Whipping up hatred

Issue section: 
(383)

Alan Gibson looks at the wave of anti-immigrant racism that has been marked by the "Go Home" vans and UK Border Agency raids at London tube stations.

The demand by judge Peter Murphy in August that a Muslim woman transgress her religious beliefs and reveal her face to a packed courtroom is just the latest in a series of Islamophobic outrages - all conditioned by a deepening anti-immigrant onslaught.

The most recent wave - the racist "Go Home" vans and UK Border Agency raids at London tube stations - was kicked off by the Queen's Speech in May. David Cameron made it clear then that the "centrepiece" of the speech was the coalition government's promise to do more to stop illegal immigration, and the "something for nothing" policies inspired by the previous Labour government.

Proposed measures included restricting immigrants' access to NHS care, an obligation on landlords to check credentials and increased penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants.

Commentators were clear that the inspiration behind the immigrant bashing was Ukip's electoral success only days before the speech, when it won an average of 26 percent of the votes in council wards wherever it stood. It triggered huge anxiety across all three mainstream parties, and particularly the Tories.

But Ukip itself has grown out of the past two decades of anti-immigrant filth created by all three mainstream parties and much of the media. Throughout the 1990s and much of the 2000s Labour competed with the Tories over who could be nastier to asylum seekers. In 2002 home secretary David Blunkett claimed an influx of immigrants would cause "tensions". Gordon Brown went on to praise "British values", and promised "British jobs for British workers".

Adding intellectual weight to the onslaught, commentators from the centre-left such as David Goodhart applauded New Labour for efforts to "integrate" minorities by, for example, demanding Asian families speak English in their own homes. Meanwhile the then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, claimed it was time to "dump" multiculturalism.

Cue David Cameron, who - on the same day, 5 February 2011, that the EDL marched in Luton - laid into "the failure of 30 years of state multiculturalism". And cue Ed Miliband and his "apology" for the Blair and Brown governments not doing enough to bash immigrants. And now, not to be outdone by the Tories' latest immigrant bashing, Labour's shadow immigration secretary Chris Bryant once again raises the hoary myth of foreigners stealing British workers' jobs. And let's not forget the LibDems and their continuing ambivalence over immigration, with Nick Clegg's recent move to ditch the party's promise of an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Hardly a day has gone by in the past two decades without much of the popular press bashing immigrants - and more often than not, supposed Muslim immigrants, deepening the conflation of immigration with Muslim and further fuelling Islamophobia. Of course, there is nothing new about politicians and the media bashing immigrants. Over the decades a correlation can be traced between the onset of economic crisis and a rise in anti-immigrant policies and media assaults as the political establishment tries to divert attention away from the real issues behind recession. But the latest waves of hostility coincide with a marked decline in support for the mainstream political set-up.

This was marked graphically in February 2011 when a Populus poll claimed 48 percent of UK voters would consider backing a new anti-immigrant party committed to challenging "Islamic extremism". Hence last May's spectacular surge to Ukip - the biggest for a new party since the Second World War. So the electoral battle lines are being set for the European elections next May, and there can be no doubt just how nasty that election is likely to be.

Over the coming months we can expect both partners in the coalition government to up the ante on immigrants and immigration. And despite the best efforts of Labour MPs such as Diane Abbott, we can expect Labour's leaders to fall shamefully behind, taking every opportunity to flaunt their support for "British values" and concerns about "Islamic extremism".

This in turn will fertilise even more the conditions that underpin judge Peter Murphy's stance, the loose associations in the press between Islam and extremism, immigrants and criminality, foreign workers and low pay and so on. In fact all the anti-immigrant myths will be dragged out and plonked on the table.

Socialists and anti-racists face a huge challenge, so it's worth remembering that anti-immigrant ideas have to be consciously created - by politicians and the employer class they champion. And that means they can be knocked down. And the best way to do that is to combine the defence of immigrants and the fight against Islamophobia with the struggle for a socialist alternative.