Shine A Light

Politicians reap what they sow - the contradictions of electoral racism

The UK's mainstream parties should be confronting, not courting, Far Right populism

John Grayson
28 March 2012

Across the Channel, Nicholas Sarkozy has been shamelessly courting supporters of the extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen by proposing a referendum on illegal immigrants, threatening to pull out of the Schengen agreement, and calling for the labelling of halal meat. (1)

Now, after the Toulouse shootings, he is outbidding her on the ‘Muslim terrorist threat’.

Of course, these are exactly the tactics and politics which British mainstream parties followed in the 2010 general election on the question of ‘immigration’, ‘triangulating’ beyond the BNP and taking on board their policies.

The next UK election campaign is, in effect, already underway. The head of David Cameron’s policy unit, Andrew Cooper, is the former head of political polling company Populus. Driven by the party’s populist Right, the Tories’ ‘retail offer for voters’ (2) has become an extreme xenophobic message that is alienating potential Black and ethnic minority voters. Conservative strategists are aware that ethnic minority voters could decide 100 key urban marginal seats. Thus, playing with far-right themes is indeed playing with fire.

A recent analysis of ‘David Cameron’s race problem’ in The Economist pointed to Labour’s "crushing dominance amongst ethnic minority voters" in 2010, and the failure of the Tories so far to go much beyond token anti-racist gestures. (3)

The Tory Right and ‘far’-right tendencies

The Tory Right are still clearly dissatisfied. Tim Montgomerie of the influential ConservativeHome website, and former aide to Ian Duncan Smith, put his view on Cameron bluntly: “rather than creating a right wing party with a heart, he created a centrist party with cuts”. (4)

David Cameron’s veto in Brussels, and his speech in Oxford last December on the King James Bible pleased the right, linking Euro scepticism to attacks on multiculturalism and a renewed stress on Christianity and Christian values. (5)

As David Edgar has pointed out, the Tory Christian theme popular with the party’s Right tends to include hints about multiculturalism and the threat of Islam. (6)

Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, is adept at exploiting ‘Christian’ arguments. His speeches on the “right to pray” in council chambers and Christians becoming marginal fed the inevitable homophobic media debates on gay marriage and family values.

All of this lurch to the Right was excruciating news to senior Tory strategists, fearing punishment at the polls. Here’s Francis Maude in the Daily Mail:

“the Tory Party will always be seen as the nasty party unless it backs gay marriage, supports unmarried couples and does more to attract ethnic minority supporters . . . too few black and minority ethnic Britons see us as their natural home." (7) 

Tories and the Pope

The Christianity theme then took a remarkable detour. Baroness Warsi, (8) and other Tory ministers headed for Rome on 12 March to see Pope Benedict. Warsi saw this as a ‘return visit’ for the Papal visit to the UK in 2010. Whether deliberately or accidentally, the visit also publicly associated Tory policies with the Pope’s extreme right-wing views. (9)

Here’s Baroness Warsi writing in the Daily Telegraph on the eve of the visit:

“I will be arguing for Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity. The point is this: the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity.

These values shine through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture. And, as I will say today, you cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes.” (10)

In a European context, this is the rhetoric that underpins the ‘Eurabia’ fantasies of a Europe under siege from Islam. It places the British Conservative party in sympathy with some of the most right-wing movements in Europe. It also sits uneasily with Baroness Warsi’s challenge to ‘dinner table’ Islamophobia in 2011. (11)

Foreign Criminals and Strasbourg rights

Religion is not the only xenophobic theme of Conservative populism. The Tories’ ‘foreign criminals’ theme surfaced with the case of Abu Qatada. On 7 February Theresa May proclaimed: “The right place for a foreign terrorist is a foreign prison cell far away from Britain.” (12).

It was left to an angry and fairly isolated Shami Chakrabati of Liberty, on ‘This Week’ on 8 February, to call for the British courts to try Qatada, and to reject the notion that “justice in Britain depends on what passport you own”.

Attacks on the Human Rights court in the Qatada case again surfaced with the resignation of academic Michael Pinto Duschinsky from the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights. After attacking Ken Clarke and Nick Clegg for restricting debate on the Commission, he betrayed his own agenda.

“I know what the abuse of human rights really means. It is certainly not the kind of nonsense we hear so much about today — parents smacking children, the eviction of travellers from illegal encampments or the deportation of foreign criminals in breach of their supposed right to a family life.” (13)

Andrew Neil displayed his personal bias in his BBC2 documentary Rights Gone Wrong on 14 March, quoting a series of ‘foreign criminals’ cases as well as Qatada, all apparently saved from deportation by the existence of the Strasbourg court and its obsession with the rights to a family life.

Neil argued for the "decent mainstream majority" hostile to human rights, (brushing aside lawyer Michael Mansfield observation that this majority was largely invented by the Red Top press). Human rights, Neil argued, was a concept that had become "political poison". An argument he pursued with former Home Secretary, John Reid (now Lord Reid), who duly attacked suspected foreign terrorists for “playing the system”. Lord Reid personifies xenophobia’s commercial imperative: a Principal of the Washington-based Chertoff Group (“Global leaders confronting global risk!”) with other commercially minded former statesmen, he is also a director of the world’s biggest security company, G4S.

