An analysis of how, from April to July, both Tory and Labour politicians have with media help been carrying the torch for populist, nationalist ideas and repressive racist immigration policies.
On BBC Newsnight on 22 June, Paul Mason, the programme’s economics editor, fresh from the barricades of Spain and Greece, and Gillian Tett, Washington editor of the Financial Times, were carefully spelling out the fact that austerity and the eurozone bailouts signalled a total social and political crisis of capitalism across Europe. Tett argued that political elites were not simply frozen in inactivity, but that ‘the eurozone project is currently being held together by terror’.
Europe is imploding, but in the UK, politicians and the media are obsessed with a ‘market’ analysis and version of the crisis, based on handouts from the world of finance, banking and investment traders. Mainstream political parties in the UK, with support from the media, have concentrated on a shared agenda of ‘deficit reduction’, public sector and welfare cuts and privatisation – and generally blaming a ‘eurozone crisis’ for British economic conditions becoming worse than those experienced in the aftermath of 1931.
But events happen, and the Conservative-led coalition came dramatically unstuck with a disastrous budget and constant damaging revelations from the Leveson inquiry.
Now the biggest banking scandal of the century is breaking, with the threat of links between the political elite, Conservative and Labour, and ‘their friends in the city’, being exposed to an electorate already turned off politicians and bankers.
So what do the Tories and Labour do? Well, as Andy Burnham of Labour put it on Question Time on 21 June, they are going ‘back to the future’ with the Conservatives deciding the way forward has to be appealing to core voters and marginal constituencies. As Andrew Rawnsley argued the Tories’ ‘turning up the volume’ on issues like Europe, immigration and welfare, is ‘a tactic to shore up’ this vote – and to stop the UK Independence Party. For, as Martin Kettle put it in the Guardian, ‘The Tory party’s rapidly increasing electoral fear (is) of UKIP amid a churning eurozone crisis … Politically this is all about long term positioning.’
This strategy of populist stunts also signals for another columnist that ‘the media’s narrative is fixed … they have decided that nervous PR men rule us … Mr Cameron is a lost soul who does not know what he thinks or where he is going. Instead of principles, he has an opinion pollster, one Andrew Cooper.’
The think-tank and flag waver for ‘traditional’ Toryism, ConservativeHome, owned by Lord Ashcroft, has led the charge on core Conservative issues. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome set out Tory priorities in an alternative Queen’s Speech on 6 May warning that ‘Cameron can’t win the next election if he does not reunite the Tory family … It is not an exaggeration to say that we may be on the brink of a historic split in the centre-right vote. If 5% to 10% of voters get into the habit of voting UKIP, it will become very difficult for the Conservatives to win marginal seats.’
Tory MP Conor Burns and MEP Daniel Hannan have both called for an electoral agreement with UKIP in 2015. Other Tory MPs are being approached by UKIP to defect. Nigel Farage the leader of UKIP has stated that the vast majority of Conservative Associations would prefer an alliance with UKIP rather than the Lib Dems.
To prevent votes going to UKIP, Cameron has been forced to raise the issue of a referendum on Europe. In the Labour Party Jon Cruddas is apparently supporting this idea – again to stop Labour votes moving to UKIP. But UKIP is also an anti-immigration party with candidates who emerge as far-right sympathisers. In May a UKIP candidate in local elections in Sheffield, within Nick Clegg’s constituency, had to be disowned by UKIP when his extremist sympathies were exposed.
UKIP, now bankrolled by former Tory funder Stewart Wheeler, is fast becoming a respectable home for former BNP voters, and thus mainstream politicians are determined to out-flank and out-bid the party in terms of a xenophobic agenda of policies and rhetoric.
Returning to a racist political discourse
The return to a racist discourse became apparent by the end of April when the rhetoric and lessons of the French election began to filter through to the UK media and political advisers.
The Sun argued that ‘the crisis haunting the French President dogs every leader in Europe, including Mr Cameron. Voters fear for their jobs, pensions and savings. They blame migrants for snatching their children’s jobs. In Britain, youth unemployment is soaring, while immigration is growing faster than official estimates … Similar forecasts in France helped Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National win one in five votes – enough to block a Sarkozy lead. UKIP will be looking for lessons here.’
The Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) picked up on this trend in Conservative party lobbying, ‘If tabloid papers are pushing immigration up the agenda then the danger for a polarised debate will be more apparent and critical issues such as the economy and unemployment will be sidelined.’ Boris Johnson played a late ‘race card’ in his London mayoral election campaign, abandoning his 2009 position supporting an amnesty for migrants. Now he went on record with a tough ‘real’ Conservative line. He declared, ‘I want a much tighter grip on immigration’, and wanted the government to ‘do more to tackle the problem of foreigners illegally setting up home in the capital’.
