We should all be in the dock on immigration, says Dan Hodges

Next month, a special election court will rule on whether Phil Woolas’ 103 vote general election victory in Oldham East and Saddleworth will stand. The verdict will hinge primarily on a number of leaflets distributed during the campaign, which were the subject of a complaint by Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins. The leaflets themselves, which were doing the rounds on the internet and Twitter over the weekend, relate to the ongoing debate over race  migration and religious fundamentalism, and given the sensitive nature of the allegations. It would be inappropriate to go into details here.

However, the Oldham case has thrown into sharp focus one of the most difficult, controversial – and in my view defining – issues we face as a Party. Our stance on immigration.

Some cards on the table. I’ve known Phil Woolas for twenty years. He was in the front line campaigning against racism and prejudice long before he sets his sights on a Westminster seat. I saw  first hand how, behind the headlines, as a home office minister he tried to push the case for a fairer, more progressive immigration and asylum system. Those people trying to pin Phil to the wall are missing the bigger picture.

We as a party; no, we as a movement; have sold our soul on immigration. We have prostituted ourselves. We have pandered, compromised, parsed, ducked, retreated, hidden, surrendered. No single policy, no stance, no position we have adopted since we won power in 1997 has been more shaming, more humiliating, more a betrayal of our values.

Remember where we came in:  the Lawrence inquiry. Specific offences for racially motivated crime. Scrapping of vouchers for asylum seekers.

And remember where we ended. David Blunkett’s local schools “swamped” with migrants.  British jobs for British workers.  Mrs Duffy with her jibes at immigrants, feted.  Gordon Brown, with the temerity to call prejudice for what it was, vilified.

The slide into the abyss can be clearly dated. Soon after the election of William Hague as Conservative leader, Philip Gould did a presentation to the cabinet identifying immigration as one of the few issues where the Tories, and Hague, could still outscore Labour.  Suitably terrified by the prospect of young William tossing aside his baseball cap, donning a Union Jack t-shirt, and  marching  his crumbling blue rinse base down Dagenham Heathway, our attempted triangulation of race and immigration began.

How successful did this strategy for managing immigration as a political issue, as opposed to the management of migration itself, prove to be? At the time of the 1997 election, MORI’s Issue Tracker recorded the number of people citing race or immigration as the most important issue facing the nation at 3%. By last May’s election it was 38%. In 1997 the BNP stood 54 candidates and secured 36,000 votes, at an average of 664 votes per candidate. In 2010 they stood 339 candidates and obtained 566,000 votes, an average of 1,663 votes per candidate. A YouGov poll taken in March found that 69% of those questioned believed Labour’s management of immigration had been bad for the country, compared to 21% who thought it had been beneficial.

Set aside principles or morality. Even on its own terms, our political management of immigration has been a disaster. Trying to ape the language of the BNP succeeded only in boosting the BNP. Our use of inflammatory rhetoric to demonstrate our ‘toughness’,  served only to draw attention to what the  public viewed as one of our greatest policy failures. Take the heat out of the issue? We pumped the entire contents of an oil refinery on to the flames.

A Conservative Shadow Minister I met before the election expressed total incredulity at our strategy; “Does Peter Mandelson really think he can make the Conservative Party look weak on immigration? If you keep talking up the issue, the only winners will be us and the BNP”.

He was right. And we will pay an even heavier electoral price in the future if we don’t radically reassess how we negotiate the complex terrain of migration and race. Because if we don’t invest in a new compass, David Cameron will.

In contrast to our neanderthal ‘Alf Garnett’ strategy, the Tories are developing a much more nuanced approach, geared to neutralising the immigration issue, and turning it to their advantage. At one level they will continue to toss out the odd populist bone, such as the migration cap. But simultaneously they intend to use the Lib Dems as cover to push through some genuinely progressive policies, like the abolition of child detention, thereby reinforcing Cameron’s ‘new Tory’ definition. And below this they plan to make serious in-roads into Labour’s traditional BAME base. Those who leapt on Cameron’s “Pakistan gaff”, missed the wider message. His trip to India wasn’t just a trade mission, it was a political mission. The Tories are making a serious play for Britain’s Indian community, and they’re banking on us to open the door.

