The Conservatives played their race card early for the 2015 election. The Home Office sent vans touring London boroughs, bearing the message: "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest."
The Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told the BBC:
"Given Labour's open-door immigration policy, I don't see anything offensive as suggesting to illegal immigrants that their stay in this country might be shorter than they thought."
"Go Home". Words all too familiar to migrants down the decades, words favoured by racist and fascist National Front graffiti in the 1970s.
"The messages subliminally warned all people of colour not to get too comfortable, to assume we were safe," wrote Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent. "We who came to stay jumped through hoops of fire to get acceptance. But now we know it can be withdrawn … The Tories always use the race card. They don’t even pretend inclusion any more."
Krishnan Guru-Murthy, presenting Channel 4 News on 30 July, said:
"It is the use of that phrase 'Go Home'. Anyone, any immigrant or non-white person who grew up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s heard that phrase as a term of racist abuse – and the government has put it on a poster."
Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council, noted the coincidence of the Go Home campaign and random checks by Border Agency officials in Kensal Green. "It leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth," he said. "These so-called spot checks are not only intimidating but they are also racist and divisive."
For many years now, anti racist campaigners have been disarmed and cowed by arguments across the political spectrum that racism no longer features in mainstream politics. "Some of our debating muscles have atrophied," notes Zoe Williams in the Guardian— and this at a time when "bigots roam more freely and noisily than they have for three decades".
Political parties have systematically poisoned debates around asylum, immigration, terrorism and law and order with trigger phrases that allegedly appeal to the supposed racist views of key sections of the electorate.
Lynton Crosby, now employed by the Conservatives again, is admired by his peers in the world of special advisers, pollsters, public relations, and the political elite of all parties. He is credited with the election of John Howard as Australia’s prime minister in 1998 and 2001 and with the re-election of Boris Johnson as mayor of London in 2012.
Here's John McTernan, former political secretary to Tony Blair and head of communications for Australia’s Julia Gillard. He's speaking of Michael Howard’s disastrous 2005 campaign for the Tories, when, incidentally, David Cameron wrote Howard’s speeches "Remember the 2005 general election?" says McTernan:
"The best thing about it was Crosby’s language, the dozen words that crisply defined the Tories, the subversive, persuasive – and correct – slogan: 'It’s not racist to worry about immigration.' Wrong time, wrong candidate, sure, but spot on because Crosby … does some of the best polling in the world."
The assumption here is that the electorate is racist, not the politicians, nor the media. Mainstream parties see their electorate being attracted to the ‘extremist’ and ‘populist’ far Right which successfully (according to this theory), mobilise the fears and insecurity of ‘decent working people’ for political and electoral gain. The parties then pitch their ‘narratives’, their sound-bites and their policies within a political discourse to ‘triangulate’ beyond the populist Right to capture their wholly constructed and invented racist electorates.
Decent working people
The electorate is presented as ‘entitled’ to be racist, politicians are simply giving them a voice. The myth of the lack of debate on immigration and asylum is wheeled out. When Gordon Brown in 2010 called a Labour Party worker a ‘bigot’ for her views on Polish immigrants he broke the new golden rule of electoral politics that xenophobia, prejudice and racism should be harnessed, not confronted.
Philomena Essed challenges this notion of ‘entitlement racism’. Speaking at the University of Edinburgh this past June, Essed argued that these actions of bullying and shaming are racist. They are exercises in power by white majorities against excluded minorities mainly composed of people of colour.
In reality, as Malcolm Dean demonstrates in Democracy under attack: how the media distort policy and politics (2013), media and politicians have combined to create racist discourses. Dean argues that the Conservatives’ 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act demonstrated "the depths to which Michael Howard sank in playing the race card". He points to the Conservatives in 1996, facing electoral crisis, embarking on the "deliberate politicisation of asylum, race and refugees in a desperate attempt to rally support as their poll ratings plummeted".
In her recent study of "social abjection and resistance" Imogen Tyler describes "the asylum invasion complex" which has dominated political and media debates and discourses since the Labour government’s asylum legislation of 1999 and 2000. In Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain (Zed Books, 2013), Tyler tracks the way in which key notions, now bright markers of racist debate, were nurtured by politicians molding public opinion. Tyler quotes Conservative Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, writing in the Daily Mail in 2001. He touches upon some of the xenophobic themes:
"As Deputy Prime Minister (in 1995-7) I came to three stark conclusions. The first is that a very large number of those seeking asylum are cheats, quite deliberately making bogus claims and false allegations in order to get into this country … The second was that the demands on scarce housing and medical care made by dishonest 'economic migrants' (were) likely to stretch the patience of voters … The third was that the problem of phoney asylum seekers was likely to grow as the impression spread that this country was a soft touch. Above all, I could see no reason why my most vulnerable constituents – honest and hard working people who paid their taxes all their lives – should be pushed to the back of the queue for housing and hospital treatment by dubious asylum seekers."
