Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
The horrific consequences of Labour's immigration and asylum policy were shown last month when 58 Chinese people suffocated in the back of a container lorry as they tried to enter Britain. It is impossible to imagine the misery and desperation of so many people who resort to these measures in the hope of finding a poorly paid and highly exploited job in Britain. The response of Jack Straw to their plight was to attack the 'criminal gangs' who smuggle 'illegal immigrants'. In yet another echo of Tory law and order policy, Labour refuses to deal with the wider social problems which it has helped create.
Immigrants come here for one reason above all: the conditions they leave behind are much worse than even the most pitiful existence in the west. They are fleeing war, political persecution, dreadful poverty and unemployment. They are doing so now because all these are much more a feature of the world today than they often have been in the past. The 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the level of wars and instability from areas as diverse as Eastern Europe and Africa. No wonder many asylum seekers are from precisely these areas.
Yet instead of recognising this, immigrants and asylum seekers have been subject to torrents of vile abuse in the media, backed sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly by the government, which has also resorted to terms such as 'bogus' asylum seekers. Instead of defending victims of persecution and arguing that migrants historically have contributed massively to the economy of Britain, it has gone along with Tory scapegoating, trying to outdo Ann Widdecombe in playing the race card.
As always, it has done the government little good. William Hague has been able to rebuild his base inside the Tory Party by playing to traditional supporters on the basis of racism and law and order. Straw's capitulation to these arguments has only infuriated many Labour supporters who have a good record of fighting racism, and who are disgusted that a government in which they invested such hope three years ago has abandoned its principles in this way.
Nor has it played well with the wider electorate. Firstly, there is more resistance to racist scapegoating than might at first appear--for example, the Tories lost the Romsey by-election in May despite playing the race card. Secondly, those attracted by the racist arguments are more likely to support outright Tories than the pale pink imitation. Thirdly, Blair's reception at the Women's Institute and the recent polling among women which show increasing disillusionment with Blair demonstrate that the concerns of 'Middle England' are similar to those of Labour's 'heartlands'. Both are concerned with issues such as education and the health service, which they feel have got worse under Labour.
The disappointment with Blair over these issues and the job losses around the country are still leading to a growing mood to the left of New Labour. But the asylum issue should sound alarm bells. Labour's cowardice and worse can allow the right to grow, in the form of both the Tories and the far right such as the BNP. There has been an increase in racist attacks in recent months and the BNP vote in parts of east London and the West Midlands was high in the May elections. That is why we have to build a mass campaign in defence of asylum seekers and against the scapegoating. It is also why we have to build a socialist alternative to Labour which can provide an alternative to the despair which Labour helps to create.