Tony’s big con(versation)

As Tony Blair's inflatable conversation bounces round the country, there are two sets of voices which definitely won't be heard: asylum seekers and people leafleting working-class estates, football matches, workplaces and colleges to answer the arguments of the British National Party (BNP). Those likely to succumb to the appeal on the BNP are probably not present, either.

January 1, 2004
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

The bouncy conversation is aimed mainly at the disaffected Labour supporter. The BNP’s would-be constituency is being catered for, however; enter stage right home secretary David Blunkett. Indeed, the government’s asylum policies, and the xenophobic press, are increasing public susceptibility to the far right.

Polls show that more than 30 per cent of the electorate see asylum seekers as its number-one issue. It is an alarming statistic, which bears out novelist Hari Kunzru’s comment when he refused the Daily Mail-sponsored John Llewellyn Rhys literary prize that ‘one of the ugliest developments of British political life has been the emergence of the asylum seeker as the bogeyman’.

It is government policy that has created this situation. The Home Office has set off a grotesque vicious spiral in which it introduces ever more repressive legislation in a bid to satisfy an insatiable appetite to punish the scapegoat. At this year’s Labour Party conference the prime minister effectively blamed asylum seekers for the racism that pursues them; his solution to this racism is cutting asylum seeker numbers and limiting their recourse to legal protection.

Like a school head who rather than openly standing up to the bully subtly gives in to his pressure, Blair has helped to create a political culture in which asylum seekers are seen as a problem, as guilty until proven innocent, as a threat – not a promise of new possibilities. Even where numbers of asylum seekers are minuscule, the BNP has exploited this culture.

Most politicians are frightened to turn the tables and start welcoming asylum seekers, to insist they may work and have decent living conditions and the opportunity to integrate themselves into British society right from the moment they arrive in this country.

Their refusal to challenge the media’s attacks on asylum seekers meshes with and misdirects the alienation and insecurity that lies behind the support for the far right. The failure to debunk the asylum myths is related to a failure to address head-on real issues about council and public services, and to political representatives’ absenting themselves from local duties and simply advancing their careers in the town hall or Westminster.

The focus on the ‘asylum-seeker problem’ diverts attention from material issues of democracy and political equality and accountability. The popular demonisation of asylum seekers is a result of people’s sense of powerlessness; it is a desperate lashing out at something that can be blamed in the absence of any lever over the real causes of deprivation.

The very idea of the ‘big con’, as it is increasingly becoming known, is symptomatic of the extent to which decades of centralising government, erosion of Labour Party democracy and cutting of public services have destroyed whatever channels of communication used to connect government with the people. Even the regional organisers of the big con know that the notes being dutifully taken at its events will go nowhere beyond the Labour Party website.

Genuine democracy is about power working its way up through institutions in which people have a real say at every level, and in which many little conversations cumulatively build control over local decisions. It involves a sharing of power, direct democracy and a proportional electoral system – both locally and nationally. Debates and differences ought to translate into power, not evaporate in endless consultations.

Like balloons the morning after the party, the air in the inflatable conversation will slowly fizzle away, leaving something mis-shapen and forgotten. Elsewhere, people really are talking, in ways linked directly to organising. Trade unions are initiating educational sessions on the asylum issue in workplaces. Anti-racist activists are building local coalitions to show that there are positive alternatives that can be supported electorally and campaigned for in the community. Others are organising nationally, giving a high profile to the growing movement against racism.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform