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Can the recent success of the British National party be explained by the misguided immigration policy of the government? That was the killer question from the floor during the notorious episode of Question Time 10 days ago. Four times it was put to Jack Straw, the justice secretary, and four times he avoided answering it. Until that evening I had thought Straw was a fairly decent sort of bloke, for a politician. No longer. In a man so central to the new Labour project, who has served in cabinet under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who has been home secretary and foreign secretary, evasion on such an important subject is shocking.
In his first evasion Straw waffled about Enoch Powell’s recruitment of immigrants to work for the National Health Service. But that was more than 40 years ago and, as David Dimbleby pointed out, Labour has been in power for the past 12 years and Straw should answer the question. Again he waffled irrelevantly, this time about identity.
Dimbleby challenged him for a third time: “Are you saying there is no worry about the scale of immigration in this country? Is that the point you’re making? I can’t get out what you’re saying.” Straw responded by saying that new figures show a reduction in the rate of increase in migration and added something about the new points system, all of which was offensively irrelevant.
So, for a fourth time, Dimbleby pressed him to answer the question. Again Straw failed to do so, but concluded by saying: “I don’t believe it is.”
It was a farce. As Baroness Warsi, the Muslim peer, protested: “That answer is not an honest answer.” Watching Straw’s face, I was puzzled about what he was thinking. Was he knowingly dishonest or had he somehow blinded himself to all the facts about the mass immigration of the past 10 years and its consequences?
An answer emerged the next day in a London evening newspaper. I then learnt that giving Straw the benefit of this doubt had been naive: the explanation is much more sinister. In an astonishingly insouciant article Andrew Neather — a former adviser to Straw, Blair and David Blunkett — revealed that Labour ministers had a hidden agenda in allowing immigrants to flood into the country.
According to Neather, who was present at secret meetings during the summer of 2000, the government had “a driving political purpose” which was: “mass immigration was the way that the government was going to make the UK truly multicultural”.
What’s more, Neather said he came away “from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended — even if this wasn’t its main purpose — to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date”.
Ministers longed for an immigration boom but wouldn’t talk about it, he wrote. “They probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while ministers might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn’t necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men’s clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.”
The revelations get worse. “There was a reluctance ... in government,” he wrote, “to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour’s core white working-class vote.” The social outcomes that ministers cared about were those affecting the immigrants. This, Neather explains, shone out in a report published in 2001 after these confidential deliberations.
One must question whether this is true. Needless to say, Straw has denied all this and Neather has since tried to back-pedal. But I believe he meant what he said the first time, precisely because of where he was coming from as a true supporter of immigration, urging Brown to be more open about its great benefits. His were not the words of someone fearful of immigration or angry at the government’s open-door policy: Neather is the personification of the toxic supporter. As for Straw’s credibility, he lost it on Question Time.
Accepting Neather’s allegations, it is hard to decide which is the worst of these crimes against morality and democracy. To frame a radical social policy, with wide-reaching consequences, just to embarrass and marginalise the opposition party, is grotesquely immature and irresponsible; it is the behaviour of spiteful children mucking about with our destinies just to settle imaginary scores. That’s pretty bad, but it is just as bad for the Labour party to abandon and hoodwink its traditional supporters — the core white working-class vote, those on whose shoulders the Labour party was built — and to ignore their wishes and “social outcomes” in favour of a mass of strangers.
It is little wonder that sensing this abandonment, which we now know was deliberate, many white working-class Labour voters are tempted towards a party that does acknowledge their grievances. Knowingly to impose a transformative policy without truthfulness on the government’s side or informed consent on the people’s side was simple fascism — and to do so with silly propaganda about multiculturalism and unjust sneers about racism has made these injustices only more bitter.
Under these circumstances, Labour’s obvious gerrymandering by mass immigration — black and ethnic minority people are very likely to vote Labour — is perhaps the least of its crimes.
To accuse Labour of failures and worse in its immigration policy is not to exonerate the Conservatives. They have failed again and again to confront the real problems of immigration. They are to blame for abandoning the policy of counting everyone out of the country as well as in, which they did on grounds of cost in 1994. Of course it was expensive, particularly before the arrival of time-saving technology. But it is obvious that if you abandon any attempt to know whether a visitor has left, according to the rules of immigration, then you have given up control of your borders and what would also be a useful security measure.
That policy could and should be reinstated, as should the rule to crack down on marriages arranged to get British nationality; that is a clear abuse that could be restrained by bringing back the primary purpose rule, which Labour abandoned on coming to power.
There are lots of such practical things that could be done to ensure immigration is controlled in future. But the first thing to do is to expose the patronising lies, the seigneurial arrogance and the criminally foolish social engineering of the Blair-Brown regime; it does not deserve the name of Labour government.
The Sunday Times | Sunday, November 01, 2009