Naked politics and naked politicians

The Government's subterfuges are flushing out whistleblowers, who understand about omission and commission
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The Independent Online

David Blunkett threw a withering accusation yesterday at the press, or, at least at "some of the right-wing press smelling blood". It is, he accused, resorting to "naked politics". How could certain journalists have sunk so low? The filthy business of naked politics, as any fool knows, is best left to naked politicians. And Mr Blunkett's politics are presently looking horribly naked. In his eagerness to defend his Immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, against a drip-drip campaign of accusation, Mr Blunkett has employed the oldest, saddest trick in the naked politician's book.

He has insisted that the opposition and its supporters can't accuse the Government of any dodgy, underhand, corner-cutting practices in clearing immigration backlogs, because he can prove in turn that the opposition did the same sort of thing when it was in government.

"I will publish a list of those exercises going right back to the Eighties," Mr Blunkett threatens, seemingly unaware of how disheartening the voting public finds such arguments.

Why bother with democracy, when one party feels that there is justification for its actions in the explanation that the other side did just the same? Why vote for change, when the Government always wins?

The row began when Steve Moxon, a civil servant based in Sheffield, revealed that his department in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate had been waving through applications from Eastern European businessmen to come to Britain. Mr Moxon alleged that the policy was designed to reduce the number of Eastern Europeans seen to be arriving in Britain after their countries join the EU on 1 May.

The accusation was so serious that it prompted an inquiry, which upheld Ms Hughes's own assertion, made before Parliament, that the procedure had been "rare and untypical". Ms Hughes claimed she had not been aware of it due to "erroneous information given to me my officials". The inquiry confirmed that staff in Sheffield had "gone too far" with "excess of zeal" in pursuit of their goals.

But this did not satisfy either the right-wing press, smelling blood, or the shadow home secretary, David Davis. When it emerged that in the Liverpool office of the Immigration and Nationality directorate, 29,000 applications for passports had also been granted without further checks, right-wing nostrils twitched once again.

Ms Hughes had claimed that the Sheffield procedure was "rare and untypical". Yet this one, which she has clearly authorised, seemed to be quite similar to the other one. Why had it not been mentioned at the time, in the interests of open and transparent government. Surely this was lying by omission, even though Ms Hughes had claimed that if she had been guilty of sins of omission or commission over the Sheffield accusations, she would most certainly have resigned.

Ms Hughes defended herself vigorously. She had authorised this second backlog-busting move because it was a perfectly logical and sensible way of cutting a merely bureaucratic waiting list in the asylum system. Eastern Europeans who were already legally in Britain, and had already been checked once. What good could come of letting them wait?

To me, cautiously pro-European, pragmatically pro-immigration, such a policy does seem utterly sensible.

But it is clear to me also that for those of an anti-European, anti-immigration persuasion, it does not seem sensible at all. In fact, if I were of the latter opinion, I might be reminded of the accusation of Mr Moxon in Sheffield, that the pro-European, pro-immigration government is working to massage the post-1 May figures, which the anti-immigration right will be eagerly awaiting to use for its own dastardly ends.

The problem is that the claim by Ms Hughes that the first backlog-busting scheme to be uncovered was "rare and untypical" was rather belied by the emergence of the second, similar scheme. And if this looked a little difficult for Ms Hughes, then the emergence of a third system, this time in Croydon, which waves through any asylum application that has been on a civil service desk for more than three months, unless there is an obvious reason for denial, seems even more damning.

Now? Well, it's in for a penny, in for a pound. Mr Blunkett, has now revealed that far from being "rare and untypical", this sort of manoeuvre has a time-honoured pedigree, was pioneered by none other than the great Thatcher government itself, and was overseen by the current Tory leader when he was home secretary. Far from being a weird one-off, "rare and untypical", it turns out that the Sheffield techniques form part of a long tradition of similar techniques going back more than a quarter of a century.

Which may be a victory for naked politics, but seems like rather a raw deal for an electorate just looking for a bit of straightforward accountability. The sad fact is that naked politics has dominated the immigration debate for too long.

Even before this series of revelations about immigration paperwork, the right had Ms Hughes in its sights. In a virtuoso display of naked politics at its most psychotic, the right argued that she was responsible for the deaths of 20 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in February.

It is true, indeed, that Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP for Morecambe & Lunesdale, has conveyed her worries about such practices to the immigration department, and had not got far. But the horrible truth is, again, that the exigencies of naked politics meant that nothing could be done to ease the situation of the cockle pickers, and the many thousands of others propping up neo-liberalism's demand for on-tap labour at developing-world prices, except seize them all, and shove them on to planes back to China.

Exploited workers could not, because of the demands of naked politics, even have been given asylum if they agreed to give evidence against their gangmasters. Why? Because the right insists that anything other than zero tolerance of immigration is not permissible, and does not hesitate to "play the race card" at every turn.

It is this constant threat that in turn has made Labour so aggressive in its public attempts to appear "tough on immigration", and so craven in hiding its actual policy of managing economic migration sensibly.

Should Beverley Hughes resign because inevitably the naked politics which pinion her decisions and the presentation of those decisions on all sides, has found her affixed to the target? Of course not.

But should Labour's wider policy be one of stealthy appeasement of its political enemies, at the expense of transparent government and any real conversation with the electorate (except one-to-one, off the record, in town halls)? Of course not, too.

Ms Hughes should not resign. The shortcomings she appears to have displayed, are actually the shortcomings of the entire political culture pervading her department and her government. They are the inevitable shortcomings of a government which somehow has come to believe that it is alright to say one thing and do another, as long as the end justifies the means.

From our involvement in the invasion of Iraq to Ms Hughes's claims of "rare and untypical" anomalies in the processing of Eastern European business migrants, the Government is vulnerable again and again because of it's own use of "naked politics". Again and again, its subterfuges are flushing out whistleblowers, who understand about omission and commission. Naked politics has become so prevalent that it is beginning to rub off. More and more we rely, to learn what's going on in our government, on the testimony of naked civil servants. The naked truth would be welcome instead.