On 24 April Newham Council announced possible plans to send households in receipt of housing benefit out of London. On 26 April Nigel Farage on Question Time linked homelessness in London to the ‘fact’ that 50-70 per cent of council allocations were going to migrants from Eastern Europe.
Racialised child abuse – the grooming issue
In a racialised political climate issues are rarely debated on their merits, but almost always to mobilise support amongst potential xenophobic supporters, or voters. In early May, with the BNP and EDL protesting outside a Liverpool court, the child sexual abuse ‘grooming’ issue was mobilised. The issue is traditional territory for the far Right – it was at the core of the campaign by BNP leader Nick Griffin in Keighley in the 2005 general election. It was claimed at the time that it was by ‘addressing the grooming issue’ that Anne Cryer and the HOPE not Hate campaign was successful in defeating the BNP.
This notion that ‘breaking the silence’ on certain ‘race’ issues actually confronts racist politics is very strange. What in practice it actually achieves is to triangulate mainstream politicians beyond the issues of the far Right by constantly racialising the discourse of electoral politics and legitimising the racist slogans of the far Right. As Graham Murray has recently pointed out the deliberate exploiting of xenophobic messages by Sarkozy in the French elections resulted in defeat but that ‘Sarkozy’s achievement was to give credibility to the ideology of the far Right’.
In May, EDL demonstrations in Rochdale on the ‘Asian grooming’ issue were being framed by politicians. Jack Straw’s January 2011 inflammatory ‘easy meat’ speech was constantly quoted by Labour MPs like Rochdale’s Simon Danczuk. Trevor Phillips, departing head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, returned to his inflammatory attacks on the ‘closed societies’ of immigrant communities he first put forward after the northern riots of 2001. Phillips thought it was ‘fatuous’ to deny a ‘racial link’ with the case.
Jack Straw himself sealed the cross party xenophobic consensus by warmly welcoming Tory chairman Baroness Warsi’s criticism of the ‘small minority’ of Pakistani men who see white girls as ‘fair game’. He said he fully supported Lady Warsi’s comments. ‘I think she is quite right to say this and it is all the more powerful because she is of Pakistani heritage herself.’
The actual research on sexual abuse, and the effects of private companies clustering their children’s care homes in cheap, but dangerous areas, had to await July reports by the assistant Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, who found that ’perpetrators come from all ethnic groups as do their victims … [and] some local authorities and homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper parent’.
Racialised thinking and political positioning
Racialised thinking today relies on an infiltrated racially coded imagery.(See ) And such racialised triggers continued appearing throughout June to ‘position’ the Conservatives for future elections. Legislation on ‘forced marriages’ was promised by Theresa May on 8 June. The Today programme discussion was introduced by BBC presenter Sarah Montague who described the new law as indicating a change in the way ‘we’ approach immigration. She suggested this was a break from a ‘permissive’ attitude to one which says ‘these are our laws’ which immigrants must obey. Conservative columnist Matthew Parris agreed, seeing the announcement as signalling the assertion of ‘our customs’. Electorally the measure addressed a xenophobic agenda but also Downing Street had apparently pushed the legislation to ‘help boost the coalition’s flagging appeal to female voters’.
Tories returning to real Conservatism
On 26 May Theresa May attempted to boost the ‘tough’ immigration policies of the Tories by revealing contingency plans to stop Greek ‘migrants’ escaping from the chaos of the eurozone to the UK. This statement may have simply been a thoughtless populist play but as Ruth Wodak points out, ‘Such – mainstream – rhetoric fuels fear which is then easily instrumentalized by radical rightwing populist parties, frequently in explicit and blunt ways.’
When Theresa May presented her new family immigration rules to Parliament on 11 June, Tory MPs in the chamber like Mark Reckless and John Redwood praised the ‘Conservative’ and robust nature of the statement. Frank Field, still with Labour but chair of Migration Watch’s Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration, warmly welcomed the statement. Theresa May linked the announcement to a new set of ‘guidance’ to the British courts regarding the interpretation of the human rights of ‘foreign criminals’. Jack Straw made an appearance at the debate to support the message on foreign criminals and human rights. Philip Johnston in the Telegraph welcomed these ‘robust new policies’ and the attempt to be ‘truly conservative’.
In fact the intense government pressure on human rights and the European Court did have an effect. By the end of June, a new British judge, Paul Mahoney, was elected by the PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), but he was not the expected one. His success followed ‘a campaign by rightwing British newspapers and politicians to denigrate [Ben] Emmerson, a barrister specialising in human rights cases, who had been considered the leading contestant’.
