Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Centre
It is certainly disturbing to log on to the Derbyshire Green Party channel on YouTube and find the British National Party among its subscribers, for our party and the BNP have absolutely nothing in common. Quite apart from the fact that the BNP’s position on man-made global warming is that it does not exist, it is a racist party which attracts violent hooligans and sees its remit as stirring up ethnic conflict. The Green Party, needless to say, is not and does not.
In Chesterfield the BNP has no presence. It has never put up a candidate in a General Election and the tiny handful it has put forward in local elections have always been trounced at the ballot box. Unfortunately, however, the extremist BNP is not the only party to attract xenophobes, nor to seek to do so, as we shall see.
The British establishment has a long and ignoble history on this subject and continues to set a shameful example. Wikileaks has revealed that the Foreign Office’s director of overseas territories in 2009 referred to the dispossessed Chagos Islanders as “Man Fridays” in his conversation with his American counterparts while the head of state’s consort has referred publicly to the “slitty eyes” of Oriental people and asked Aborigines in Australia whether they still throw spears. I suppose that off-the-cuff stereotyping and casual racism are the stuff of upper-class japes though, so maybe we should look at a few more disturbing examples:
It was Peter Griffiths, the Conservative Party candidate in the Smethwick constituency on 1964, who became infamous for fighting and winning the seat using the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” When, in his maiden speech as Prime Minister, Harold Wilson described new MP Griffiths as a leper, 50 Tory MPs walked out in protest at what they saw as an insult to their colleague. Peter Griffiths lost the seat in a by-election 2 years later but was welcomed as a candidate in Portsmouth and was a Tory MP again from 1979 to 1997 notwithstanding his appalling history.
Individual Conservatives MPs and parliamentary candidates regularly step out of line, apparently failing to comprehend that racist jokes are no longer acceptable or that to refer to Rhodesia’s Ian Smith as a hero might be offensive to non-white people. Recently the Lib Dems’ Jeremy Browne, foreign minister in the coalition government, showed that he at least has gone native since joining up with the Tories by going on BBC Question Time and referring to the French riding bikes and wearing onions round their necks. Before the General Election the Liberal Democrats pledged to end the incarceration of children in immigration service detention centres but presumably this is just another promise they would not have made had they known they would be in government, because kids are still locked up in dreadful places like Yarl’s Wood seven months later.
While the Tories have always provided a natural home for those with right wing views, more recently Labour has been courting the same constituency with some determination. Peter Mandelson was quoted, after this year’s General Election, saying that Labour were defeated because they had failed to engage with the white working class, as if there could be no other logical reason why the electorate should have spurned the Party that gave us the war in Iraq, ID cards and abolition of the 10% tax rate while allowing an unregulated financial sector to cost us billions in bail-out money. You might think that having been MP for Hartlepool Lord Mandelson might have more insight into working class people than to categorise them as racist bigots and thickos, but one man who certainly put Mandelson’s thoughts into practice was Phil Woolas. His campaign of lies against his main rival has led to his making history, seeing his win overturned and a by-election ordered – so grave were his accusations that the Liberal Democrat candidate was a supporter of Muslim extremists. Of course, Phil Woolas’s tactics were bare-facedly an attempt to woo Oldham East and Saddleworth’s racist voters; this in a town where the race riots of 2001 are still fresh in the memory. “If we don’t get the white vote angry, he’s gone” was the advice of Woolas’s agent after canvassing voters, and there followed a torrent of rubbish through the letter boxes of Eastern Oldham including made-up tales of death threats and a fake picture of his opponent being arrested. Phil Woolas has not gone quietly into the political wilderness and still proclaims to have done nothing wrong.
Before Woolas was cast out of parliament, new Labour leader Ed Miliband appointed him Shadow Immigration Minister. A Tory opponent described this appointment as representing an appalling lack of judgment on Ed Miliband’s behalf, and on this occasion I think I agree. A nicer example of a leader putting a metaphorical fox in charge of a chicken shed would be hard to imagine.
In Barking, joy at the drubbing dished out by the voters of Barking to BNP Nick Griffin was only slightly tempered, but tempered none the less, by the fact that his conqueror, Margaret Hodge, has shown herself not averse to appealing to prejudice as potential vote-winner. Her quote in 2008 that 80% of her white-skinned constituents were thinking of voting BNP because “no-one else is listening to them” was part of a clear attempt to create tension by implying, wrongly, that people from non-white backgrounds were being given priority in services and housing. The effect of the remarks was, as she must surely have been expecting and therefore presumably thought worth doing anyway, that the BNP gained both additional respectability and much useful publicity in the area.
So what of the Green Party? We don’t have an open-door immigration policy but we do have one based on compassion and we certainly do not seek to represent those who would like to foment racial tension. We will not be subscribing to the BNP’s YouTube channel! Having grown up and gone to school in a Northern town my fellow candidate Sarah and I have a more balanced view of working class people than Peter Mandelson and we are not expecting people, on their doorsteps, to make race or immigration an issue. There are far more pressing concerns in Holmebrook Ward, notably security of tenure and the area’s relatively high dependency on means-tested benefits, which are due to fall in real terms next year, making the poor even poorer and low paid workers even worse off than they are now in terms of being able to care for their homes and their families. We believe that, regardless of what Peter Mandelson or the proprietors of The Sun, The Mail and the Daily Express may believe, working class people, of whatever colour, are not bigots or thickos, and unlike Peter Griffiths in 1964 and Phil Woolas in 2010 we shall not be peering into the gutter when searching for votes.
Candidate: Holmebrook Ward