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

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.

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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.


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