of new and earlier migrants, particularly insofar as they need access to public services (notably social housing), is a key issue for London local government. There is also research evidence linking the growth of migrant populations in east London to an increased propensity of some electors to consider voting for extremist parties15.
But there are also political benefits for London as a result of its cosmopolitan population. By having an increasingly ethnically mixed and foreign-born population, London is able to market itself to inward investors and to skilled migrants. Virtually any national group will find a community in London, thus allowing inward investors to consider the capital as a welcoming place to invest. The City of London has long been internationalised. It now appears likely that other sectors of the London economy are likely to follow suit.
Nevertheless, difficult issues will need to be discussed and there will occasionally be irreconcilable political disagreements linked to race and/or migration. The pursuit of ‘multiculturalism’ (and, indeed, the meaning of the word) have recently, for example, generated extraordinary degrees of controversy. There is also a risk of hatred and extremism. All levels of government have a role in guiding the political management of race and immigration.
8. The future
This paper is a brief summary of some of the key issues surrounding race, immigration and community relations in today’s London. While there are many other important political, economic and social questions that must be addressed in a major global city, few have such salience and potential impact as those concerning race and immigration. As London’s population continues to become more cosmopolitan and more complex, there will be an ever-greater need for research and debate about the make-up and attributes of the capital and its people.



1 Roy Porter, A Social History of London, London: Penguin

2 Cosmopolitan London Past, Present & Future, by Marion Storkey, Jackie Maguire and Rob Lewis, London: London Research Centre, 1997

3 Roy Porter, A Social History of London, London: Penguin

4 Trevor Phillips in the Clement Attlee Lecture, 21 April 2005, available at

5 State of the English Cities, Volume 1, page 153, London: ODPM

6 Cosmopolitan London Past, Present & Future, by Marion Storkey, Jackie Maguire and Rob Lewis, London: London Research Centre, 1997

7 Working Capital, by Nick Buck, Ian Gordon, Peter Hall, Michael Harloe and Mark Kleinman, London; Routledge, 2002

8 The Case for London London’s Loss is No-One’s Gain, London: Mayor of London, Table 3

9 London – the world in a city An analysis of 2001 Census results, Data Management and Analysis Group, Greater London Authority, London: GLA, 2005, Table 3.4

10 Beyond Black and White Mapping new immigrant communities, by Sarah Kyambi, London: IPPR

11 Kate Gavron, in “The Angry East End”, Prospect Magazine, Issue 120, March 2006

12 London’s Place in the UK Economy, 2004, by Ian Gordon, Tony Travers & Christine Whitehead, London: Corporation of London, 2004

13 ONS, 2006 (

14 Working Capital, by Nick Buck, Ian Gordon, Peter Hall, Michael Harloe and Mark Kleinman, London; Routledge, 2002

15 Latent Support for the Far-Right in British Politics: the BNP and UKIP in the 2004 European and London Elections, by Helen Margetts, Peter John and Stuart Weir, Paper to PSA EPOP Conference, University of Oxford, September 2004

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