Here, in the very first months of the new century, a powerful political consensus on asylum was being sown across mainstream political parties establishing a vocabulary of ‘common sense racism’. Tyler tracks 512 references to bogus asylum seekers in Hansard in Commons and Lords debates between 1991 and 2005. In the 1980s there were eight mentions of the term.
New Labour's contribution
Philip Gould, policy adviser and pollster for Tony Blair, in 1999 produced a paper entitled Hard-working families: a new narrative for the government. Gould spelled out "how the swirling fragments of public opinion were finally taking shape." (The Unfinished Revolution: how New Labour changed British politics forever, Abacus, 2011).
Gould's analysis still dominates political thinking in the Labour Party and beyond — the idea that electoral political narratives should be driven by ‘the politics of grievance’ where working people, particularly the ‘white working class’ instinctively blame ‘the immigrant’ for their economic and social exploitation and marginalisation.
Here he goes:
"A call for fairness has become a cry of grievance, resentment and anger, expressing the view that my life is bad because others are unfairly benefitting. Clearly this is fertile ground not just for the right but for the far right … every voice should be heard: we should listen to opinions that we may not like … The politics of grievance can be harsh … a start was made (by New Labour) in dealing with immigration."
A racist electorate?
In fact in 1997 only 3 per cent of the electorate put asylum in their three top political concerns. Up to 2000 it was never higher than 10 per cent. But, crucially, argues Malcolm Dean: "As the numbers of asylum applications began to rise … so did tabloid interest. This in turn fed more public concern … In early 2003 the Sun launched its ‘Stop asylum madness’ campaign which by 1 March 2003 had collected one million signatures."
The Mail, Express, Telegraph and the Sun competed with lurid headlines in 2002. According to Dean, in 2003 the Daily Express ran "22 front page splashes in one 31 day period about asylum seekers".
Phillip Gould constructed "the politics of patriotism" which in 2002 he identified as "emerging in a new form, more about grievance than pride". A policy note he wrote for Blair in April 2002 was unambiguously headed:
"Concern about asylum seekers has extended into immigration, crime, and civic disintegration. Britain is becoming a soft touch."
Gary Younge, reporting on the re-emergence of immigration as an electoral issue in the general election of 2005, reminds us that David Blunkett "conflated immigration and race when responding to the riots in Bradford with calls for citizenship classes and language lessons as though those involved were foreign." Here's what Blunkett said shortly before the reports into the disturbances was released. "We have norms of acceptability. And those who come into our home — for that is what it is — should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere."
Lately Daniel Trilling — in Bloody Nasty People: the rise of Britain’s far right (Verso, 2012) — noted how Blunkett, as Labour’s Home Secretary overseeing the first wave of asylum dispersal after 2000, retrieved Thatcherite racist language. In a radio interview in April 2002 just before local elections in which the BNP fielded candidates in former riot areas, Blunkett accused asylum seekers’ children of ‘swamping’ British schools.
Labour, threatened by a media frenzy and perhaps inspired by the growing success of Le Pen in France, decided to go for ‘triangulation’ to occupy the space opened up by the BNP.
In February 2003, Tony Blair on BBC Newsnight dramatically announced his abandonment of policies under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, and an immediate cut in asylum claimants by 50 per cent over the next eight months. Britain would make it "extremely difficult for people fleeing from persecution to reach the shores of the UK," he said.
Together press and politicians concocted a moral panic. Dean cites a 2003 survey that suggested people believed the UK received 23 per cent of the world’s refugees. The true proportion was just under 2 per cent.
‘Gypsies you can't come in'
From 2001 to 2004 the Labour government also embraced an openly racist immigration policy first towards Roma asylum seekers, and then for Roma migrant workers from countries joining the EU in 2004. In 2001 Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary instituted discriminatory visa policies aimed at Roma for Slovakian and Czech citizens. Straw established visa desks in the British embassy in Bratislava. Speaking at Glasgow University on 15th October 2001, Dr Jan J Čulík described the "British immigration racist filter" introduced at Prague Ruzyně Airport on the 18th July 2001 "with the tacit agreement of the Czech authorities".
