Let’s blow a liberal dog whistle on asylum

by Stephen Tall on July 11, 2006

If there’s one issue guaranteed to make the blood boil of even the most moderate liberal, it is the despicable campaign that has been waged against asylum-seekers in recent years by the right-wing press.

Their ignorant, hate-filled, reactionary assault is epitomised by this Daily Express front page; but it is by no means an isolated example. As Peter Riddell remarks in his article, Saving Political Journalism, in the latest issue of The Political Quarterly:

Distortion of news coverage can have a big cumulative effect: for instance, scare stories about the number of immigrants and asylum seekers, as propagated in, for example, the Daily Express, can become self-reinforcing unless corrected.

Unfortunately, this racist filth has been lent credence in recent years by a Conservative Party desperate to cling to its core vote. To his credit, David Cameron has so far resisted the jerk of the Tory knee; though his appointment of William Hague as his Shadow Foreign Secretary – a man who once warned Britons not to let their country become a “foreign land” – suggests the old Tory attitudes are never very far away.

Once upon a time, we might have been able to rely on the Labour Party to stick up for the disadvantaged, whatever their country of origin. That ideal has long since bitten the dust. As Roy Hattersley remarked in The Guardian following David Blunkett’s resignation as Home Secretary, back in December 2004:

When I joined the Labour party, I believed that it represented the best instincts of the working class. Too often Mr Blunkett reflected and articulated its worst emotions.

Labour’s terrified zeal to safeguard its inner-city heartlands now prevents it putting forward the positive case for welcoming asylum-seekers with anything like the commitment a truly pro-internationalist party should view as its shibboleth.

That this Labour Government has abdicated its responsibility to help lead public opinion – that it has cravenly sworn fealty to the xenophobic dogma of the Mail and Express – has allowed a cancerous growth to swell through sheer neglect.

Jenni Russell rightly took to task this failure of confidence in her article in yesterday’s Guardian, Barricades won’t stop migration. We have to learn how to manage it:

a change in the rhetoric from the top might free other politicians to be both more honest and more inspiring about what migration means for this country. The fact that they are not doing so is illustrated by the startling change in one statistic. In 1997, a Mori poll found that only 3% of the population thought that immigration and race relations were among the most important national issues. By 2001, that was 14%. And in March 2005, shortly before the last election, another poll showed that figure had risen to 30%.

It is little wonder such public concern has risen: politicians are too cowardly to present the real facts. As Amnesty International observed last year in their report, Seeking asylum is not a crime:

The biased view of asylum-seekers the organization came across represents a grossly unfair slight on people who are entitled under international standards to be presumed as deserving of protection unless and until their application for asylum is dismissed as a result of proceedings which fully meet internationally-recognized standards for refugee protection and due process of law.

This is why it now must fall to the Liberal Democrats to raise the standard, and to proudly put forward the case for treating with due dignity all those who flea their own countries for a better, safer life. This will come naturally to our party. In the Lib Dems’ 2005 Ethnic Minority Mini-Manifesto, we took an unequivocal stand:

The use of asylum as a political football by successive governments and the other political parties has had severe repercussions for race relations in Britain. Liberal Democrats have been consistent – we recognise that for much of our history Britain has had a proud record of granting safe refuge to those fleeing persecution, and in turn, refugees have enriched our culture and wealth immeasurably.

This is no time to be abashed about our support for asylum seekers – for years, Labour and the Tories have been ratcheting up their right-wingery, desperate not to be seen as a soft touch. We should stand up and be counted for a cause to which all true liberals, regardless of their party label, should happily subscribe: decent treatment in accordance with international law of all asylum-seekers who find themselves in Britain under whatever circumstances.

We should launch a campaign to ‘Let Them Work’, to end asylum-seekers’ dependence on the benefits system, allowing them the dignity of earning a living wage for themselves and their families. What better way to show up the media’s lies that all asylum-seekers are scrounging off the state while plotting their next terrorist outrage than to give them the chance to get a job, making a practical contribution towards British society?

It would be the right thing to do. It would also be a popular thing to do. Not because everyone would agree with us – some will never view foreigners with an equable eye – but because even those who think us a deluded push-over will respect the fact that we are standing up for something we passionately believe in.

Meanwhile, a vast swathe of liberal England will breathe a sigh of relief that, at long last, there is a political party with the principles and confidence to tell our right-wing press where they can stick their sickeningly casual racism.