Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
There is surely no more disgusting testimony to the bankruptcy of this New Labour government than the way it has conducted itself over the issue of asylum seekers. This time last year, as Nato happily rained bombs on Belgrade, pictures of refugees appeared nightly on our television screens. It was their plight above all else, we were told, that made the bombing justified.
Today, however, refugees are pictured in a very different light. They are 'bogus'; they 'flood'; they 'beg aggressively'. In order to degrade, humiliate and stigmatise them, refugees are not given cash, but vouchers. Now Jack Straw, who has already attacked Gypsies, has announced he will start sending Kosovan refugees home.
Such announcements only drive the Tories to advocate more extreme measures. William Hague has now declared that all asylum seekers should be put in detention centres until such time as their case is heard, and instantly deported if they do not meet the ever more stringent government criteria. The right wing tabloids are driven to greater and greater hysteria. Rarely raising themselves from the gutter, they spread fear and loathing, and appear to have government endorsement to do so.
Of course the figures bear no relation to the hysteria. The number of people who have arrived in the country over the last year seeking asylum wouldn't fill Wembley stadium.
So bad has Labour become on the question that even a 'loyal' trade union leader like Bill Morris has spoken out condemning the behaviour and language of government ministers.
This has led to two responses. Firstly Straw wrote a reply to Morris expressing bewilderment that anybody should think he had done anything wrong. If that was laughable, the line taken by Margaret Jay, Labour leader in the Lords, was downright disgusting. She accused Morris, Britain's one black union leader, of only taking up the issue because his members (truck drivers) were busy smuggling illegal immigrants into the country!
A succession of black and Asian spokespersons have pointed out that the hysteria is not stopping at asylum seekers, but is giving vent to a more general racism. Certainly the fascist far right see the issue and the hysteria surrounding it as a godsend.
It is unlikely to be so profitable for New Labour. After having sold us the glories of the market and urged greater productivity from workers, the government stood by apparently powerless as BMW shut down Rover at Longbridge. That the closure was due to the vagaries of the market exposed the Blairites badly. It is easy to see in such circumstances how the asylum seeker card can look an attractive one for them to play.
The truth is, however, that race scares, rather like crime scares, almost inevitably boost the Tories and the right, not Labour.
There is little evidence that this scare is going to effectively address the anger and disillusion of Labour supporters. In the London mayoral election the beneficiary of these betrayals appears overwhelmingly to be Ken Livingstone--in other words, a politician who has not joined in the hysteria, and is seen as being opposed to it.
So as New Labour fragments at the fringes and loses its activist base, and the government fast loses its popularity, the attacks on asylum seekers and refugees reinforces the disgust and disillusionment of Labour's traditional supporters and become one more element in the crisis of New Labourism.
See pages 4 and 12