The Tories have also reached for the ‘welfare card’ beginning again the ‘bloody battle’ they initiated in February on welfare reform. David Cameron in his speech at Dartford on 25 June called for a ‘wider onslaught’ including cutting housing benefit for the under 25s, because, apparently, pollsters and focus groups have demonstrated this issue plays wonderfully with 75 per cent of the electorate, mobilised against ‘benefit cheats’. Ian Birrell has described it simply as ‘naked politics … the hurling of red meat to Tory rightwingers’; Steve Richards saw it as Cameron ‘after a quick hit in the polls’, and again countering UKIP.
Vernon Bogdanor, Cameron’s tutor at Oxford, had the same analysis. ‘In the 2010 election the UKIP vote of nearly a million was by far the highest ever for a minor party in Britain … If all UKIP voters had supported the Conservatives, a eurosceptic party, David Cameron would have won an overall majority.’
Mobilising nationalist and imperialist nostalgia
Of course amongst the Jubilee celebrations, and the other diversions offered by the Coalition over the summer, there has been the backdrop of a nationalist and imperialist nostalgia. Constant references to anniversaries of events in the Falklands, linking royalty to active service in the South Atlantic, or Afghanistan. Even a memorial to airmen killed in the Second World War became a party token. The memorial to the dead of Bomber Command was funded by Richard Desmond, owner of the Daily Express, and Lord Ashcroft, still one of the main donors for the Conservatives, and a public appeal. Desmond in his own paper could not resist drawing the ‘political’ lesson ‘ the people of Britain wanted this memorial despite politically correct voices opposing it’.
The Sunday Times, leaking a new draft of the citizens’ test handbook, Life in Britain, brought out the essential Conservative message they want to feed to the electorate: ‘For too long there has been embarrassment and guilt about Britain’s imperial and colonial history and this has led to a reluctance to celebrate our achievements. We have put benefit entitlement and the Human Rights Act above the many and diverse aspects of our culture and past that have created modern Britain.’
Labour values are military values
Of course cynics would say that this ‘back to basics’ Toryism is totally predictable – the race card, and now the welfare card are desperate ‘get out of jail’ strategies. What even the cynical blanch at is the fact that the new Miliband Labour Party has also decided to revisit the dark days of xenophobic populism, to triangulate beyond the Tories and UKIP to make sure of returning to power in 2015.
One result of this retreat to patriotism and xenophobia has been the process whereby Labour has morphed into an outright militaristic party. Jim Murphy, shadow defence minister, at the Labour Conference in September 2011 talked of: ‘changing our Party. So when we talk about refounding our party we are rebuilding a political home – and creating a political Home fit for our Heroes.’ A Labour Friends of the Forces organisation emerged from a conference with Lord (George) Robertson (Labour’s interventionist defence secretary when Serbia was bombed in March 1999 and later secretary general of NATO) as a trustee.
Dan Jarvis, who was parachuted into Barnsley in 2011 now Labour’s shadow culture minister, has also emerged to decorate the militaristic wing of Labour as a trustee. (Read an IRR News story: ‘In a time of war – the strange case of racism and politics in Barnsley’.) On a visit to British troops in Afghanistan, Ed Miliband called for urgent cross-party talks involving service charities and the military, to end all types of injustice against service personnel. In this remarkable cross-party shift Ed Miliband called for more legal rights for service personnel based on a survey commissioned by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft.
Stephen Twigg the Labour Shadow education secretary and Jim Murphy even more remarkably have trumpeted the new Labour values as ‘armed forces values’ ‘central to our national character, just as they are to our national security. The ethos and values of the Services can be significant not just on the battlefield but across our society, including in schools.’
In a bizarre ‘back to the future’ twist, Labour policy is revisiting the nineteenth century Army Schools for orphans and working class boys, in its policy proposals for ‘Service Schools’ . ‘[There] would be an opportunity for specialist Service Schools to be established as academies … looking to the success of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover’. (The school was founded in 1801 as an orphanage for children of soldiers who fell in battle, and now a state boarding school for children of military personnel.)
The Labour attachment to the ‘Our Heroes’ political campaign originally developed by the Sun newspaper was in part a strategy to outflank the appeal of the BNP and then the Islamaphobic EDL, in part to establish the party as the ‘party of defence’ after the media criticisms of the Brown years.
