The truth is the Tories have always resented people like me

'The history of the Conservatives on race and immigration is almost wholly ignominious'
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The Independent Online

I think it was a dream. Or maybe it was my head conjuring up images to fit my despair at the way British politicians (who like to be known abroad as fair, tolerant and decent) are using asylum-seekers as cheap bait to hook voters for the forthcoming local and London elections.

I saw a flaming gold chariot carrying a mad-eyed Ann Widdecombe, her intimidating chest covered with armour with a crown blazoned on it, and a huge whip in her hand. (If this seems grossly insulting to an "honourable" member of Parliament, I do not apologise. A well-seasoned football hooligan would have been shaken by her verbal violence in the Commons last week. I have never, ever seen such a depraved performance.) Jack Straw and his junior, Barbara Roche, were her exhausted horses who tried their best to outrun her whip but couldn't. They were tied to her, you see. Then I woke up to the sound of James Naughtie on the Today programme talking about William Hague and his brilliant new wheeze to have internment camps for asylum-seekers, including children. Manacles to the walls near the bed too, surely. They worked a treat with pregnant prisoners. Widdecombe must have other ideas too, seeing as she has discussed prison reform with Charles Murray, the American academic who believes in genetic inferiority.

Huge numbers of us are appalled at the way New Labour ministers have allowed themselves to be driven by the Tories on this issue. The Tory party has a damp and dingy soul where real, overt racial prejudice dwells and festers. That's one thing we could not say about Labour or the Lib Dems. Indeed no Tory would ever write what Mike O'Brien, another Home Office minister, did in the Parliamentary Monitor this month when he accepted, like a man, that the Home Office is "institutionally racist". For all the many quarrels I have with him on asylum, this was a brave admission.

Tories have given the nation Enoch Powell, Norman Tebbit, Winston Churchill junior, Margaret Thatcher, Terry Dicks, Charles Wardle, Michael Howard, and now Ann Widdecombe - all have used their positions to poison the minds of British people.

The history of the Tory party on race and immigration is almost wholly ignominious (with some exceptions like Edward Heath who refused to attend the funeral of Enoch Powell) and I cannot understand how so many Asian and black people can bear to vote for a party which has always resented our presence. In my forthcoming book, Who Do we Think We Are? I examine this history. In the Cabinet papers of 1955, the Commonwealth Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home said: "We do not wish to keep out immigrants of the good type from the old dominions... [but] immigration officers could, without giving rise to trouble or publicity, exercise such a measure of discrimination as we think desirable."

This ingested discrimination of immigration officers operates to this day and we are already hearing mutterings of how white Zimbabweans are "kith and kin" who should all be brought home immediately. In the 1964 election, the slogan "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour" was used to assist in the defeat of Patrick Gordon Walker, the then shadow Foreign Secretary, by the Tory Peter Griffiths. Today the Tories are pushing pamphlets with false costings showing the "burden" on local taxpayers.

Enoch foamed in 1968 with his Rivers of Blood speech. In the Seventies, Thatcher made her remark about white Britons feeling "swamped" by aliens and was one of 44 Tories who were actively opposed to the Race Relations Act. Then we had Tebbitt's cricket test, and the calculated assaults on asylum-seekers orchestrated by Michael Howard and Widdecombe herself. The smarmy Tory Andrew Lansley has openly admitted that immigration was "successfully raised" in the 1992 election and "has more potential to hurt".

So how has Labour responded to this long Tory onslaught on diversity? Since 1964, Labour has vacillated between enlightened policies and the politics of cowardice. During the second reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill in 1995, I discovered that the word "bogus" was used 47 times. Even with their massive majority, New Labour has not the courage or wit to transform the debate on race. They cling to the belief that they must soften the blow of a new race relations act by creating ever more inhumane immigration laws. As Sarah Spencer of the Institute of Public Policy Research points out: "Once a government decides to appease rather than to assuage public concern, new measures have to be proposed to show that something is being done. Loopholes are identified, rule changes proposed, appeal rights abolished."

Until the next time the Tories start up again. Far from improving race relations, as Bill Morris said, people become more anxious and unsettled and race relations get worse.

So what can Labour do to save us from these raging Tories? They can unbuckle themselves from the chariot. They can explain that the reason we are getting so many more asylum-seekers is that there are wars again in Europe and huge inequalities too since the end of communism. Instead of people suffering in far away places - Rwanda, Congo - we are now dealing with sad and needy white Europeans who are near enough to come over. They can start using the word "ineligible" not because it is a more accurate word than bogus.

Ten per cent of those seeking asylum are crooks. A large percentage have no status under the narrow definition of the 1951 Geneva Convention. Women in Kosovo today with rape babies are being rejected by their own, but they have no legal case to get refuge in this country. When are journalists going to ask the Tories and Jack Straw who are "genuine" refugees? Do they include the women above or those starving to death in Ethiopia?

We cannot take all the refugees the world is unleashing because we are a densely populated country. But the British public needs to be told that these are genuinely dispossessed people and that an ageing British population will need immigrants again. But Labour politicians can't do this because they are so scared, still so scared of the Tory party. If Labour cannot oppose the racism of Tories now, when they are so unpopular, then Labour does not deserve to win a second term.

The author won a special award for `outstanding journalism' at the CRE Race in the Media awards and was highly commended for the George Orwell Prize in Journalism.