Report: Bilston focus group homes in on migration

Pat McFadden, MP for Wolverhampton South East, invited me to a focus group just before Christmas with nine local residents to talk about what they wanted from Brexit. Two of the group were black; two were Asian of Sikh origin; and five were white. Only two had voted Remain in the referendum. The focus group took place in Bilston, a town on the edge of Wolverhampton which used to be known for its now closed steel works.

Migration was the dominant theme of the discussion: how there were too many people coming to the UK; and how this was putting a strain on schools, housing, wages and the NHS. There was particular concern about Muslim immigrants.

A white security guard who used to work in mining brandished a letter David Cameron sent round before the 2010 election promising to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. He said he had “no faith in the Tories to keep promises.” He was also unhappy that his wife, who had come from Jamaica 15 years ago, would have to spend over £1,000 to become a UK citizen, while EU citizens don’t.

One older white woman said the local primary school was bursting because of migrants. She complained that the taxes her ill husband was paying were being used to support migrants. “They get the money, they waste it, they drink it, they drug it.” She also said: “If they come here, they must talk English… I met a Muslim once. I said: ‘you can walk down my street; I can’t walk down your street. I’m frit.”

The same themes were picked up by a youngish black guy. He said his partner worked in a primary school in Birmingham where the class size shot up from 20 to 35 because of an influx of “Polish, African, Chinese and Muslim kids.” He complained about “a lot of faith schools popping up…. If you come to England, integrate. My parents had to integrate.” He also complained that he couldn’t get a council house because of migrants and talked about people who “go to the job centre and can’t speak a stitch of English.”

The same guy spoke of “asylum-seekers wearing burkas” and how he didn’t feel comfortable going to certain heavily Muslim areas. When I mentioned that these people were unlikely to be from the EU, he said: “The European aspect I don’t really care about because I know they’ll integrate down the line.” But a moment later, he had switched back to talking about Muslims: “They’re thinking about bringing in Sharia law – that’s ridiculous.”

A Sikh man said he voted Leave “because of uncontrolled immigration…, When my dad came from India it wasn’t uncontrolled.” He complained about the “uneven distribution of wealth” and “that companies like the unlimited supply of labour that drives down wages.” He predicted that post-Brexit “rents will go down, there will be more spaces in schools and I will be able to go and see my GP.”

This man was a passionate Brexiter. He had planned to deliver 1,000 pro-Brexit leaflets. But when he heard Richard Branson was campaigning for Remain, he took a day off work and delivered another 1,000.

One youngish white guy started off saying it was really bad that the referendum was about migration. He’d voted leave because he didn’t like “unaccountable bureaucrats”. But later on in the discussion, he warmed to the migration theme arguing that, “on immigration, the left has stabbed the working class in the back.”

When everybody had had their say, I distinguished different types of migrants: Asians and Afro-Caribbeans who have been here for a generation or more, new economic migrants from outside the EU, asylum-seekers and EU citizens coming here using free movement. I then asked whether it was useful to think about things in this way.

Only one person, a young black woman who voted Remain, said this was interesting; nobody had explained things in this way to her before. She had earlier given migration as the main reason for voting Remain. She said the way it had been discussed in the referendum “felt abusive”.

The other Remain voter, a young Sikh entrepreneur, said he was worried that by leaving the EU we’d be worse off. He said we all benefit from the economy – as that pays for pensions and health care. He was interrupted by several people who disagreed that we all benefit from the economy.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the group whether they thought Brexit would cause an economic shock, even a short-term one. About half thought it would. I then asked whether, if there was a shock, that would be a bad thing. Only two – the ones who had voted Remain – said yes.

The message I took from this focus group is that people are feeling pressure on schools, homes and the NHS. But whether it is right to blame this on migrants, let alone EU migrants – who generally contribute more in taxes than they consume in public services – is another matter. It also seems unlikely that Brexit will do much to tackle the Muslim migration that seems to exercise them most. Meanwhile, if there is an economic shock, it will be hard to insulate Bilston from it. Brexit may then leave some of these voters disappointed.