The Opposition's plans to draw attention to Mr Howard's Jewishness has caused mixed feelings in the Jewish community. But Jack Straw, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said it was a legitimate response to an admission last week from a high-ranking Tory official that the Conservatives were planning to play the race card.
Andrew Lansley, director of research at Conservative Central Office, who retires next month, said John Major could still beat Tony Blair if the Tories harped on the public's "negative perceptions'' of Labour. One negative perception was race.
"Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992 and in the 1994 Euro-elections campaign, played well in the tabloids and still has the potential to hurt," said Mr Lansley.
Labour and immigrants' rights groups have long maintained that Conservatives played the race card in election campaigns. Mr Lansley's bland confirmation of their suspicions and implicit threat that immigration will become a party political football again has infuriated senior Labour party figures.
Mr Straw said: "It is obscene that, of all people, Mr Howard, whose family directly benefited from liberal refugee laws should allow asylum and immigration to be used in political stunts."
Mr Straw emphasised that he himself had a maternal great- grandmother who was a German Jewish emigre to Britain. "Like many people in Britain, Michael Howard is descended from immigrants and so am I," he added. Mr Howard's family came to Britain from Romania at the turn of the century.
In July, the Home Secretary announced that teachers, hospital staff and benefits administrators will be expected to in- form on illegal immigrants. A further tightening of the already stringent asylum and immigration regulations is expected by civil liberties groups.
A spokeswoman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews said that Mr Straw was "opening a can of worms". She added: "You cannot expect every Jew to support the same policies."
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a leading Jewish commentator and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, said he did not want to take sides in a political dispute. "But," he continued, "for any politician, Labour or Conservative, to play the race card is grotesque.
"Jews who have benefited from a system that allowed them to come here have a moral obligation to help. Sometimes I think they don't meet it."
Mr Howard did not want to comment directly, but a spokesman for the Home Office said that both the 1988 and 1993 immigration acts had gone to Parliament after general elections. One civil servant added: "I know several racist politicians and I can tell you that Michael Howard isn't like them. He's even had Labour MPs praising his work on race."
Labour, however, pointed out that Kenneth Baker had launched a high-profile campaign against so-called bogus asylum seekers before the 1992 election and that Mr Howard had maintained in the 1994 European election campaign that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would let in a flood of migrant workers. Both parties dismissed the charge.
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