Immigration and the Resurgence of the Far Right

With the recent upsurge in support for the far right across Europe, the issue of race and immigration is more on the political agenda than it has been for a while. There has been a debate about whether the best way to beat the fascists is to engage with them or ignore them, and many have argued that although extremists should not be given credibility, it is right to address the issues. The idea is that in order to stop such reviled parties as France's Front National and the UK's British National Party monopolising the votes of those for whom immigration is an important issue, the issue needs to be discussed rationally.

Unfortunately, the mainstream politicians (I will talk about the British ones) aren't the good guys at all, and instead of giving the facts, which is that in Britain immigration has had a positive economic effect, they are using the language of the far-right. The consequence is that instead of getting the disillusioned voters who cast their votes for the neo-fascists back into mainstream politics, they are simply making the climate a friendlier one for the BNP. At the same time violent attacks against asylum seekers and ethnic minorities are being encouraged; statistics show an increase in such attacks every time a politician makes a speech about race or asylum1.

The preoccupation with asylum seekers has demonised refugees and delegitimised immigration as something good for the country (as is the American ethic). The Conservatives have for a while been harping on about 'bogus asylum seekers', in spite of a brief respite when they signed a pledge not to 'play the race card' for the duration of the general election campaign. It is widely believed that the Conservatives lost the election under William Hague because of a preoccupation with Europe and the single currency, and with the issue of asylum, while they failed to seriously challenge Labour on education and health. However the Labour Party's tone on race and immigration has been no better. Consistently they have tried to compete with the Tories over how harsh they can be, first dispersing asylum seekers to poverty stricken council estates where they would certainly be resented by the local population2, and when that didn't work, suggesting they be put in camps. David Blunkett was heavily criticised after saying schools were being "swamped" by the children of asylum seekers3. The chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality didn't approve of the words, which came just a few days after the first round election success in France of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Political leaders need to provide leadership. There are certain words which are pretty emotive. The word 'swamped' is hugely emotive. I don't think the use of emotive language actually helps us develop a society where all of us have a sense of belonging.
Blunkett showed a distinct lack of regret, saying "I'm afraid I do not apologise". Peter Hain, the Europe minister and one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi League back in his radical days, complained of certain European countries being a "soft touch".

Meanwhile the government has largely tried to hide its other face, the one that wants economic migrants to help deal with the shortage of nurses in the health service, and the lack of skills in the IT sector. The Guardian cites statistics from the government's Cabinet Office:

The UK's foreign-born population pay 10% more to the state than they get back in benefits and services - equivalent to £2.6bn a year net. They push up the rate of economic growth by a finite but hard-to-calculate amount and, among other things, ensure we get treated when we are ill. Nearly a third of UK doctors and 13% of nurses are non-UK born; half the extra NHS staff employed over the past decade qualified abroad.4

This is why Home Office minister Barbara Roche is keen to encourage economic migration - "We are in competition for the brightest and best talents. The market for skilled labour is a global market and not necessarily a buyers' market" she said5. But to paraphrase a comment made by comedian Jeremy Hardy – why does the government treat immigrants like goods and then get surprised when they arrive by sea in boxes?

The way to beat the far right is not to try and steal their ground, it is necessary to win the argument. If they are genuinely progressive, the social democratic politicians who have until now had a strong hold over Europe need to challenge racism, not create a climate where the neo-fascist parties who secretly espouse a love of Hitler6 are able to thrive.

1 - - 'Victims - because their faces don't fit politicians' rhetoric' - The Independent 14/05/2000,4273,4173861,00.html – 'Labour failing to meet pledges on race' - The Guardian 22/04/2001

2 -,7991,533308,00.html – 'A tragedy waiting to happen, say critics of dispersal system' - The Guardian 7/8/2001

3 - - 'Blunkett stands by "swamping" remark' - BBC News Online 24/04/2002,7991,690338,00.html - 'Blunkett stands by use of "swamping"' – The Guardian 25/04/2002

4 -,7991,430329,00.html – 'Statistics show immigration beneficial to economy' - The Guardian 29/01/2001

5 - - 'Call for immigration rethink' - BBC News Online 12/09/2000

6 - - 'Daily Mirror Infiltrates the Racist BNP' - Daily Mirror 24/04/2002