Creating common sense racism – its election time again


Creating common sense racism – its election time again

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Written by: John Grayson


To what extent are politicians entrenching a common sense racism as they purport to deal with popular fears?

It is election time again and politicians are returning to their core ‘narratives’ and vote winning strategies. The politics of race and prejudice coded as ‘immigration’ dominated media coverage of the 2010 general election. It is certainly unclear whether it was actually a determining issue in the outcome of the election – but politicians and their ‘spads’ (special advisers) never let a few facts stand in their way. For instance one interesting recent poll, the MORI Economist April 2011 ‘Issues Index’, stated that ‘This month fewer (17%) mention race relations/immigration – the lowest percentage to do so since April 2002′ whereas 52% mention the economy, 24% unemployment and 22% foreign affairs.’ One might expect ‘poll driven’ politicians to welcome this drift away from fear and anxiety on immigration. But this is not the way racism now plays out in British politics. It is assumed that there is an embedded rightwing and prejudiced ‘common sense’ discourse around race relations and immigration. John Humphrys on the Radio 4 Today programme on 15 April, interviewing politicians on David Cameron’s Romney speech on immigration put it clearly, ‘A lot of people would say he was just speaking a lot of plain good common sense.’ The Daily Express echoed the theme with a leader the same day on ‘Prime Minister’s Common Sense about Immigration’.[1]

It is believed that the far Right will exploit this embedded ‘common sense’ prejudice unless mainstream parties show they can match the rhetoric and policies of the BNP and UKIP. This approach is often described as ‘populism’ – politicians reacting to popular demands from their electorates. The last few weeks in British politics suggest otherwise, that politicians themselves are constructing a racist climate.

Cameron’s speech on immigration

It is perhaps not surprising that a majority of the electorate are telling pollsters that they are concerned about cuts and the economy, after all half a million people did march in the largest trades union organised demonstration in British history at the end of March. The Coalition plans on the NHS are in meltdown. It was seen as essential presumably by David Cameron’s advisers that Conservative policy should return to appeals to their core voters. It would make their appeal distinctive and deflect from issues on which they were clearly losing ground or had already given power away in the Coalition negotiations. It is after all familiar territory – William Hague as Conservative leader tried to target Tory core voters with his asylum ‘swamping’ speech, then Michael Howard tried it in 2005 using immigration as a key issue. As Alex Salmond reminded Howard on BBC 1 Question Time on 14 April, his controversial speeches on immigration in 2005 were written by David Cameron.

Some of the reactions to Cameron’s Romney speech on Immigration on 14 April perhaps give an insight into how the politics of prejudice are actually created: for example, Tim Montgomerie an influential Conservative commentator tweeted ‘Increasingly nervous about core Tory vote, Cameron makes immigration speech’ and Anthony Painter commented on LabourList ‘David Cameron is in trouble. And when he’s in trouble, he panics and presses the race, identity, welfare and immigration buttons’.[2]

Immigration had to become an issue for the Conservatives – thus they made it an issue with two major speeches by the Prime Minister – on multiculturalism in Munich and on immigration in Romney. The prejudiced ‘wallpaper’ to the initiative was supplied in press campaigns on the now predictable theme of ‘numbers’. The Daily Mail in February made the most bizarre claim that more migrants came to the UK under Labour than since ‘Saxon times’.[3] Other familiar contentious race and immigration themes about ‘migrant crime’, ‘illegal’ asylum seekers, bogus marriages, etc. featured in the Conservative-leaning press. This section of the media was triumphant with its efforts. The day after the Cameron speech the Express claimed ‘Action on Migrants at last…thanks to Daily Express’.[4]

Common sense racism and labour

The problem is of course that the other mainstream parties collude in this ‘common sense’ myth that people are demanding action on ‘immigration’ above all other issues. It is arguably the case that Labour in office was guilty of creating many of the current ‘common sense racism’ assumptions in its policies on asylum, and the domestic ‘war on terror’. Sivanandan classically described it as ‘a politics of prejudice and fear to create a culture of xeno-racism and Islamaphobia; the asylum seeker at the gate and the shadowy Muslim within.'[5]

Certainly the rhetoric of Liam Byrne, and Phil Woolas as immigration ministers and as campaigning politicians and the constant interventions of Jack Straw fed the prejudiced atmosphere. Gordon Brown led the charge on ‘British jobs for British workers’. Labour did after all run in 2010 on an election manifesto written by Ed Miliband with a major section headed ‘Crime and Immigration’. The Labour leadership contest in its early days became a quest to outdo each other on immigration with Ed Balls suggesting amending the Treaty of Rome to cut EU immigration.[6] There was even a defence of the disgraced Phil Woolas after his controversial Oldham campaign. Ed Miliband put him in his first shadow cabinet again as immigration spokesman.

Responses to Cameron

Thus it is not at all surprising that David Cameron’s two speeches on multiculturalism and immigration have raised no principled objection from Labour. Apparently only Sadiq Khan on the shadow front bench criticised the Munich speech and he was criticised by his colleagues and prevented from raising it at the shadow cabinet.

