Steve Richards: If our leaders fail to show sensitivity, they will open political doors for the far right

The poisonous election debate on immigration has been the main recruiting agent for the BNP
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The Independent Online

Contrast yesterday's exchanges with the darkly provocative debates about asylum and immigration that led up to the recent election campaign. Yesterday, MPs on both sides condemned what a backbencher described as 100 "race-hate attacks" since the bombings. They nodded in unison when a former minister said there were wider lessons to be learnt about the alienation of the Muslim community. There were calls from Labour and Tory MPs for the "true voice" of the moderate Muslim leaders to be heard. In another symbol of consensus, the three main parties will be involved in meetings and conferences with Muslim leaders. Politically at least, Britain is coming together to proclaim its tolerance.

This is a glowing leap from the bleak tone in which the last election was contested. Only a few weeks ago, party leaders fought over who could be toughest over immigration and asylum policies (the two were deliberately and misleadingly conflated). Of course, neither Mr Howard in instigating the debate, nor Mr Blair in his defensive reaction, overtly played the race card during the election. In the build-up to the campaign, Mr Howard celebrated multicultural Britain as he announced he was getting tough on immigrants/asylum- seekers. Mr Blair went further, expressing disgust at Mr Howard's tactics, while responding by announcing his own tough measures that he privately probably did not believe were necessary. Both of them knew what they were doing. They were responding to some "legitimate fears" as they called them, but also to some dangerously illegitimate ones.

What happened then was the product of crude electoral politics. "Immigration" was a strong card for the Conservatives, so they played it hard. Probably Mr Howard did not make too many inquiries about why voters placed this high on their list of concerns and the degree to which some were motivated by racial prejudice. Mr Blair responded in the way he did partly because he knew it was a high concern even if, in some parts of the country, the fears were wholly irrational.

Those close to Mr Blair told me at the time: "We can't tell people that their perceptions are wrong, even if in reality they are." As a result of the poisonous election campaign, some of the newly elected MPs tell me that in their constituencies, even when there were only a handful of immigrants, "immigration" was the issue that worried voters more than any other.

I go back to that election campaign and the contrast with yesterday's more enlightened exchanges because several MPs fear a very precise backlash in the new fearful context. Some are predicting a further rise of the BNP, the only party that has disgracefully sought to exploit last week's bombings for its own end. The MPs worry because a further boost for the party would be a cause for concern at any time. But in the light of the suicide bombers, there is more to it than that. A more visible BNP stirring up hatred in Muslim communities plays into the terrorists' hands. The terrorists cannot cope for very long with a calm, multiracial unity. But a violent response that helps to divide communities is one that would present a victory for the bombers and be of most practical use to those seeking to recruit terrorists in the future.

The Labour MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, tells me that in his east London constituency the BNP has adopted a high profile for some time. At weekends, there are up to 80 BNP members out and about on the high streets of his seat and those nearby. In his view, the poisonous, uninformed and hypocritical debate relating to immigration and asylum has been the main recruiting agent for the BNP. Cruddas points out that economic policies implicitly depend on immigrants arriving in Britain to meet the demand for certain types of work and at lower rates of pay. This in itself is a source of tension at a local level, immigrants willing to work for lower incomes. The tensions are exacerbated by the political leaders who express hypocritical alarm at the consequences of the policies they have deliberately helped to bring about.

Obviously, Mr Cruddas is critical of Mr Howard, but he also believes Mr Blair's tendency to triangulate policies, adopting a more modest version of the Conservatives' proposal, is part of the problem. He and other Labour MPs, such as Frank Dobson who has put in a lot of work addressing the rise of the BNP in the north-west of England, are working closely with the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, on how the asylum/immigration debate and others related to it can be conducted in a more intelligent manner.

There is a new urgency. With good cause now, we remind Muslims of their responsibilities as British citizens and yet at the election we staged hysterical debates on asylum and immigration in the unspoken knowledge that, in some quarters, they were seen as attacks on those who are not white.

The broader political context matters at a time when there will be sustained calls for Muslim communities to integrate more openly. To take one example, a Labour MP with a large Muslim population in his constituency suggests to me that religious leaders should conduct their services in English. Community leaders will also be under pressure to expose and root out extremists even if the term is loosely defined. An extremist in some eyes is not necessarily so in another and not all extremists are deranged killers. Quite often in relation to British foreign policy, and less excusably in terms of the domestic agenda too, it will not only be the deranged in the communities who feel aggrieved and alienated. This demands sensitivity from political leaders rather than the damagingly populist slogans of the recent election.

Last Friday, I suggested that the pre-election debates on the Government's anti-terrorist legislation already seemed to belong to a distant era. Only two months ago, MPs and Lords questioned whether the Government was exaggerating the threat posed in Britain. Yesterday, Tony Blair announced that he would begin consultations with the other parties on new laws to act against those preparing to commit acts of terrorism or inciting others to do so. There will be far fewer opponents of such evidently necessary measures now. Similarly, the message in the Commons yesterday about the benefits of a multicultural Britain was more mature and tolerant than at the election. The messengers must not be deflected, as the terrorists' best ally, the BNP, is waiting to walk through any doors opened in the current scary situation.