Both the main parties are feeding a new generation of racist myths over the issue of asylum.
In the run-up to both the 1997 and 2001 general elections, the Commission for Racial Equality called the leaders of the major parties together for a Queensberry rules type summit. These meetings culminated in the signing of a 'compact' committing the parties to a sensible and moderate debate about immigration and asylum. In truth the compact, though well intentioned, amounted to nothing as politicians scrambled for votes. As unofficial campaigning for this year's election starts in earnest, the best that can be said is that we are being spared the cynical pretence.
Of course we expect nothing different from the Tories. Behind the solemn public declaration in 1997, Tory strategist and now MP Andrew Lansley was advising John Major that 'Immigration as an issue played well at the last election and still has the capacity to hurt our opponents.'
The Tories signalled their intentions this time around with a rancid full page Sunday Telegraph advertisement in which Michael Howard declared, 'I believe we must limit immigration... There are literally millions of people in other countries who want to come and live here. Britain cannot take them all.'
Cabinet ministers were soon scurrying to the studios to admit that they shared their constituents' concerns about 'illegal immigration' and this was swiftly followed by the publication of a five-year strategy for immigration and asylum. Just in case we are in any doubt as to New Labour's commitment, the document includes forewords from both the home secretary and the prime minister. Blair repeats himself in his desperation to convince us of his determination to 'root out abuse' (by which he means the supposed abuse of the asylum system, ie people making a claim, not the persecution and abuse of asylum seekers). The same words recur in Clarke's lines and he boldly declares at the outset that his 'top priority is public confidence in the immigration system'.
Disgusting though this is, in the context of elections it should come as no surprise. It follows a historical pattern that was established over 40 years ago. The 1964 general election was a triumph for Labour but amid the euphoria they lost the Smethwick constituency in Birmingham when cabinet minister Patrick Gordon Walker lost his seat in a 7.2 percent swing to the Tories. His opponent Peter Griffith had run a notoriously racist campaign which culminated in the distribution of a leaflet that stated 'If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour.' Ever since then an unedifying and opportunistic game of racist trumps has been a feature of the election trail.
But the Home Office paper is more than just a throwaway electoral pledge. Aside from the electoral imperative, the real purpose of the document is made crystal clear in the title: 'Controlling Our Borders: Making Immigration Work for Britain'.
Britain's economy is enormously dependent upon immigrant workers. This is immediately apparent to anyone who uses the NHS or who ever has to take an early morning bus or train into a city centre. New Labour certainly knows that British businesses profit and Britain's economy benefits from migrant workers. A 2003 research paper from Clarke's own department admitted that migrant workers make up 8 percent of the workforce but generate 10 percent of the gross domestic product. They also pay around £2.5 billion more in taxes than they consume in services.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that we are constantly being told that the country faces economic ruin unless something is done to address the 'problem' of an ageing population. Barely a day goes by without the Treasury, Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Trade and Industry introducing a new initiative to boost productivity and skills. All of this is, of course, the reason why we are facing such a frontal assault upon our pension rights and social security benefits.
Immigration is one of the quickest and easiest means by which this problem can be addressed. Consequently the emphasis in the strategy document is upon work. Clarke is adamant that 'only those who benefit Britain can come here to work or study'. The paper then proceeds to outline four tiers of migrants - the highly skilled, the skilled, low skilled, and students and specialists - and explains that there will be revised criteria to determine who will be allowed to come to Britain. The key criterion will be the labour market needs of the economy as determined by an 'employer-led independent advisory body'. Moreover, 'only skilled workers will be allowed to settle long term'. Even these lucky few will be obliged to learn English and 'integrate socially'.
There is a nasty underlying implication in Clarke's words that aside from those who 'benefit Britain' there also exists a horde of 'bogus' or 'illegal' immigrants who simply 'exploit our generosity' and scrounge off the state. As the figures below show this is simply not true.
What is being proposed is a sickening form of cherry-picking designed to serve the interests of British capitalism. There is no regard for the interests of working people. Indeed the paper explicitly states that those allowed permanent settlement will only be entitled to bring in their immediate family. Nor is there any concern for those less developed countries from which doctors, engineers and IT specialists will come. They will be expected to educate and train these professionals and then watch them emigrate to the fourth richest country in the world.
Refugees will be granted leave to remain on a temporary basis only. The government will retain the right to throw them out if their home country is deemed safe enough for them to return. They will therefore exist in a state of permanent probation, never confident that family and friends will not be ripped away from them. This is particularly ominous given the exposure of Tony Blair's efforts to gain a half-hearted no-torture promise from an Egyptian government notorious for such abuse, in order to aid deportations.
It is open to question whether the overall strategy will work. The bosses' journal the Economist is sceptical about a system that is micromanaged by the government rather than one that responds more immediately to employer demand. Its editors know full well the benefits to employers of open, and often unregulated, immigration. It is, of course, impossible to calculate the numbers of migrants working in the black economy, but a recent Guardian report suggested that there are probably 500,000 and possibly as many as 900,000. Hence we cannot accurately estimate their contribution to the national income. But there can be no doubt that left to the tender mercies of gang masters, subcontractors and agencies, far from being scroungers, migrant workers are the victims of the most brutal exploitation.
Pandering to right wing hysteria about asylum and immigration will do nothing to halt the rise in racism that has lent electoral credibility to the British National Party and UK Independence Party. Over two generations New Labour has failed to learn that bowing to racism does not make it go away but instead shifts the centre of political gravity further to the right - encouraging racists to come back for more. Not surprisingly therefore, the Tories announced within days of the publication of the Home Office paper that they would introduce compulsory health checks, including HIV tests, on would-be migrants from outside the European Union in the hope of stealing a further march on New Labour. Such vile scaremongering would not have been out of place in the 1905 Aliens Act passed to demonise Jewish and Irish migrants.
Racism can be challenged and defeated but only on the basis of consistent and principled black and white class unity and not through short term and opportunistic electoral manoeuvring. We must also tackle this social cancer through building the anti-war movement, fighting for decent pensions, housing, schools and healthcare, and rebutting the racist myths whenever they appear.
See also the article Refugees, Asylum and Immigration: The Facts