Leading article: The far right will not be defeated by half measures

Ministers must stop pandering to falsehoods put forward by xenophobes

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Spot the inconsistency. Last month Gordon Brown announced his intention to allow councils to "give more priority" to local people in the allocation of social housing. Yet now we report an initiative from John Denham, the new Communities Secretary, to counter the rise of far-right extremism by challenging myths on race and immigration.

The problem is that there is no greater, or more toxic, misrepresentation when it comes to this area – as a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank showed – than the idea that immigrants are favoured over natives in the allocation of social housing. According to the report, less than 2 per cent of social tenants have moved to the UK in the past five years. Joined-up government this is not. But then, when it comes to the politics of race and immigration, confusion is the norm.

Mr Denham's plan to address the roots of xenophobia in deprived communities deserves to be welcomed. The extent to which the white working class has been neglected by this Government has been exaggerated. But it is true that there are pockets around the country where a feeling of disempowerment and resentment is entrenched. And the far right has become increasingly adept at exploiting this sense of disempowerment, as the British National Party's recent gains in local elections and last month's European parliamentary poll showed.

It makes sense to attempt to reduce this feeling of alienation by making people more aware of the council services available to them and encouraging them to get involved in local decision-making. If people feel disempowered, empower them. The Government also, plainly, needs to do something about the chronic shortage of social housing which is feeding local grievances. But facts are always the best antidote to xenophobia. The primary responsibility for the Government and local authorities is to explain why the existing social housing allocation policy does not privilege immigrants.

The Government should be myth-busting in other areas too. The recent unrest at oil refineries around the country has been fuelled by the perception that foreigners are undercutting local workers by working for inferior pay and conditions. Yet there is no evidence to support these complaints. The Government needs to be pro-active in demonstrating why fears of undercutting are unjustified. Ministers also need to explain why the presence of foreign workers in Britain enhances our national prosperity, rather than stoking the fires of resentment, as Gordon Brown did two years ago with his ill-judged talk of "British jobs for British workers".

Yet ministers continue to play to the xenophobic gallery in subtle ways. The Home Office is pushing through a restrictive new immigration points system, despite the fact that migration flows into Britain are easing because of the recession. And as this newspaper reported this week, ministers are planning benefits cuts for asylum-seekers, which are only likely to bolster the myth that refugees get generous treatment from the state.

If the Government is serious about halting the rise of the far right, it will take more than outreach programmes directed at deprived and resentful communities. Politicians – from the Prime Minister down – also need to stop dancing to the tunes of the xenophobes. As long as ministers remain ambivalent when it comes to sensitive matters of race and immigration, the only winners will be the extremists.

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