Keith Lambert, photographed outside his home in Hull. For Brexit series written by Tobias Buck.
Keith Lambert, a confirmed Out voter, at his home in Hull © Charlie Bibby/FT

The English flag flutters above Beckside Close, a residential street in the northern city of Hull. The red brick house next door is due a visit.

This is Brexit territory, and Bill Palfreman is about to preach to the converted.

“Hi, I am from the Leave Campaign,” he says when the door swings open. “Have you given any thought to how you will vote in the referendum?”

The reassurance comes instantly. Keith Lambert, a 50-year-old mechanic who left his job after an accident last year, says he will back a British exit from the EU on June 23. “Migration,” he says, by way of an explanation, before adding gloomily: “I feel we have already lost our country.”

Mr Palfreman, a local member of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, hands over a batch of leaflets to share with neighbours and moves on. “That was pretty typical,” he says.

In Hull, as in countless other towns and cities across the nation, the Leave campaign has found that migration taps not only into everyday worries about jobs and public services but also into a broader disquiet about social change and national identity.

With just two weeks to go until the referendum, Brexit advocates are putting migration at the front and centre of the debate.

The strategy is designed to rally their base and sway the undecided, helped not least by new data — released last month — showing that a net total of 333,000 migrants came to work and live in the UK last year alone, and roughly half were Europeans.

As in previous years, that number was far higher than political leaders predicted, fuelling claims from the Leave campaign that the government has “lost control of our borders”.

Some believe the referendum — for all the intricate arguments and complex judgments — now boils downs to a simple question for Leave campaigners: “If this referendum is about migration, they win. If it is about economic risks they lose,” says Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The migration argument works because it builds on everyday grievances about hospital waiting lists, crowded classrooms, which have also been hit by government austerity policies, as well as stagnating wages and rising rents.

And — unlike in other European countries — it is intimately linked with British membership of the EU. Joint membership means all citizens inside the bloc are free to settle and work where they want, so there is indeed nothing London can do to keep workers from Poland or Romania out.

“Generally speaking, eastern European migrants have come in, worked hard, and made a contribution to the economy. But it has also put pressure on schools and on GPs [local doctors]. Wages for lower skilled workers have flatlined and rents have gone up,” says Matt Beech, the director of the Centre for British Politics at Hull University.

“If you are a working class Hullensian you feel that competition has increased, that employers are under no pressure to raise wages, and you will view this as something negative.”

For Hull more than for other places, the arrival of thousands of eastern European migrants came as a shock. Once a prosperous fishing port, Hull was flattened by German bombs in the second world war.

The second blow came in the 1970s, when the “Cod Wars” with Iceland over fishing rights in the north Atlantic all but wiped out the local fleet, condemning the city to decades of decline. With a weak economy and high unemployment, it held no attraction to Commonwealth migrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. Right up to the late 1990s, ethnic minorities accounted for less than 2 per cent of the city’s dwindling population.

All that changed when Poland and nine other countries joined the EU in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria three years later. According to local estimates, more than 30,000 EU migrants have moved to Hull in the years since, and now account for more than one in ten residents. Beverley Road, one of the city’s main traffic arteries, is lined with supermarkets, butchers and travel agents run by Poles and other Eastern Europeans.

Mike Hookem, a former joiner who now sits in the European Parliament as a Ukip member for the Yorkshire and Humber region, says the impact is felt particularly sharply on construction sites. “Hull lads just aren’t getting a look in,” he complains, before adding: “No country can survive without migration. But it has to be controlled. We do not need more low-skilled, low-cost workers.”


UK’s EU Referendum: How people would vote

For a more detailed summary of opinion polling visit the FT’s Brexit poll tracker page


Not everyone agrees that migration has been bad for Hull. Colin Inglis, a veteran Hull city councillor for the centre-left Labour party, points out that those Polish stores on Beverley Road did not replace locally-run butchers and bakers, but in fact moved into boarded-up shops and derelict buildings.

“As recently as 2002 we were a city that had a falling population and a declining economy. We had to shut schools and tear down housing stock. Migration has helped us turn all this around. It has helped Hull grow and brought money into the city.”

But the widespread unease about migration is not just linked to wages and waiting lists and other practical concerns. Lurking behind such complaints is a more profound grievance that many voters feel strongly but often struggle to articulate. It shines through on the campaign trail in much-repeated phrases such as “I want my country back” or “This used to be such a close community” or “I no longer recognise my own country”.

To some voters, the argument around migration and EU membership has become tied up in a broader but ill-defined sense of loss. “Part of the [Brexit] pitch is to people who feel themselves members of a silent majority but who fear becoming a new minority,” says Mr Leonard.

It is a sentiment that advocates of British EU membership find hard to counter. The amorphous world of identity politics is not easily penetrated with facts and figures, let alone with studies extolling the aggregate economic benefit that migration brings to the country.

In Hull, says Mr Beech, “most people are not thinking about the aggregate benefit or the UK as a whole — they are thinking about their own lived experience”. And with the referendum drawing closer by the day, he adds, many have reached the same conclusion: “For the average working class English person, mass migration has not been a good deal.”


UK’s EU referendum: full coverage and analysis

Brexit series for FT.

View the FT’s comprehensive guide to the vote on whether Britain should stay in Europe, with all the latest news, analysis and commentary from both sides of the debate. See more 


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