The Week in Politics: 'Dog-whistle politics' exploits immigration fears

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In Australia, they call it "dog-whistle politics": sending a sharp message which, like a dog whistle that is inaudible to humans, is heard only by the people at which it is aimed.

In Australia, they call it "dog-whistle politics": sending a sharp message which, like a dog whistle that is inaudible to humans, is heard only by the people at which it is aimed.

In the past week, the dog whistle has been imported into British politics. Michael Howard's speeches on immigration and asylum on Monday and yesterday cannot be described as racist. He tapped into a genuine concern among many people in this country, who put asylum and immigration very high when asked what issues concern them.

The Tory leader did not mention the colour of people's skin; he didn't need to. His call for a quota on asylum and a points system for immigration will no doubt have conjured up black and Asian images in many minds. The reality is different: the countries from which most economic migrants entered Britain in 2003 were Ireland, the United States, France, Australia, Italy and Portugal.

Dog-whistle politics has been used successfully by John Howard, Australia's conservative Prime Minister. He has played the immigration card without making overtly racist comments. It is no coincidence that the man who ran his four successful election campaigns, Lynton Crosby, is now Michael Howard's election campaign director. The Tory leader's carefully chosen words were designed to strike the right chord with his target audience. Labour strategists fear the subconscious message will play well in marginal seats in areas such as the West Midlands and among eurosceptics tempted to vote for the UK Independence Party.

As Liam Fox, the Tory co-chairman, told a private meeting last autumn: "If we had a tougher line on immigration and asylum they [defectors to UKIP] would come back."

All week, the Tories anxiously awaited the first opinion polls since Mr Howard's intervention. Yesterday a YouGov survey for The Daily Telegraph showed that 66 per cent backed the Tory plan for a strict limit on immigration and to withdraw from the 1951 UN convention on refugees, while only 28 per cent opposed it.

People were less keen about Mr Howard's motives: 58 per cent thought he desperately wanted to win votes for his party, while 36 per cent said he genuinely believed immigration should be limited.

I don't doubt for one moment that Mr Howard believes it. But I do find his policy hard to reconcile with his moving speech at last October's Tory conference, when he recalled how his Romanian parents fled to Britain to escape the Nazis and that his grandmother was killed at Auschwitz.

Surely, his policy means that a Tory Government could turn away people fleeing persecution like his parents once its asylum quota had been reached?

Although immigration is not seen as an issue that persuades people to switch parties, it might well persuade natural Tories to vote. With many Labour supporters threatening to stay at home or shop around, turnout at the election expected on 5 May will be more important than usual.

But the Tories should not be popping the champagne corks just yet. The election will almost certainly be decided on the economy and public services. YouGov found Labour well ahead on the economy and the voters preferring higher spending on public services over tax cuts, the Tory policy. If I were a Tory strategist, I would much rather be ahead on these issues than on immigration.

Labour will try to close the immigration gap by ensuring the speedy removal of failed asylum-seekers and highlight the benefits of legal migration to Britain by many - often highly skilled people - the country needs.

The Tories' policy launch was not as smooth as it looked. I am told there was near panic in their ranks when the European Commission declared that the planned quota could be illegal and that Britain had already signed up to a common EU policy - designed to stop asylum-shopping - that would stop them withdrawing from the 1951 convention.

The Tories then tried to make Europe the issue, claiming this was always part of their strategy. It wasn't. They hadn't done their homework about the EU directives.

Immigration experts say that pulling out of the 1951 convention would not be a panacea. An asylum-seeker could then lodge a claim under the separate European Convention on Human Rights. The Tories have not pledged to pull out of that. Even if they did, a would-be refugee could make his claim in Strasbourg rather than the British courts.

There are other flaws in the Tories' plan. They want all asylum claims processed outside Britain, preferably close to the person's country of origin.

They can't say where, but insist that preliminary soundings have been taken. I doubt the talks have got very far. Under David Blunkett, the Home Office approached several countries on this. Their reply was that they already had enough refugee camps and would not be bribed to set up any more.

To pull out of the EU directives on asylum, the Tories would have to give something back. That is the way the 25-strong club works. But they will already be trying to "renegotiate" the social chapter and the common fisheries policy. If they get no joy, they will be on a slippery slope to the exit door.

There would also be a price to be paid in terms of Britain's standing in the world. No country has withdrawn from the 1951 convention, not even Australia. It has 145 signatories. What signal would pulling out send to them?

The more you look at the Tory policy, the more it looks like an attempt to prop up its core vote by a party that knows it cannot win, rather than a coherent programme for government. As well as whistling for the dog, it really does seem that poor Mr Howard is whistling in the wind.