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Against ‘common sense’: election reflections from a campaigner on migration and asylum

A welcome electoral setback for the BNP may have been bought at the expense of their politics on immigration and asylum being adopted by the Conservative and Labour parties within a general “common sense” racist political culture
John Grayson
10 May 2010

As we start to analyse the results of the 2010 election we may be witnessing a reversal in the fortunes of the Far Right BNP in England. Their leader Nick Griffin actually polled nearly 2% less in Barking than the BNP did at the last General Election and the BNP did not win council seats in their key areas including Stoke. In South Yorkshire in Barnsley their main target they polled half the percentage share of the vote compared with last year’s Euro Elections. The main problem is that this welcome electoral setback for the BNP may have been bought at the expense of their politics on immigration and asylum being adopted by the Conservative and Labour parties within a general common sense racist political culture driven by media images and messages.

Preparing the ground, lies and manifestoes

The Election has been a depressing one for asylum and migration rights campaigners. The central feature has been the way in which “common sense” racism has been strengthened by the media and most politicians assuming and claiming that ‘everyone’ agrees that:

Britain is ‘full up’; immigration has to be reduced; asylum seekers should be treated as paupers, and criminalized if they dare to work; ‘illegals’ have to be deported; robust methods have to be taken against ‘illegals’; detention even of children is necessary to deter others

The ‘red top’ press had prepared the ground with a New Year spate of headlines on ‘illegals’ and in March a government ‘pilot’ campaign started around deporting homeless migrant workers from Peterborough which generated a revival of the vicious ‘racist urban myths’ which first surfaced some years ago when ‘Kosovans’ were the particular hate figures for the media. On March 24 the Daily Express had a front page headline on an event in Peterborough:

Migrants Condemned for Eating Swans

‘An investigation has been launched by animal welfare officers after the discovery of swan carcasses …….Gangs of hungry immigrants were condemned by anglers yesterday for the “rape and pillage” of a city’s river as they prey on fish and swans for food.’

The central political messages in the election campaign were around the ‘threat’ immigration posed to the lawful British way of life. The Labour Party had a major section of its election manifesto simply entitled ‘Crime and Immigration’. As Migrant Rights Network put it:

‘The immediate impression is how closely the Labour party manifesto conflates immigration with enforcement, control and punishment, in the ‘Crime and Immigration’ chapter. Here, economic immigration policy is lumped in with proposals on policing and counter-terrorism measures.’

Even Nick Clegg who alone argued for a 10 year amnesty and asylum seekers right to work, and an end to detaining children, managed to present the amnesty as a way of saving ‘illegal immigrants’ from the hands of organised crime.

Immigrants, criminals and illegals

The language deployed by both the media and politicians emphasised the term ‘illegals’. This chilling term seems to have replaced ‘bogus asylum seeker’. With its Hitlerite overtone it assumes that people themselves can now be treated as illegal – replacing our previous assumption that it was the acts people commit that are illegal. This means that they have no rights and can be treated as the state decides. There seems to be little concern that this is now the preferred label for any ‘outsider’ or refugee. We have to remember there is no ‘legal’ way that asylum seekers can come to the UK and register an asylum claim.

When the ‘Sun’ on May 1st revealed that ‘Blears campaign worker is an illegal’ the former minister sacked the young Nigerian ‘failed asylum seeker’ and ‘single mum’ Rhoda who had volunteered for the campaign work ‘in the hope that it might help her case’. Hazel Blears then said that she had contacted the UKBA about Rhoda to make sure she was deported, and was trying to get her address to pass on to the authorities. (Parker and Moriarty 2010)

A small minority of journalists have contested the myths. The Observer of April 18 pointed out to David Cameron, an Oxfordshire MP, that the NHS he so valued was staffed in Oxford by 70 different nationalities and ‘8% of NHS workers in the southeast are not just immigrants, they’re illegal immigrants.’ (Cadwalladr 2010)

