What exactly do the immigration minister’s recent statements quoted in the press reveal?
According to Phil Woolas, he is trying to atone for Labour’s sin – stifling public debate on immigration. We have to stop the immigration issue being swept under the carpet and talk about it say Phil Woolas, Frank Field and Margaret Hodge. And they are wrong on a number of counts. There have been plenty of debates on immigration in the UK. And talking, anyway, is not the point or the panacea. It is what you talk about that matters and how you talk about that matters.
In his interview in the Guardian (18.11.08), Woolas tries to distance himself from Powell ‘who was trying to divide the country’ while he is trying to heal it. But he is wrong. As soon as you, a politician, begin to air views about numbers being a problem (whatever your innocent intention may be) you change the racial discourse and you stoke up populist fears. The articulation itself does become part of the racial problem. As soon as you discuss numbers, devoid of any context, you fuel the popular fear that the person next door, the man in the dole queue, the Big Issue seller, are all illegals, non-belongers, takers of your White birthright. Politicians are not talking in a vacuum but in terms of a long debate which began before Powell and has been orchestrated on and off for over a century by the tabloids.
And look at this talking lark in the context of Woolas’ job description. By his own account, he was brought in by Brown ‘to reassure the public’ that New Labour was listening to their views on immigration. So this is not a job about doing, ie dealing with the issue, but a job about spinning. It is a PR post.
Woolas says that he wants to shatter the glass wall between politicians and ordinary folk on immigration. But you don’t do that by talking the language of ordinary people (that is exactly what Powell said he was doing too). You do that by changing the experiences of ordinary folk – those that always bear the social cost of immigration. The issue that is really never talked about by politicians. It is working-class people that bear the costs of immigration in that they meet competition over scarce resources, school places, housing, local unskilled jobs. The glass wall would come down when real, material changes were made in those areas where the working class is forced to compete so heavily.
If Labour politicians talk the talk of ordinary people, they might well, as Woolas seems to have done, win votes back from the BNP. But that does not mean Labour understands working people any better, but merely that Labour has successfully kowtowed to racialist misinterpretations of the new globalised world. Surely it should be a left party’s duty to give an ideological, ethical lead on controversial issues, not to follow blindly the herd instinct?
Woolas says that he wants to let people know about ‘this modern world’ but doesn’t that mean explaining to ‘ordinary people’ that the globalisation which allows them to holiday all over the world, eat imported vegetables and fruits from across the planet the year round, change their TV sets year on year, is also the system which interferes in the political and economic stability of so many less powerful nations, displaces peoples and send them scurrying to find shelter and a future elsewhere?
The immigration minister says he wants to further ‘a mature debate’ and yet he strikes one of the most immature of poses when he attacks lawyers for turning the European Convention on Human Rights into ‘an open-borders immigration policy’. He derides those who try to help asylum seekers through the UK’s increasingly restrictive and hostile system as ‘an industry’ with ‘a vested interest’. Apart from the fact that in Woolas’ asylum scenarios (and why does he conflate asylum and immigration anyway?) there is absolutely no room for humanitarian considerations, he has the audacity, as Jack Straw before him, to attack the judiciary for doing its job – trying to balance the power of the executive.
That an asylum seeker wins a case ‘after six layers of appeal’ should indicate to a minister that there is something seriously wrong with Home Office and lower court decision-making. Woolas’ reaction is to say that s/he has ‘no right to be in this country’ – revealing a disregard for the rule of law, judicial decisions and universal human rights.