Our response? Bland, ritualistic statements from the leadership candidates about “reconnecting with people who don’t think we’re on their side any more”. Countered by some irate tweets about Phil Woolas and the odd angry letter to the Guardian about Margaret Hodge.

Instead of playing to the gallery, or scapegoating individuals who have used fair means, and foul, to keep votes out of Nick Griffin hands, why don’t we deploy our energies to constructing, no demanding, a serious plan for addressing the issue of immigration. One that addresses it strategically not tactically. That looks at underlying issues, such as the legacy of Thatcherite de-industrialisation, absence of affordable housing, the crisis of identity amongst traditional working class Labour communities who have been told to decamp to middle England if they want their concerns addressed.

On second thoughts, let’s not. Lets’ stigmatise school children who don’t speak good English, stop Polish plumbers from getting their mitts on our great British u-bends, and invite Mrs Duffy round for tea. It’s bound to work this time, isn’t it?

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13 Responses to “We should all be in the dock on immigration, says Dan Hodges”

  1. John Fitz says:

    I almost entirely agree with your analysis, but the leaflet that was whizzing round the internet at the weekend is not part of the court case. Repellent though it is, it doesn’t actually refer to any particular candidate and so isn’t against the Representation of the People Act. It may have contravened other legislation – we’ll just have to wait and see.

    Several other leaflets will be making it to court which are more personal, more defamatory and more incendiary than this one. In this sense it is you that is missing the bigger picture about Mr Woolas’ conduct.

  2. Victor Southern says:

    “Mrs Duffy with her jibes at immigrants”, a pretty twisted view of what she said.

    Do you assume that a perfectly sensible lady who has been a life-long Labour Party member can be dismissed so scornfully and so inappropriately.

    Mrs. Duffy is entitled to query why her neighbourhood is changing so rapidly, why all our resources are strained by unbridled immigration – immigration welcomed by the Labour government.

    As for Phil Woolas, we all remember his dismal performance over the Gurkha issue. How come they were the only type of immigrant who were not welcomed.

  3. The less I say about Phil Woolas the better. The post wouldn’t get through moderation otherwise. Suffice to say that were I a Saddleworth resident my ballot paper would have been spoiled, because if he’s been arguing for a more compassionate immigration policy in cabinet then he’s taking far too absolute a line on collective responsibility.

    As far as immigration goes, I think this ties in to the lack of any future to look forward for the working class to look forward to since around 1975. In real terms, wages have failed to rise significantly. Add in the disappearance of the concept of job security and the disappearance of traditional networks, and a feeling of vulnerability makes a lot of sense. And if it’s not addressed, threats will be perceived. Immigrants haven’t caused the problems of the white working class, but they arrived around the same time the problems started, so it’s unsurprising some people have drawn the connection.

    But is the Labour Party ready to address the problem? Is to ready to say that the group that most needs its support is its working class base? I’d like to think so, but I keep hearing that such a stance would make us dangerously unelectable…

  4. Sunny H says:

    Possibly the best and most honest articles I’ve read on this issue on a Labour site on immigration.

    John Fitz’s point above also stands – we were hesitant to publish the leaflet initially at LC (though Political Scrapbook forced my hand)… but it turned out it wasn’t the one.

  5. Hepp says:

    “It would be inappropriate to go into details here.”

    No, it would absolutely NOT be inappropriate to go into details here. From what is available on “the Straight Choice” Phil Woolas ought to be dragged over the coals by colleagues in the party. How on earth can we claim to be a progressive party that fights racism if one of our leading MPs – and ex Immigration Minister for goodness sake – can publish this sort of filth.

    I’ve heard the defence that the liberal was just as bad – but even if that’s true, what sort of defence is it?

    I don’t comment on the legal case as I don’t know enough about it. But those leaflets were DISGRACEFUL. Woolas DELIBERATELY DISTORTED the facts trying to imply that a terrorist group from London was active in Oldham. He is making the sort of claims about a mosque that we’re seeing over in the USA – perhaps Woolas has more in common with Sarah Palin than Keir Hardie!

    There are enough decent people in the Labour party who want to be MPs that we don’t have to put up with this sort of sick, dangerous behaviour from our own.