The response to the Cameron speech from Labour was obviously tightly spun. Ed Miliband restricted comments to stressing the Coalition’s disunity evidenced by Vince Cable’s dissent. Other Labour comments actually criticised Cameron for being less tough on immigration than Labour, criticising the job cuts in the UK Border Agency which would make it more difficult to counter ‘illegal’ immigration (the line taken by Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and surprisingly also by Peter Hain, who had privately criticised the Munich speech, but made similar comments to Cooper’s on BBC 1 Question Time on14 April). David Blunkett on the BBC Radio 4 World at One on the same day questioned the need for the speech with the BNP ‘in retreat’ but certainly felt that Cameron had ‘pressed the right button for the majority of people, yes. Right about most of what he said, yes.’

On BBC 2’s Newsnight on 14 April reporter Richard Watson suggested that Cameron ‘was reflecting a popular mood’ and Labour’s Keith Vaz felt it important to have the debate and ‘no one should criticise the Prime Minister for speaking out’. Vaz supported Cameron’s attacks on the ‘abuse’ of the immigration system.

There were of course some challenges to the speech which went beyond the arguments as to whether it was Coalition policy or not. Interestingly, Alex Salmond leader of the SNP on Question Time, was the most forthright in criticising the ‘cynical timing’ of the speech and suggesting that the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigration was ‘fatuous, nonsense’. David Hall Matthews of the Social Liberal Forum, interviewed by John Humphrys on the Today programme on 15 April, actually challenged the notion of the speech being ‘normal common sense’ and described the ‘pure rhetoric – and the rhetoric was pretty horrible’.

The Clegg/Miliband approach

In the lead up to the Romney speech there have been other apparent challenges[7] to Conservative approaches particularly to David Cameron’s attack on multiculturalism in Munich on 3 Feb – by Nick Clegg in Luton on 3 March and by David Miliband at the LSE on 8 March Both politicians seem to have accepted the New Labour attacks on multiculturalism and simply rejected the cruder rhetoric of David Cameron. The way forward apparently for both of them was to base electoral policy on immigration and multiculturalism along the lines indicated in the controversial Searchlight/Populus poll and report (Fear & HOPE).[8]

Nick Clegg did praise the anti racist campaigns in Luton when he spoke there but also said, ‘I think the PM was absolutely right to make his argument for “muscular liberalism”.’ In fact the Luton speech had more than a nod to ‘Blairism’ with an emphasis on ‘strong communities’ and something called ‘smart’ engagement. And both Clegg and David Miliband still cling to Labour myths around Asians leading ‘parallel’ lives and communities being ‘responsible’ for social problems and ‘extremism’. Clegg firmly endorsed the Miliband approach ‘The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, said earlier this week that “we need to build the resilience of local communities to reject the politics of hatred.” I agree with him.’ Significantly neither Clegg nor David Miliband attempted to challenge the underlying politics of ‘common sense racism’.

Politicians need to challenge common sense racism

All the signs then are there for the May local elections to be influenced by the construction of a climate of prejudice. David Blunkett in a recent article in the Yorkshire Post[9] has argued that cuts and unemployment amongst young people have implications for the rise of racism. ‘Today in many towns and cities there is a simmering friction under the surface of our otherwise peaceful society. Not in 2011 simply black on white, but often Asian versus Somali, Somali versus white working class… (We must) not slip, almost by accident, into a firestorm from which no one will emerge unscathed … the so called English Defence League… the pedlars of hate, the promoters of prejudice, the beneficiaries of alienation and discontent must be seen off by all of us.’

The answer is also perhaps for politicians like David Blunkett to take some responsibility and recognise their own role in compromising their ‘liberal’ values and always moving their rhetoric and policies to appease ‘the pedlars of hate, the promoters of prejudice’ in the mistaken belief that the politics of prejudice wins elections and keeps them in power.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘IPPR: fuelling popular racism?’


[1] 'Prime Minister's Common Sense About Immigration', Daily Express, 15 April 2011. [2] Mehdi Hasan on his New Statesman blog 'Cameron's speech is lazy, ill informed and inflammatory', 14 April 2011. Hasan is the politics editor of the New Statesman and is a consistent anti-racist critic of elements in the Labour leadership who he has described as the 'Neanderthal tendency'. See his 'Labour's Neanderthal tendencies', New Statesman, 15 November 2010. See also 'Cameron's cynical Muslim-bashing - and Labour's shabby response', New Statesman, 10 February 2011 and 'So David Cameron wants to talk about immigration? Bring it on', Guardian Comment is Free, 16 April 16 2011. [3] James Slack, 'How three million migrants came to UK under Labour in biggest population growth since Saxon times (... that's nearly one every minute)' , Daily Mail, 22 February 2011. [4] Macer Hall, 'Action On Migrants At Last ...Thanks To Daily Express', Daily Express, 15 April 2011. [5] A. Sivanandan, 'Race, Terror and Civil Society', Race and Class, January - March 2006, Vol 47, No 3. [6] John Grayson, 'The moving right show ... again', IRR News, 27 May 2010. [7] Nicholas Watt, 'David Miliband attacks David Cameron's "muscular liberalism"'. Guardian, 28 February 2011 and Oliver Wright, 'Nick Clegg takes on Cameron over multiculturalism', Independent blogs, 3 March 2011. [8] John Grayson, 'The Problem with Fear and Hope', Migrants' Rights Network: Migration Pulse blog, 30 March 2011 and David Miliband, 'Left parties are losing elections more comprehensively than ever before', New Statesman, 8 March 2011. [9] David Blunkett, ' We must learn from riots of the past to halt a new firestorm on our streets', Yorkshire Post, 11 April 2011.


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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