Thursday, February 16, 2006

And Dogs Might Whistle

The things they do for votes. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Mike and Bernie Winters of British politics, arrived in Edinburgh yesterday to meet some ‘real people’ in the Corn Exchange (pun unintentional) for a coffee morning chat.
It was a little like speed dating event, with Tony and Gordon flitting from table to table going through their chat-up routines. There was even a feed from Brown and Blair’s personal microphones so that the nation’s press, corralled behind a red rope, could eavesdrop.
“Did you get anything?...Woman told Brown he should smile more...Blair was asked about mental health by a Scottish Socialist, I think...Brown said the Forth Bridge should be preserved, or something”.
As I stood craning my neck, it occurred to me that this wasn’t so much a coffee morning as a chimps tea party. This was a human zoo, where we could watch some of the most eccentric behaviour of the human animal.
Why do they do it? Well, it’s largely because we expect it, demand it even. My colleague, Douglas Fraser, took the voters to task in this column yesterday for making impossible demands, but the media is at it too. We have to have press stunts like this because we need pictures and we need copy. We have to see the Prime Minister out and about campaigning, even though we all know that it is virtually impossible nowadays for this to happen because of the security risk.
Actually, under the circumstances, both Brown and Blair performed remarkably well, and actually managed to chat amiably to the mostly elderly gathering, despute the presence of so many nosey hacks just waiting for them to say something embarrassing.
No one forces them to do it, of course. And as we all know these contrived set ups are designed to convey the impression that Tony and Gordon are best mates, even though we all know they aren’t. Though I think we have got the message now that Tony and Gordon are a team, despite the tensions. The me-and-my-shadow routine is becoming a little tiresome. If they continue to spend so much time with each other, people will talk.
Meanwhile I fear they are allowing the Conservatives to do too much of the real talking. Michael Howard is being allowed to dictate the terms of political debate in this election. The Tories are out there. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking” has already become a political buzz phrase to rival Clinton’s “It’s the economy stupid”. Comedians and cartoonists have started using it widely.
I don’t know who coined the phrase “dog whistle” policies, meaning messages understood only by the party faithful, but they now figure in almost every political column. Then there is Michael Howard’s promise to “wipe the smirk off Tony Blair’s face”. After that, the PM actually tried to stop smiling so much.
But the most effective of the Conservative policy messages is undoubtedly their line that “It isn’t racist to want to limit immigration”. Not so much a dog whistle as a clarion call. The Conservatives are turning this into a referendum on race. It is getting through to people - especially the lower middle class voters who supported Labour last time.
A measure of Labour’s failure on immigration is that in Scotland, some 68% of the people who responded to the BBC ICM poll this week said they agreed with Michael Howard that immigration should be kept low. Only 23% agreed with the premise of Jack McConnell’s Fresh Talent initiative that immigration should be allowed to increase. It is surely perverse for a country with a falling population to want to erect barriers to people who don’t want to come here in the first lace. But the Scots, who overwhelmingly vote Labour, seem to think Scotland is full up.
Labour must do something about this. To his credit, the First Minister, Jack McConnell, tells me he will not back down on the Fresh Talent initiate and intends to relaunch it at Labour’s manifesto launch tomorrow (thursday). He is resolved to face down bigotry, sectarian or racial, and call for an open Scotland. If only Labour would take the same robust approach in the UK election.
It is all very well deconstructing Tory spending figures. Of course the economy is important and Gordon Brown has a good story to tell. The Conservative figures do have a strong air of improvisation about them, with Oliver Letwin apparently able to achieve the impossible: cutting taxes while increasing spending.
However, the danger is that Labour ends up fighting the last war. Partly as a result of Gordon Brown’s sound management, the economy far less important to voters than it used to be. People are much more concerned with immigration than with the old issues of jobs, services and inflation. According to the pollsters MORI, concern about immigration has been rising rapidly for the last six years and is now the most important issue to many voters. The Conservatives realise this which is why they have replaced education education education with immigration immigration immigration.
Labour are in danger of letting the Conservatives steal this election from under their noses by exploiting a largely irrational fear of foreigners stealing the country. It is a mystery why Labour isn’t more robust on the immigration. It is actually very difficult to get into this country.
How many people realise that Britain already has immigrant quotas? People are only allowed in to do jobs that British people cannot do. The exceptions are refugees and students, who actually pay to come here. You have to be a skilled worker with a work permit to enter Britain and you have to wait five years before becoming a resident. It is now virtually impossible for unskilled workers to come here legally and immigrants from certain countries have to put up a cash bond to ensure they return.
How many people know that the NHS would collapse if it wasn’t for the 400,000 immigrants who work for it? How many people realise that the wealth of the south east of England is largely on the backs of immigrant workers and that Scotland’s economic decline is largely because we have too few of them?
Britain accepts refugees under the UN Convention, which the Tories want to scrap. But Michael Howard’s own grandfather, Morris Hecht, entered as a refugee from the Nazis and stayed here illegally until 1952. Asylum was certainly abused, but that was under a system established by the Conservatives. Labour has cut the number of asylum seekers by two thirds in the last three years.
The Conservatives are perfectly entitled to raise immigration as an issue, but they should be expected to explain exactly how theirs would work. They have still not explained how asylum seekers would be processed offshore. An island far away or another European country? Do the Tories seriously want to cut the number of immigrants coming from the EU? From ├ůmerica, or Australia?
The Tony and Blair show will feature again today at the manifesto. But if they want to win this election convincingly they must wake up and hear the dog whistle.

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