The media campaign on immigration was launched by the BBC in its ‘Panorama’ programme of Monday 19th April asking the rhetorical question ‘Is Britain Full?’ then setting out the ‘threat’ of a population in Britain of 70 million in the future. The programme took as read and, stated as fact, that the ‘biggest driver’ of this population threat was immigration. England (not Britain, where Scottish population is actually falling) emerged as the most ‘overcrowded’ country in Europe. The fact that this old fashioned ‘Malthusian’ argument against immigration has been raised at various times since the middle of the 19th century was ignored. Phil Woolas actually argued that government policy could ensure Canute – like that population would not reach the magic 70 million. These fantasy figures and responses had their origins in the racist Migration Watch and their ‘spin’ on official ‘projections’ of population growth. During the campaign Migration Watch became an ‘established think tank’ quoted by politicians. The New York Times described them as:

An influential immigration-monitoring group, who see the issue as having moved beyond race “It’s about numbers and space, not about race,” said Sir Andrew Green, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who leads the group.(Burns 2010)

The second and most effective of the statistical lies emerged in headlines in the press at the very start of the election campaign. Both the Express(April 8) and the Mail headlined a story invented by Tory spokesman Damien Green and the Spectator magazine that 92% of new jobs in Britain since 1997 had been taken by ‘foreigners’. Crucially John Humphrys interviewing Gordon Brown on the BBC radio ‘Today’ programme decided to introduce the figures into the debate as ‘facts’ about Brown’s failure to deliver ‘British Jobs for British workers’. The truth was very different. Two figures, growth in jobs and growth in foreign workers, had been falsely run together - a correlation rather than causation as statisticians would put it - using figures over time which vary year by year and are not captured by a figure over thirteen years. Looking at the figures produced by the ONS (Office of National Statistics) in fact, 50.3 % of new jobs since 1997 have been taken by British nationals (around 1.38 million).The percentage of actual employment for British nationals remained constant throughout at 73%. The statistics could actually be ‘spun’ to produce figures suggesting that of the 1.67 million new jobs created 1.4 million went to ‘British’ workers.(Basketter 2010) But the ‘big lie’ had done its work – and the BBC researchers and editors had simply gone along with it.

The third ‘big lie’ in statistical terms was the central argument about amnesties, the numbers of ‘illegals’ and the number of ‘immigrants’ threatening the British way of life. Nick Clegg and his advisers came up with a poorly researched figure of possibly 600,000 ‘illegals’ benefiting from an amnesty. This allowed the Tory press and Cameron to claim that this meant 1.2 million extra potential citizens (Refugees with citizenship can ‘bring in’ relatives). The Express and Migration Watch pitched in with a ‘guesstimate’ of over 1 million (Flanagan 2010). The paper managed on April 26th to add to the ‘threat’ with a story ‘Gypsies: Britain here we come’ about Hungarian Gypsies allegedly fleeing the Fascist Jobbik party now in the Parliament there.(Fagge 2010)

The facts of course were very different. It is impossible to know how many undocumented migrants there are in the UK.  Boris Johnson has called for an amnesty for those here for five years based on research from the LSE (see GLAeconomics 2009) which came up with a figure of around 863,000 ‘irregular residents’ in total, not those potentially eligible for 10 or 5 year amnesties.

Meanwhile, debates raged around the fact that David Cameron was pushing for a ‘cap’ on non-EU migration and Gordon Brown was selling the effectiveness of the Australian points system. Again there was a welter of general 'immigration' statistics which neither the BBC ‘Reality Check’ nor Channel 4’s ‘FactCheck’ attempted to clarify and interrogate effectively. We had to wait for the BBC to come out with a ‘Reality Check’ on BBC2 Newsnight on the Friday before the poll (April 30th) around 11 p.m. which would have been very damaging to David Cameron’s case in particular. It was revealed that the ONS figures for 2008 did confirm that many more EU citizens did arrive than non EU workers, a net inflow of 46,000 (99,000 arrived , 53,000 left). But crucially the figures also showed a minus 8,000 net flow for non–EU workers (67,000 arrived,75,000 left). As Newsnight suggested what sort of a ‘cap’ can one put on minus 8,000? The BBC could have released these figures much earlier in the assessments of the Leaders’ Debates. But perhaps that would have damaged Cameron’s chances.

Amnesties, back-log clearances…what’s in a name?