Back to Englishness and British jobs for British workers
Blue Labour advisers led by Jon Cruddas in charge of Labour’s policy review, have also produced a new emphasis on nationalism around ‘Englishness’. Ed Miliband, speaking after what he described as the ‘fantastic celebration’ of the Jubilee, and before the Euro finals on 7 June said ‘We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity … we should also proudly talk the language of patriotism. It is part of celebrating what binds us together and what we project outwards to the world.’
The problem for Ed Miliband was that he failed to define this Labour Englishness. In a Channel 4 News interview on June 7, he failed to get past words like ‘stoicism’ to define his version of Englishness. Revealingly, interviewer Krishnan Guru Murthy chose to emphasise the fact that second-generation immigrants like Miliband and himself instinctively prefer British as a label. In other words the Englishness campaign was not just about Scottish independence campaigning but also revisiting the ‘Britishness’ campaigning of Gordon Brown. Labour was again joining up to populist nationalism and identity politics to out-flank Tory and far-right populism.
This impression has of course been reinforced by constant restatements since the 2010 general election under Ed Miliband’s leadership that Labour would be a party of strong secure borders and tough on illegal migrants, and bogus asylum seekers. Miliband appointed Phil Woolas to his first shadow cabinet, and Liam Byrne to head his first party policy review – both hard-line immigration ministers with a dubious record of using the immigration card in xenophobic election campaigning. Yvette Cooper has not, as the shadow home secretary, wavered from this hard line – often criticising Theresa May and the government, for not ensuring secure borders, or an effective control on immigration.
On June 7 Mary Riddell, in the Daily Telegraph, thought perhaps there was an opportunity for Ed Miliband to strike out with a principled Jubilee policy:‘With beacons of welcome ablaze around the Commonwealth, we forget at our peril that economic interest decrees a sensible immigration policy, while our shared humanity demands that Britain, a nation of migrants spearheaded by a monarch of German ancestry, offers safety to the tortured.’
But this was not Labour’s agenda; they had Yvette Cooper, in the Times of 21 June apologising for Labour’s immigration policy and berating the Coalition for theirs. The article was welcomed by Migration Watch UK: ‘This is a very significant shift of policy and is music to our ears, confirming what we have been saying for ten years. But it is a bit rich coming from a party which, when in government, threw open the doors of Britain.’ Yvette Cooper was still following the script on 5 July claiming that ‘The Tory-led Government is failing on illegal immigration. The Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister need to get their act together and bring in tough action on illegal immigration.’
Ed Miliband launched Labour’s position on immigration at the think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on 21 June with a set of policies which revisited many of the arguments rehearsed by Labour leadership candidates back in 2010. (Read an IRR News story: ‘The Moving Right Show… again’.) Here was a pandering to the populist Right, with arguments on migrants taking British jobs – Miliband described British workers ‘locked out’ of jobs and wages being driven down. Here were the arguments of Blue Labour, that too much change in communities justified anxious responses from Labour’s grass roots. The ‘bigots’ were right.
There were gestures towards the ‘business’ case for immigration put by Matt Cavanagh of IPPR and a former Blair adviser. But the message ‘spun’ for the media, and the electorate, was xenophobic to the core. The speech was immediately criticised by Labour left-wingers Diane Abbott, and John McDonnell who told BBC Radio 4 that ‘issues about wages being under-cut by migrant labour’ had been around for centuries and the way to tackle the problem was to boost union rights.
The Miliband speech signalled the defeat of efforts by organisations like MRN with its All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration chaired by Jack Dromey; and research and information sites like the Migration Observatory, to lobby for ‘managed migration’ policies from Labour, economically rational and free of xenophobic populist messages.
Asylum rights still denied
What was most depressing for anti-racist campaigners involved in asylum rights organisations looking at recent statements from Labour, is the total absence of any new Labour policies on asylum. Policies designed to deter anyone from seeking asylum in the UK are still the default position for all the mainstream parties.
As Damien Green, the current immigration minister put it, ‘We are also working closely with other government departments to create a hostile environment which makes it much harder for migrants to live in the UK illegally.’ Jack Straw has also reinforced the negative message on asylum. In the middle of a national campaign by asylum rights organisations against prison guard and security companies G4S, Serco and Reliance taking over and privatising asylum housing, Jack Straw has reappeared. He is campaigning in Blackburn against Serco – because it threatens to increase the numbers of asylum seekers in his constituency.
David Cameron, meanwhile, on his welfare offensive is threatening a policy of vouchers and payment in kind for benefit claimants after the next election – a policy already piloted on dispersed asylum seekers by Labour governments. (Read an IRR News story: ‘First they came for the asylum seeker’.)
Back to the future indeed.