Now, as UKIP campaigns against Roma workers from eastern Europe coming to Britain, these things are worth recalling. In ‘A European dilemma: The Romanies’ (Baltic Worlds Vol. III, no. 1, 2010) Irka Cedarburg describes what happened in January 2004, just before the EU was to admit ten new members, eight of which were east and central European countries:
"The British popular press initiated an unprecedented witch-hunt, painting vivid pictures of hordes of impoverished East European Romanies swarming into the country. On January 18 2004, the Sunday Times proclaimed that East European Romanies were just waiting for the day of the EU’s eastern expansion to start out towards the West. The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, claimed that tens of thousands of 'Gypsies' were standing ready to stream in … The following day, the number of Romanies prepared to 'stream in' had, according to the Daily Express, grown to 1.6 million."
The Daily Express proclaimed on 20 January 2004: "The Roma gypsies of Eastern Europe are heading to Britain to leech on us. We do not want them here" (quoted in the Economist, 5 February 2004). On 5 February 2004, the Daily Express front page thundered in fat headlines: ‘GYPSIES YOU CAN’T COME IN’.
Against this hate-campaign no protests were heard from politicians in Britain or other EU countries. Instead, the Labour government introduced restrictions on welfare benefits for jobseekers coming to Britain from the EU’s new member countries. "This could be seen as a silent endorsement of the British media’s anti-Romani campaign," wrote Cedarberg.
Campaigning ahead of the 2010 election, Eric Pickles wooed Tory voters with his tales of ‘illegal’ actions by Gypsies and Travellers.
Graffiti, Birmingham 2011 Adam Yosef / I Am BirminghamLately we've seen police actions against Roma in London. With more elections looming the press is highlighting Coalition policies on Gypsies and Travellers.
The 'new migrant flood'
UKIP the Daily Express, and the wider media, have railed against Roma from Bulgaria and Romania entering the UK freely as EU workers from January 2014. Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, travelled to Bulgaria to dissuade ‘Bulgarians’ from coming to the UK but he was filmed only in ‘Roma’ communities. The British press now routinely prints photos exclusively of Roma families in articles on the "new migrant flood".
In the Rotherham by-election of November 2012, Nigel Farage incessantly championed the case of the ‘UKIP couple’ apparently "barred" from fostering children, even though the local authority had simply followed legal rulings on the placement of Roma children. That didn't stop David Cameron and Ed Miliband spouting the UKIP version of events. The result was second place for UKIP in the by-election in Labour's South Yorkshire heartlands and UKIP winning Rawmarsh a safe Labour local council seat, in last May’s elections.
The Prime Minister seemed to be following Blair’s example from 2004, when, earlier this year in a Daily Express interview, headlined ‘David Cameron vows to get tough on freeloading foreigners’, he announced measures to restrict benefits to EU migrants.
On 8 March, Yvette Cooper Labour’s shadow Home Secretary "decided to outdo the government’s attempt to tighten new migrants’ access to benefits and services" in her own proposals to stop them claiming Jobseekers Allowance soon after arrival, and restricting payment of family benefits to dependents left in their own EU country.
The race to the bottom gained pace: on 24 March Cameron pledged that new migrants would "not get free housing" and announced restrictions on access to the NHS. He accused Labour in government of being a ‘soft touch’ and pledged to "back people who work hard and do the right thing".
That's the Heseltine script.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks intervened on 30 March. "It is unacceptable to treat Bulgarian and Romanian citizens like a scourge," he said. "It is time to blow the whistle on such shameful rhetoric." Restricting access to benefits, housing and healthcare, he said, "will only increase their social exclusion, fuel anti-immigration rhetoric and create even more social problems in the long run."
Muiznieks went on: "A stigma is put on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens because of their origin … They need to be treated as everyone else not on the basis of assumptions or generalizations about their ethnic origin."
He reminded political leaders of their responsibility to turn around "the heated political debates in Britain and Germany on the threat posed by a supposed imminent flood of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania."
Challenging the language
Trilling has pointed out: "Ukip’s core positions on immigration and on cultural diversity appeal as far as they can, within the boundaries of acceptable language, to racism." Lately, UKIP's Nigel Farage embarked on the ‘Common Sense Tour’.
