Labour cannot go on dismissing the voices of the disillusioned

'If Christ were alive today, Jack Straw would soon have him locked up in an asylum centre'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Blimey. I never expected such an enormous postbag following my column in which I described my disenchantment with New Labour and explained my difficult decision to quit the party. And still they come, day after day. What's more, not one, so far, condemns what I did, nor what I chose to say about what I did, nor indeed my decision to go public.

Blimey. I never expected such an enormous postbag following my column in which I described my disenchantment with New Labour and explained my difficult decision to quit the party. And still they come, day after day. What's more, not one, so far, condemns what I did, nor what I chose to say about what I did, nor indeed my decision to go public.

I am not heroic by nature, and since speaking out I have often woken up in the middle of the night, worrying and coming to terms with the fact that many doors that were previously open will now be smashed shut in my face. Privately, some Labour Party insiders have expressed their sorrow or anger, and one or two seem convinced that I was prompted by cynical or sinister motives. They have yet to understand that people, even little people or greedy, selfish and ambitious people, can sometimes make principled choices, even when they know it might work against their personal progress. And these principles obviously matter to the many people who wrote in.

A gentleman from Bedfordshire wrote: "Warmest congratulations on your decision. I meet people all the time who have made the same decision. And as you say the reasoning boils down to the (correct ) perception that Labour cares much more for the rich than the poor and the refugee policies are to always cast the refugee in a negative light. So that the public's first thoughts will always be 'bogus', 'abusers' and now 'vile'."

A teacher from Sussex tried to reassure: "You will feel isolated. Don't. A number of us agreed with you and have decided to write to you so you will not feel alone. There is a moral deficiency in the heart of New Labour." A Methodist from a church in Sedley, Yorkshire sent a warm letter which began: "I have welcomed you as our guest in our home every week through The Independent. Today's piece must have been a very sad thing to write. I expected better from this government. I knew from their past records that Labour have not repealed previous immigration laws they inherited. This time they are implementing policies that their predecessor dreamed up but dared not put into practice."

Another letter from Sussex, from a farmer's wife: "I voted Labour for the first time in my life last time. I had not voted in the previous two elections because I thought politics is a dirty business which we give credibility to by voting. But in 1997 I truly felt there was going to be a new dawn. As a Christian, I was encouraged that our Prime Minister and his wife were believers. Today they have abandoned Christ's main principles - that you must show kindness to strangers and treat them as your own."

A young woman from Norfolk sent a post card: "Me too, and three others. All in our thirties. I heard Rabbi Neuberger talking about asylum seekers and her worries about their treatment and now you have spoken out. New Labour will regret this in the next election." A lovely letter simply offering support came from a grandmother in Somerset. A pounds 20 note to buy something to cheer myself up carefully wrapped in pink scented tissue was enclosed. I sent the money back but kept the tissue. And a final example from Berkshire: "Blair, Straw claim to be Christian. If Christ was alive today they would soon have him locked up in an asylum centre. He would not have the right papers to be here."

I choose these few examples because they are temperate, thoughtful and the result of genuine inner struggles. Other such letters came from Peterborough, Welwyn Garden City, Milton Keynes, the Cotswolds, Nottingham, Oxford, Reading, Maidenhead, Aylesbury. They are mostly from people one identifies with the middle England in whose name so much vile (to use Barbara Roche's term for beggars with babies) legislation is passed in this country today.

Perhaps both New Labour and the Tories need to look beyond their own caricatures of middle England. Hague - sounding ever more demented and desperate - promised at the weekend to placate these voters by stamping on the heads of asylum seekers even harder than Straw and Roche. Labour will no doubt promise (or threaten) even worse. But even in the most affluent and complacent areas of green England, humane values do survive and matter.

To assume that all voters in middle England are wickedly selfish and implacably xenophobic is a gross insult to those who give so much of their time doing good. The Asylum Rights Campaign, for example, is hugely effective in areas such as Oxford and Cambridge. Middle-class members visit detention centres, pay for lawyers and training courses and even have asylum seekers living in their own homes.

Another crop of letters came from metropolitan areas, in particular London. Many of these were from black and Asian Labour supporters who have left or are about to leave the party in disgust over the London elections and the other failures: "Well done!" enthused an Asian gentleman from Stroud Green: "A society is judged by how it treats disadvantaged people and how governments treat 'invisible' people." A black lady from Ealing wrote: "I have been a party member all my life. I was so unhappy these last few months. Now I know what I must do. You have given me courage."

A well-known priest said that he had been to a meeting in Tower Hamlets where he heard "Dobson making the most appalling defence of the asylum legislation. It was quite disgraceful." Five black law students signed a letter saying that they were furious at the Labour selection process for the Greater London Assembly: "Perhaps we should ask the UN to send some observers to the London elections to ensure no more dirty tricks."

And so they go on. I have no desire to embarrass or unfairly attack the Labour Party. But the disillusioned can no longer be dismissed as the "forces of conservatism" or old disgruntled reds who refuse to die quietly. I never joined Old Labour because of the way it marginalised black and Asian people. Things were no better under Kinnock and Hattersley. But, like many others, I was inspired by Brown, Blair and Co, and felt that Britain would at last become a just, open nation, at ease with diversity and committed to international responsibilities. We have emerged from the miserable nightmare of Toryism, only to find that our dreams are now dismissed as insane distractions. That surely cannot be right.

Comments