In the wake of the threatened invasion by Romanians and Bulgarians that never was, anti-immigration demagogy continues to darken the political horizon. There is no shortage of politicians eager to exploit xenophobia of all kinds in the hunt for votes.
It’s not surprising, of course, that Nigel Farage, leader of the populist-nationalist Ukip should keep banging the anti-immigration drum. He insisted the other day that his hero Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 remains relevant for today.
But Labour is a close second to the Tories who are raging on about EU benefit claimants. Top of the list is former home secretary David Blunkett, who said in an interview aired last night that he stood by inflammatory remarks made last November. Then he singled out the vulnerable Roma community in impoverished parts of his Sheffield constituency as his target.
Blunkett demanded that Roma immigrants should make more of an effort to fit in with British culture. If not, he warned, there could be a repeat of the 2001 riots in northern cities. He subsequently claimed that his comments had been “misused” by the media.
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who interviewed Blunkett, gave him the chance to make a retraction. But no, Blunkett insisted that “I am saying it as it is” and “people need to know you are listening”.
The reasons for tensions between immigrant communities in the Page Hall/Fir Vale area of Sheffield are not hard to fathom. It is a deprived area that has some of the highest levels of poor quality housing in Sheffield, according to a recent report.
Zephaniah’s programme showed that Page Hall’s poor conditions date back far longer than recent EU immigration. Its cramped streets and 19th century terraces reveal decades of neglect from central and local government (Blunkett was once leader of Sheffield Council).
But lest anyone thinks we are singling out Blunkett unfairly, the Labour leadership as a whole is stoking up xenophobia, especially amongst working class and poor communities in a grubby search for votes from people they don’t care a jobt about.
Shadow cabinet ministers David Hanson (immigration) and Yvette Cooper (defence) were preying on workers’ fears just as the so-called “mass migration” from Bulgaria and Romania was being talked up.
To sweeten her anti-immigration stance, Cooper claimed the government had ignored calls to strengthen existing legislation that could stop employers undercutting British employees' wages by recruiting cheaper staff from overseas. Hanson concentrated his fire on recruitment agencies that recruit solely from eastern Europe. But ultimately, they were trumpeting the infamous “British jobs for British workers” line of former prime minister Gordon Brown.
Labour’s poster-boy, shadow education minister and historian Tristram Hunt has joined in with his colleagues to say that immigration should have been more controlled in the past. He claimed that “white British boys are not getting the education they want”.
And when asked in an interview for the Fabian Society if he thought that poor attainment in some schools was because of high levels of EU migration, Hunt said: 'Exactly. And that comes back to the supply side, we have to get in there.”
The fears of the poorest and most vulnerable in society which are easy to stoke up into hatred, as researcher Paul Quinn notes: “There will be an eternal availability of receptive terrain for populist political forces that wish to rally support via negative stereotyping of vulnerable groups. Succumbing to the temptation to cast aspersions on such groups is analogous to lighting matches in a hayfield.”
Scapegoating Roma migrants is now so bad that a cross-party group of MPs has warned about provocative language after Tory council leader Philippa Roe accused tiny groups of Roma in Westminster of causing “a massive amount of disruption and low level crime”. Ironically, inflamer-in-chief Blunkett sits on this parliamentary group.
Of course, the rich are treated quite differently to Romanian workers. The government is inviting 100 wealthy foreigners to join a new visa service which the Home Office says will ensure their passage through the UK border system is “swift and smooth”. No racism where they’re concerned, proving once again that this is a class issue which demands unity in the face of a concerted campaign to divide and rule.