The British press holds a surprising affection for Nigel Farage despite ugly revelations about the quality of his candidates and links to nationalist and racist politicians in the Northern League in Italy, to Marine Le Pen and the FN in France, and to Finnish extremist nationalists.
The Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead in January said Farage was:
"one of the most surprising politicians I have met – charismatic, funny, indefatigably good natured and essentially cheerful towards absolutely everyone, apart from the prime minister and Rotherham council."
James Naughtie on BBC's Today programme enjoyed a joke with UKIP's Geoffrey Bloom about his appalling ‘Bongo Bongo land’ comments.
Perhaps BBC broadcasters feel pressure to move to the right, closer to the ‘common sense’ position. Last month the Corporation’s Trust published the findings of an independent inquiry into political bias particularly on immigration.
Helen Boaden, former head of news and now head of BBC Radio apologised for the BBC’s past "deep liberal bias" on immigration issues. She conceded that the BBC had in the past failed to take lobby group Migration Watch "as seriously as it might have".
Perhaps this accounts for the ease with which spokesmen for groups like the English Defence League have been given BBC air time over recent months. Pressure on the BBC to bring extreme right opinions into the mainstream continues with ‘research’ from the Centre for Policy Studies accusing the corporation of ‘Left wing bias’ in its coverage of research from think-tanks.
Labour's Chris Bryant’s attempt to present his party's immigration policies as somehow new succeeded only in stirring up the racist ‘British jobs for British workers’ elements in the trades unions and the media. Bryant's and Ed Miliband’s call for "language tests for care workers" fed into campaigns on translation costs in local government and the NHS, and language issues in multicultural schools.
In the world of immigration and asylum the language of what Imogen Tyler calls ‘abjection’ is on the rise: the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is the description of choice according to new report from Migration Observatory. (PDF)
Tyler argues for resistance through ‘counter mapping’, contesting terms and language and pushing alternative ways of seeing social issues and marginalised groups. (One small hurrah: The latest Associated Press style guide rejects the term ‘illegal’ immigrant or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person.)
That racist rhetoric provokes racist action is a self-evident. Speech is action. Here's coroner Karon Monaghan writing about the culture of security company G4S in her report following the Inquest into that company's unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan detainee. Monaghan noted,
"a pervasive racism within G4S … It seems unlikely that endemic racism would not impact at all on service provision. The possibility that such racism might find reflection in race-based antipathy towards detainees and deportees, and that in turn might manifest itself in inappropriate treatment of them."
We must challenge a political class who parade in the media their own constructed political polling data and official ‘spin’ on government statistics as somehow ‘true’ representations of ‘the people’ or ‘public opinion’.
How? By setting the facts straight for a start. The Guardian's Hugh Muir notes that in the 2011 census returns, "Only 1.6 per cent of the population said they could not speak English well and only 0.3 per cent of the total population don’t speak English at all."
David Stuckler challenged assertions that data from the British Social Attitudes Survey suggested that young Britons born after 1979 rejected liberal and egalitarian views of the world. Stuckler demonstrated that, on the contrary, the data shows that young people’s support for increased spending on welfare rose 3.5 per cent from 2010 to 2011. He points to the number of mainstream newspaper articles using the word ‘scrounger’ rose from 173 in 2009 to 572 in 2011 with corresponding millions of hits on ‘Google’.
Stuckler warns that "the repeated (but inaccurate) portrayal of young people being against social spending also perhaps 'risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy'."
In the campaign against security company G4S and their outsourcing of asylum-seeker housing, activists and tenants alike contested and critiqued the company's own term ‘asylum markets’. Asylum housing is, on the contrary, publicly funded social housing for refugees, or, as Barnsley council described it on their website "humanitarian housing for those fleeing persecution".
The Tories’ racist ‘Go Home’ campaign against ‘illegal’ migrants may prove the last straw. Meena Patel of Southall Black Sisters describes the developing protests in London:
"People were reporting that people were being stopped on the pretext of checking travel tickets," she said. "It’s undermining people’s right to live here."
There were echoes of the 1970s, said Patel: "We’re back on the streets, it looks like it. They were the days when we were fighting the state and its racist policies, people were on the streets, shoulder to shoulder – and it looks like we are back there."
Muslim couple, peace rally, Birmingham 2011 Adam Yosef / I Am Birmingham
This essay is adapted from a longer piece published by the Institute of Race Relations. The Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and Positive Action in Housing are calling a demonstration at the UK Border Agency's offices in Broad Street, Glasgow on Monday 9 September 4.30 to 6.30 pm.