Only Alan Travis in the Guardian was willing to provide the context for the debate over Nick Clegg’s amnesty proposals looking at Conservative and Labour actual practice on ‘amnesty’ (Travis April 23, 2010; Travis, April 30, 2010):

‘Both parties have overseen at least four back-door amnesties over the last 20 years and presided over an immigration system that operates a 14 year rule allowing long-term illegal residents to be granted indefinite leave to remain…. the existence of the 14-year rule has seen 2,000 to 3,000 individuals being given the right to stay. The court of appeal recently upheld the legality of this "statute of limitations" calling it "in effect an amnesty clause. The rule was only formalised in 2003, but its existence as an informal concession dates from the 1980s.’

  • Michael Howard began a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers granted exceptional leave to remain, from 2,000 in 1991 to 14,000 in 1993, In 1996, in a separate backlog-clearance exercise, he allowed thousands more overseas students and marriage applicants to stay "unless there was substantial cause for doubt".
  •  In 1998, Jack Straw insisted that there was no question of amnesty but he allowed 30,000 failed asylum seekers to be allowed to stay in Britain simply on the basis that they had faced lengthy delays.
  • In 2003, when David Blunkett was home secretary, 15,000 families of asylum seekers who had waited more than three years for a decision were allowed to stay as a "one-off" exercise.(see Travis 2010)

As Travis concluded, ‘…the problem of such a large population living illegally in Britain will not go away. But unfortunately one by-product of the 2010 general election campaign appears to be that the means to do something about it has been lost.’ (Travis 2010a)

This survey has concentrated on monitoring the BBC output. They have invited scrutiny, by boasting on their website that their election output was about ‘Making Things Clear’. In fact editorial decisions and research and briefings for interviewers like John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman seemed to follow a rather unpleasant pattern of feeding the racist climate on ‘Immigration’ issues. Paxman in one of his last interviews (with Caroline Lucas of the Greens on Saturday,  May 1) actually cut across her points where she was backing a more humane and principled asylum policy by simply saying ‘That’s asylum, I asked you about immigration, and asylum has nothing to do with that’. Thus the BBC was clear what the ‘immigration’ debate was about – and they were fuelling it.

On the very last morning of the campaign the Today programme featured Kevin Connolly who has been visiting various constituencies over the campaign. On this very last day editors sent him to Peterborough where he reported from a Second World War themed pub with ‘Dad’s Army’ playing on the telly. He reported local people talking of homeless migrant workers ‘killing swans and building shanty towns in local woods’. He interviewed a woman who resented having only a small English section in her local Polish owned shop, and a Polish migrant who had opened a restaurant. He finished with an amazing throwaway line watching ‘Dad’s Army’ in the pub. He said that with all their faults the Home Guard faced with the challenges then from Europe knew how they would deal with ‘them’. Unlike now they ‘were all agreed on how to handle them’. The BNP has Churchill on its election material – perhaps Kevin Connolly and his researchers took this as inspiration for his report.

As a finale the same Today programme had Alan Johnson attacking Nick Clegg’s proposal to allow asylum seekers to work as ‘utter, utter madness’, perhaps forgetting that the national TUC and all major unions backed the slogan ‘Let them work’ in the national ‘Right to Work’ for asylum seekers campaign which has been running for the past year.

The “common sense racism” theme which the media, the BBC and most politicians have united behind creates a climate in which some of the BNP slogans begin to look mainstream. Bringing the campaign full circle Nick Griffin in a late interview in Romford stated bluntly:

“What we’re saying is, ‘Britain is full up. The door is closed.’ ” (Burns 2010)

Yes - just like that first Panorama programme on the BBC said at the beginning of the campaign.

All the evidence suggests that mobilising at the local level the broadest coalitions with asylum seekers, refugee organisations, trade unions, political organizations, religious and voluntary and community organisations can begin to challenge racist ‘common sense’ attitudes to asylum rights and migration. The election reminds us of the reality of serious campaigning and what we are up against. Strategies have to counter these myths, racist assumptions and attitudes. There is a new urgency after the election to establish amongst the negotiations and coalition-building the rights of asylum seekers and migrants – and perhaps some real principles of human rights, and justice.

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