For years, New Labour pursued a hard line on immigration with hateful language and exclusionary policies. The result? More people trusted the Conservativesby Steve Bloomfield / November 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
The only way to defeat the rise of the far-right, claimed Hillary Clinton last week, is to “get a handle on immigration,” The former Democratic presidential candidate said that Europe’s centre-left needed to “send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’”.
Hillary Clinton clearly hasn’t heard of New Labour.
Under Tony Blair, New Labour passed five migration-related bills between 1997 and 2007. Each one was about making it harder for refugees and immigrants to live here. Each one was accompanied by a wave of dehumanising languagein the media and political sphere.
One of the first pieces of legislation removed benefits from asylum seekers, replacing money with vouchers. These vouchers could only be spent on what the government deemed “essential”—something that didn’t include razors or toothpaste. Shops were banned from giving change, which meant parts of the already meagre allowance often went spent.
During this period, Labour liked to split asylum seekers up into “genuine” and “bogus.” The phrase “bogus asylum seeker” became so prevalent it was even used, without quote marks, in BBC news reports.
After Labour was re-elected in 2001, the new home secretary, David Blunkett, doubled down on both rhetoric and repressive policies. He warned of children of asylum seekers “swamping” local schools and introduced a bill banning them from attending. A year later he scheduled an interview with the Sun in which he vowed “tough measures to crack down on asylum cheats.”
Ahead of the 2005 election, Labour again played the immigration card. In a speech in Dover, Blair accused asylum seekers of “playing the system.” He attacked the Conservatives from the right, claiming they had “voted to restore benefits to asylum seekers in 1999 and argued against our proposals to remove support from families whose claimed were rejected.”
More policies were announced. Blair’s new home secretary, Charles Clarke, talked about the dangers of people “coming here who are a burden on society”.
When Clarke was forced to resign (over foreign nationals not being deported after being released from prison), his successor, John Reid, upped the rhetoric. In 2006, he proposed what news outlets wrote up as “an end to immigration free-for-all.” A year later, in a piece headlined “Reid targets illegal immigration,” he was arguing that “foreigners come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits”.
So, what impact did all this have? Over the course of the decade, Ipsos Mori polled voters on which issues they deemed most important and which party’s policies they thought dealt with them best. After a decade of “swamping”, “asylum cheats” and “bogus asylum seekers,” of asylum seekers “playing the system,” of foreigners “stealing our benefits,” of ever more restrictive and aggressive policies, of following the Hillary Clinton playbook to the letter—did Labour succeed?
No, it did not. Ipsos Mori’s poll in 2008 showed that just 5 per cent of voters who thought immigration was important trusted Labour. The Conservatives were on 46 per cent.
New Labour, to quote Clinton, did “get a handle on immigration.” They locked people up, left others destitute and talked about asylum seekers and migrants as if they were scum.
And where did this lead us? In 2014, the European elections were won by Ukip, a far-right party that wanted to stop immigration. Two years later, a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was dominated by immigration. The official leave campaign raised the prospect of millions of Turks coming to Britain. Ukip’s leave campaign produced posters showing refugees heading towards Europe with the headline “breaking point”.
“Tough” immigration policies, i.e. those that treated people fleeing terror as if they should be feared rather than helped, not only failed to improve Labour’s standing, it normalised dehumanising language and policies. The debate wasn’t, “should we help refugees and migrants?” Instead, it was “how best can we stop them causing damage?” And when those are the terms of the debate, the far-right will always be “tougher.”