Caps and contradictions on immigration

Damien Green the Immigration minister, pursuing the Conservative key populist policy around a ‘cap’ on immigration, announced further restrictions on migration and removed the small protection offered to migrant domestic workers, arguing that the UK economy had become “addicted to immigration” and “needed to kick the habit”.

But he was forced to the columns of  the Financial Times to defend his policies against attacks from the Conservatives’ business allies. The CBI's Neil Carberry said the government’s frequent policy adjustments had left global companies unable to take a clear five-year view on the UK’s stance on immigration. Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First, complained of “an unduly complex visa application process” and “an aggressive political rhetoric on immigration” deterring skilled workers. (14)

Where was Labour in these debates?

Labour’s stance on the Coalition’s xenophobic themes was predictable — to support a ‘tough’ security and immigration line on borders and terrorism. There were, however, indications of a rethink from Labour-leaning pollsters including YouGov’s Peter Kellner, in the Guardian:

“Immigration is overwhelmingly a blessing. It brings to these shores new ideas, new enthusiasm and entrepreneurial talent. Those who say immigration does harm, or imply that there is a problem by setting artificial curbs on the numbers coming to Britain are wrong – historically, culturally, economically and morally. I know the polls frighten politicians by showing that immigration is unpopular. But Labour will never win votes by compromising on immigration – the right will always outbid us. We can win over some votes by being honest and courageous.” (15)

A threatening future?

Labour and the Coalition parties have in the past turned to xenophobic populist rhetoric to ‘triangulate’ their reach beyond the BNP and now UKIP and the EDL.This electoral strategy seems to be falling apart.

But the threat from the Far Right still looms large in a period of economic ‘false dawns and public fury’. In the Financial Times, Martin Taylor, chairman of agribusiness Syngenta, suggests:

“the 1930s are not so far away . . . Immigrant and refugee populations, tolerated during prosperous times, are now seen as both the cause of unemployment and a potential source of sedition.” (16)

And EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom, is pessimistic:

“The political mood in many EU member states is sour. We have not seen as many populist and xenophobic parties in European national parliaments since before the second world war . . . we need European and national leadership to make sure that populist rhetoric does not dictate the agenda.” (17)

The question remains whether the Coalition and Labour will produce the political leadership necessary to stop fuelling and feeding a climate of ‘common sense racism’ and actually confront Far Right populism. The prospects are far from encouraging.


A longer version of this piece was published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) here.



1) Angelique Chrisafis 2012, ‘Sarkozy woos right with tilt at immigrants’, The Guardian, Monday 12 March 2012

2) Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ election adviser, quoted in Sebastian Payne 2012: ‘When will Boris pull his finger out?’ Spectator, 29 February

3) Bagehot 2012, ‘David Cameron’s Race Problem’, The Economist March 3rd 2012

4) George Eaton 2012, ‘The softly spoken assassin feared by David Cameron’, New Statesman, 12 March

5)  See John Grayson’s ‘Veto Nationalism’ piece

6) David Edgar ‘We can’t allow the Bible to be highjacked for narrow and partisan politics’ , Guardian, 19 December 2011.

7) Tim Shipman 2012, ‘We’re still seen as the nasty party, says minister’, Daily Mail, 7 March

8) Baroness Warsi is the first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet. According to the Daily Mail ‘A Muslim minister who calls upon Christians to stand up for their faith’, Baroness Warsi was brought up in Dewsbury as a Muslim in a town which has a mosque which is the international centre for the Sunni Deobandi sect  ‘preaching a puritan form of Islam, including segregation of the sexes and abstention from any form of participation in politics’ Warsi sent her own daughter to a Catholic school.

She trained as a lawyer with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Home Office Immigration Service. She had her own solicitors’ practice in Dewsbury. Warsi also had  a career as a political insider, advising and writing policy on immigration and asylum for Michael Howard in the 2005 election, alongside speechwriter David Cameron. She was accused of ‘homophobic ‘ election material when she stood as a Conservative candidate in Dewsbury in that election.

9) David Gibson 2011, ‘A Christian Europe without Christianity’, Huffington Post, 13 August 2011

10) Baroness Warsi 2012, ‘We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith’, The Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2012

The tone of the Warsi article suggests the influence of Michael Gove who in his ‘neo con’ book ‘Celsius 7/7’ in 2006 called for the West to stand up to ‘Islamism, a 'totalitarian ideolog[y]' which turns to 'hellish violence and oppression' in a similar way to the 20th century ideologies of National Socialism and Communism.’

11) David Batty 2011, ‘Lady Warsi claims Islamophobia is now socially acceptable in Britain’ The Guardian 20 January

12)  Alan Travis 2012 , ‘Abu Qatada should remain behind bars, says Theresa May’, The Guardian, 7 February

13) Michael Pinto-Duschinsky  2012, ‘I escaped the Nazis-so spare me these sneers about tyranny’, Daily Mail  12 March

14) Helen Warrell and George Parker 2012, ‘Call to end foreign worker addiction’ Financial Times 7 March 2012

15) Peter Kellner  2012, ‘The truths Labour must face to regain credibility’, The Guardian 19 February

16) Martin Taylor 2012,  ‘False dawns and public fury: the 1930’s are not so far away’, Financial Times, February 10

17) Cecilia Malmstrom 2012, ‘Asylum: it’s vital that Europe present a united front’, The Guardian, 7th March

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