Record migration is just one more broken promise riling Essex towns

Seventy five years after the Empire Windrush offloaded the first wave of Caribbean migrants at Tilbury docks on the Thames, many older white residents of nearby Essex towns remain conflicted about immigration.

But the caricature of the Brexit-voting xenophobe yearning for Britain to shut its borders and lapping up rhetoric from the right of the governing Conservative party demonising refugees is largely misplaced.

Since the 2016 referendum when more than half the population surveyed thought immigration was one of the most important issues facing the country, attitudes have softened markedly across the UK.

Only 15 per cent of people polled by Ipsos this year felt the same. That trend is reflected in the district of Thurrock, in which Tilbury sits and where 72.3 per cent of voters supported Brexit.

Reaction in the area to Thursday’s news that net migration to the UK reached an all-time high of 606,000 last year, despite repeated Conservative pledges to bring it down, was nuanced.

“I am not against migration. Ever since the Romans it is what has made Britain great. It’s the amount of it — it’s only a little country,” said Bernie Parsons, a former merchant seaman who voted for both Brexit in 2016 and the Conservatives in 2019.

Bernie Parsons
Bernie Parsons voted for Brexit and the Tories in 2019: ‘I am not against migration . . . It’s the amount of it — it’s only a little country,’ © Anna Gordon/FT

People in the area have grown angry with the party for failing to deliver on its promises — including on migration — and disillusioned with Brexit because it has not made the UK more prosperous.

“I have friends who voted for it and now think it was a big con,” said Alan Harmer, a social worker and Labour supporter in the town of Grays.

Residents also expressed alarm at the rate at which services were declining and the cost of living rising. That anxiety is compounded by the sense among older people, who grew up in the area when it was almost uniformly white, that if the population keeps expanding because of immigration things will get worse still.

“People are getting pissed off with it. There’s not enough doctors, schools. Who’s going to build the homes?” asked Parsons, from a balcony overlooking Tilbury docks.

But on legal migration, his thinking was in line with what the post-Brexit rules were set up to do: replace free movement of people from Europe with a system that favours skilled migrants wherever they come from.

“We need professional people. Nurses, doctors, engineers,” Parsons said.

Back in 2016, the promise made by Boris Johnson and other rightwing politicians that Brexit would enable Britain to “take back control of our borders” was undoubtedly a factor in Thurrock becoming one of the top five leave-voting districts in the country.

Peter, a 53-year-old warehouse worker who declined to give his name, was among those who supported Brexit and Johnson partly as a result of that pledge.

A view of an area in Thurrock
Some 72.3 per cent of voters in Thurrock supported Brexit. © Anna Gordon/FT

“I will never vote Conservative again,” he said. But migration was just one of several issues fuelling his anger.

“The NHS is overrun. The Tories have bankrupted the council. Thurrock — there’s too many people. The immigrants keep coming. On top of that they take people from London and chuck them here,” he said, referring to the provision of social housing as overspill from the capital.

He did not think the main opposition Labour party would do much better and was unsure who to vote for at the next election.

The migration figures have triggered infighting in the Tory party, and led to Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, making more promises to reduce the numbers.

Jackie Doyle-Price, the Conservative MP for Thurrock, refused to join the frenzy.

“The stories about immigration and Brexit are all about broken promises. People are disillusioned because it looks like the government hasn’t got a grip,” she said.

Some residents think migration is partly responsible for the housing crisis, she added, but they also understand the need for migrant labour.

“The answer is to build more houses. Politicians should stop playing to the gallery and get on with it,” she said. “All these things are a failure to tackle the big policy challenges of the day.”

A view of an area in Thurroick
The Conservative MP for Thurrock, Jackie Doyle-Price, said residents think migration is partly responsible for the housing crisis © Anna Gordon/FT

On the government’s priority to stop irregular migration across the Channel, she said that “the home office can sort itself out without demonising people who are genuinely fleeing persecution”.

Labour representatives in the area declined to comment — a sign of nerves perhaps in a bellwether constituency they held in the past, but where they did not make expected inroads in recent local polls.

Some younger voters in the area were more supportive of the opposition and sanguine about migration levels.

Raqeeb Udin, a 35-year old cyber security development manager representative of the district’s changing demographics said the country needed more people of working age. The debate on migration, he said, was “a distraction from the bigger issues”.

“It’s easy to get people riled up about others taking their jobs. In general fear and anger are primary emotions that speak louder than reason and facts,” he said, blaming 13 years of Conservative rule for most of the problems Thurrock faced.

Linda Dove
Linda Dove: feels let down by government policies regardless of whether the UK is in or out of the EU © Anna Gordon/FT

Linda Dove, a retired undertaker was less hopeful about the alternatives, sharing with many of her generation a sense of being let down.

“They promised us that if we came out of the EU our prospects would be better. It hasn’t materialised. They promised tighter borders. That’s gone by the wayside too,” she said. 

“They promised us everything when we went into the EU and they promised us everything when we came out. Neither worked.”