By Solomon Hughes
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Immigration – Labour Puts Asylum in Focus

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Labour's intellectuals prepared the party's current lurch to the right on asylum and immigration. Blairite thinkers in the 'Policy Network' said Labour must adopt the policies of the far right to stop the growth of the far right, and in particular must attack asylum seekers.
Issue 265

Recent initiatives by Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Jack Straw show the message was received and understood.

The Policy Network is Peter Mandelson’s Third Way thinktank. In early June it hosted an awayday at Hartwell House, a Buckinghamshire hotel, for Blair, Gordon Brown, Patricia Hewitt, and newer Blairite stars like the Miliband brothers and Ruth Kelly. Blair’s influential pollster Philip Gould alarmed this audience by saying his ‘soundings’ showed that ‘angry young white men’ were about to desert Labour for a ‘Le Pen like figure’ unless the party embraced their hostility on asylum and immigration.

Gould’s thesis is like the schoolboy excuse, ‘He made me do it.’ Blair’s guru is arguing for accommodating racism, but claims this is the fault of young working class men, not civilised intellectuals like Gould himself.

Gould’s prediction is a fantasy–recent electoral gains for the BNP may be a reminder of the need to fight fascism, but they do not represent a massive shift to the right in the electorate. Even the BNP successes in Burnley fail to fulfil the Gould thesis. The result in Cliviger showed the fascists won seats from middle class Tories as well as working class Labour voters.

Gould produces these results by ‘focus groups’–guided discussions which reflect the prejudices of their organiser more than public opinion. The danger is that his prophecy could become self fulfilling, as the government responds with new positions on immigration which shift the public debate rightwards.

Labour’s other leading intellectual, Tony Giddens, also a Policy Network member, began developing the new immigration agenda in May. Giddens said that Labour must respond to the Le Pen vote by being ‘tough on immigration, but tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants’. His argument that Labour must reflect ‘people’s anxieties’ on immigration will itself of course increase hostility to existing immigrants.

Gould’s message was amplified by Peter Mandelson, who came out of the seminar declaring that the government must ‘crack down on immigration’. Mandelson also said that ‘public anxieties about crime, asylum and immigration should be addressed’. Official initiatives followed.

A confidential Number Ten memo revealed plans to use the armed forces against asylum seekers, with navy warships intercepting boats in the Mediterranean and the RAF flying refugees out of Britain in ‘secure bulk removals’. At the same time Jeff Rooker at the Home Office proposes returning Somali and Afghan asylum seekers, claiming that both countries now have ‘good local government’.

Labour’s biggest lunge on asylum left the party flat on its face–Blair and Blunkett proposed cutting off aid to countries who let their citizens escape to Europe. The Foreign Office bizarrely described the plan as ‘part of a wider effort to fight corruption and encourage good governance, accountable policing and independent judiciaries’. Jack Straw’s officials claim that Europe using the award of aid to change the laws, courts and police procedures in developing nations makes their judges more independent and their police more accountable.

The proposal at the Seville summit of the EU last month was made in concert with Blair’s right wing partners in Europe, Spain’s conservative prime minister, Aznar, and Italy’s Berlusconi. The grotesque plan was even rejected by France’s Chirac, a right wing president who faces a much more significant fascist challenge. Clare Short was moved to break ranks and describe the scheme as ‘morally repugnant’.

Labour failed to bring the EU behind the plan to economically bully non-EU countries, although the European Presidency Statement still allows trade sanctions and other economic measures against countries deemed to have an ‘unjustified lack of cooperation in joint management of migration flows’. Labour is pursuing the idea of trade sanctions against the developing world and ID cards at home to ‘send a powerful signal’ on immigration. Blair’s government simultaneously dragged the immigration agenda further to the right and gave off an air of hysteria and incompetence.

Labour’s other ‘crackdown’ measure on asylum–David Blunkett’s new detention camps–remains on the table. David Blunkett will not be discriminating against asylum seekers’ children by forcing them to be educated separately in these new detention camps. Instead the home secretary will hire somebody else to discriminate for him. Each of the three new centres will be privately built and run.

The centres, designed to imprison ‘economic migrants’, will in fact be run by economic migrants–Group 4, Wackenhut and Sodexho, the firms who run Britain’s immigration detention centres and private prisons, are Danish, American and French multinationals. Group 4 is likely to run one of the camps, even after the disaster of the fire at Yarls Wood. Not only does it remain one of the Home Office’s favourite contractors, it is also doubling its chance for success by taking over its nearest competitor, Wackenhut.

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