    The new leader whoever s/he is has GOT to get on to this fast. We have a good history. If Woolas is the best we can come up with, our future looks more doubtful.

  6. Madam Miaow says:

    Excellent article. Ed Balls and many others in Labour scrambling around to revivify the party, not to mention their careers, should be made to read this.

  7. Paul says:

    I agree with Sunny that this is a very good article.

    I disagree however that Labour ‘lost it’ on immigration as early as Dan says it did, notwithstanding the discussions going on about it amongst senior figures. I think this overlooks the substantive positives in the first term.

    My own ‘Labour lost it date’ is 24th October 2006. The rapidity of the descent into madness is therefore all the more galling.


  8. Great article Dan and yes – Labour need to come up with a well thought out strategy that works for the country and population.

    What it doesn’t need to do is oppose the coalition plans “just because” or people will see it for what it is – the usual tribal politics…and I think most people are sick to death of that.

    As regards Phil Woolas, whatever he did behind closed doors we’ve seen the leaflet and to be honest I was surprised not to see the BNP logo on it. Not a good way to promote your credentials on immigration.

  9. Susanna says:

    I totally agree with everything you write. But we not only sold our souls on immigration but sold our souls the works on asylum seekers. I am ashamed to be a member of party that withdrew the right for asylum seekers to work, that detains children while their parent’s claims are assessed, who made asylum seekers live on £35 a week.

    Lets hope the new leader gets our souls back!

  10. Nik Khat says:

    Good article but I think you could expand the analysis to a whole host of policies from people like Blunkett et al.

    Of course there were positives, minimum wage, investment in public services etc but what always amazed me was the fact that Labour always detracted from the many positives by decrying – “scroungers” “asylum seekers” “housing benefit cheats” “bog standard comprehensives” etc.

    Instead of forging a narrative to show the positive nature of their attempted reforms, they were always bemoaning the lack of progress they had – “scars on my back” Blair.

    What was even more aggravating was the swallowing whole of the “Daily Mail” agenda with regards to everything from security legislation to crime to immigration.

    How can we describe as a success 13 years of Labour government when inequality is greater, social housing has near enough evaporated – it was the Great Prescott who sufferred the only defeat on the conference floor but still dismissed the “fourth option” for local councils to keep their housing – achievment gap in education is greater than 1997 ( “A” level results yesterday 19/08/10); NHS Tories can point to Labours introduction of private sector as cover for their privatisation agenda not forgetting the irony of Alan Johnson on TV saying that he supports Micheal Howard’s view on prison rather than Ken Clarkes!

    This reply is already to long so I won’t even go into the wholesale acceptance of what Bankers and the City told Labour.

    The disallusionment of working Pakistani, Muslims like myself grew as more and more vitrolic language was used to describe immigrants and so called terrorists with Phil “Clean skin terrorists” Woolas in the vanguard. If you knew how difficult and expensive Labour has made it to even visit this country you would be shocked.

    In the end Labour got swallowed by their own continuous striving to triangulate and attack instead of realising that they were in power and should provide a context to a coherent set of policies that were progressive, fair and equalising.

  11. John Fitz says:

    Lots of good points are being made here and I agree with almost all of the original article. But by far the most important statement has been made by Hepp.

    It is far from inappropriate to comment now about this case. In fact, now might be the best and bravest time to pass comment. We shouldn’t wait for two judges to determine on dry legal points but we should be saying what we feel about this filth before the trial takes place.

    First of all, this leaflet does not seem to be a part of the proceedings and, secondly, the trial won’t take place in front of a jury so it would be very difficult indeed to prejudice it.

  12. Brian says:

    Labour’s policy on immigration was aboslutely a disgrace. The dismantling of all border controls in 1997 was possibly the most criminal act committed by any British government against the British population ever in history. It has turned vast swathes of our country into a foreign land for good, to the benefit of nobody, and damaged the future of race relations in this country probably forever.

  13. Sam says:

    BRILLIANT article, thanks Dan. I particularly like that someone has actually pointed out that what Mrs Duffy said was pretty vitriolic and prejudiced. Would be great to see a Labour leader who would have challenged that point with her, rather than calling her a bigot in the car on the way home. Doubt we will though.

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