The Key to the Vote

By Bronwen Maddox
Sunday, May 1, 2005


The play group my 2-year-old daughter adores, in a dusty, echoing church in this city's Notting Hill district, divides as neatly into two groups as any wedding. On one side of the aisle are the English nannies, rather plump, in jeans and sweat shirts with good-quality leather handbags. Their voices, the kind that could call hounds to order on the hunting field, quell any outbreak of toddler rage in a second. On the other are the Polish and Czech newcomers: thin, with long blond hair and bare midriffs even under the ice-rain and dark gray skies of a London spring. They sit chattering in their own languages, and break into urgent, accented English only when their charges demand attention.

There is even an elfin Russian, Elena, who has let it be known that only a foot injury put a glittering career as a ballerina out of reach. In leaning to pick up a sippy cup, she performs an acrobatic stretch, as a reminder to the room. But her superiority is vulnerable, as her visa position is less secure than that of the others. Russia, unlike Poland and the Czech Republic, is not a member of the European Union, with all the rights to find work in Britain that membership implies.

This is London in 2005, a city that has never been so cosmopolitan and whose changing character has become the focus of the campaign for the general election on May 5. In the past few weeks, immigration has shot to the top of the agenda. The Conservatives, led by Michael Howard, have put it there in their uphill attempt to oust Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party.

On the Tube, you barely hear English spoken, unless you're on the Bakerloo Line on the way up to St. John's Wood, where the Americans live, and where the corner grocery stores stock Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers and Paul Newman's salad dressing. On the Circle Line to South Kensington, it's French that you hear, from the bankers clustered around the Lycee school and the embassy.

Everywhere, you hear Russian, Polish, Turkish and Arabic. Want to hire a minicab? One of the Afghan or Nigerian languages would be useful. Want some peace from the builders next door? The ceaseless remodeling, a symptom of London's overheated property market, is made possible by thousands of Latvians and Lithuanians, and you will need pungent Russian phrases to get them down from the scaffolding.

The Conservatives' decision to fight this election over immigration, and their slogan -- "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" with the implication that what they're thinking would be better not spoken out loud -- has been hugely controversial. It has only strengthened their image as "the nasty party" (a label offered by a former Conservative Party chairman that has stuck, to the party's discomfort).

The theme that "this island is full up" has struck a chord with important blocs of voters. The United Kingdom, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, has a population of 60 million in an area a little smaller than Wyoming. The charge that there is no more room has left Blair and his Labor Party floundering over how to counter it. Yet with less than a week to go before polling, there are signs that the issue will not prove the overwhelming weapon that Howard had hoped. It may even backfire.

Opinion polls consistently show immigration high in British voters' concerns, up there with education, only slightly behind health. The first of Howard's charges, at least, is correct: There has been a sharp rise in immigration, and it dates from 1997, when Blair took office.

Before then, in the mid-1990s, net immigration -- the number of people coming in, minus the number going out -- was steady at between 40,000 and 80,000 a year. The total flows in either direction were also steady -- just over 300,000 a year coming in, and slightly fewer going out.

From 1998 onward, that changed. More than 500,000 people a year have been coming in, and the net rise in the immigrant population as a result has been about 150,000 -- an increase of roughly three times the old level.

Those numbers will sound low to Americans, but they represent a marked rise here. And there is no single factor explaining them. Partly, the numbers have been swollen by more workers from within the European Union (and 2004 figures are expected to show a further jump, reflecting the expansion last year of the European Union from 15 members to 25, when it took in many Central and Eastern European countries). There have also been more people applying to come in from elsewhere around the world.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company