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The Labour right strikes back

Me versus Tom Harris on Phil Woolas.

My column in this week's New Statesman revolves around Labour's "Neanderthal tendency", the "old-right tribalists", who have rallied around the disgraced ex-MP Phil Woolas, rather than condemn his revolting behaviour and tactics. I see that Tom Harris, a proud and paid-up member of said "tendency", has tried to "respond" to my column.

Given that Harris is so fond of "fisking" the posts of others, I thought I'd have a brief go at his.

I AM LOATH to venture into this area once more, but I feel I should respond to Mehdi Hasan's attack on Phil Woolas over at the New Statesman today.

Hmm. Interesting, then, that Harris spends the rest of his 859-word blogpost studiously avoiding responding to the substance of my "attack" on Phil Woolas – that is, the fact that his pal Woolas's "inflammatory leaflets focused on the need to "galvanise the white, Sun-reading voters" of Oldham, in the words of one of his aides, in a town that, in 2001, had been "the setting of Britain's worst race riots for more than a decade", and yet "here was a Labour minister using BNP-style scare tactics". Instead he goes on and on about immigration.

I wanted to write that he has little to say about Woolas's shocking "out-of-order" election campaign, to quote one shadow cabinet minister I spoke to the other day, but I can't. He actually has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject. The words "leaflet" and "pamphlet" appear nowhere in his blogpost; there is not a single word of condemnation of Team Woolas's race-baiting tactics.

The Statesman, John Rentoul reminds us, abandoned its traditional support of Labour during the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995 in which Labour attacked our Lib Dem opponent for being "high on taxes and soft on drugs". This was too much for the delicate sensitivities of the magazine and its chattering-class readers. Yes, such tactics were honest, chimed with Labour voters' instincts and were politically sound, but that's not what the New Statesman stands for, is it?

No, he's right – the NS is not opposed to higher taxes and prefers a more enlightened, evidence-based approach to reform of our self-defeating drug laws. He prefers clichés and the language of the redtops. A bit sad, really.

Phil Woolas, as Rentoul reminds us, lost the by-election only to win the redrawn seat at the general election two years later.

Such a shame.

Hasan's case that Labour should have distanced itself from Woolas even before the court case (Liberal Conspiracy amusingly suggested last week he should have been expelled from Labour for carrying out government policy while he was an immigration minister, but I shall return to that later) is based on his record as a minister.

Harris seems not to have read the column he claims to be responding to. I made it very clear from the outset that my fundamental objection to Woolas, and the reason I believe he should not have been appointed to the opposition front bench by Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband, revolves around the dirty and disgusting campaign that Woolas ran against his Lib Dem opponent during the general election in May. Yes, the campaign Harris prefers not to mention, let alone criticise. As I wrote in the column:

"The leaflets were in the public domain long before the trial. Miliband could have made an example of the odious Woolas, in the same way he stood up to the former chief whip Nick Brown."

I can't agree that we decide what's right by reference to the views of MigrationWatch or Rebecca Wade: "if they say it, then it must be wrong". If at times our views coincide with theirs, that's hardly surprising in a political world where many of the old left-right demarcations are increasingly blurred to the point of invisibility.

So it shouldn't matter to Labour MPs such as Harris that, on the subject of immigration, their views align with some of the most reactionary, divisive and hardline voices around, ie, the Sun and MigrationWatch?? Harris says "many of the old left-right demarcations are increasingly blurred to the point of invisibility" – yes, they are, because people like him who claim to be on the left are, in fact, batting for the right. But they don't have the honesty (guts?) to come out and say so.

If Phil or anyone else wants to claim that he and his family had suffered from the effects of migrant workers without giving additional details, that's a matter for him. Has it occurred to Mehdi that Phil may have decided he wanted to make the point without necessarily exposing his family to specific criticism or even intimidation?

Has it occurred to Harris that an immigration minister (an immigration minister!) should pause to think before making knee-jerk and unsubstantiated remarks about such a sensitive issue on live television programmes? Remarks that feed into a far-right narrative about foreigners?

Then there is Woolas's claim that racist attacks by blacks and Asians on white people were being ignored by the authorities. This, according to Mehdi, was echoing the rhetoric of the far right. But hang on – was Woolas's allegation true or not? If it was not, then that is unacceptable. If it was true, then it was right to highlight it.

"Was Woolas's allegation true or not"?? You tell me, Tom. Do you believe that racist attacks by blacks and Asians on white people were/are being ignored? Did your mate Phil provide any empirical evidence for his claim that, again, echoed a specific BNP talking-point?

As for Heath's immigration policy, I wouldn't necessarily agree with Phil that it was "soft", but even MPs are entitled to an opinion. As it happens, I believe Labour's immigration policy in the 1997 was too relaxed. Is that so different from "soft"?

Yes, "soft" is a stupid and reactionary word to use, both in the context of the drugs debate and the immigration debate. And, as for Labour's immigration policy being "too relaxed", I suppose the asylum-seekers who had their benefits withdrawn, who were denied the right to work and imprisoned in detention centres might agree with you. Or not. And I guess I must have imagined the speech in which Gordon Brown used the language of the far right to promise "British jobs for British workers".

And as for the veil, Phil was not the only one to show some courage by publicly debating non-Muslims' reactions to it. Jack Straw did as well, and inevitably came under fire in the same way. So what is Mehdi saying? That only positive, encouraging comments can be made about an issue that is, whether we acknowledge it or not, a source of dissent and controversy?

As John Denham, then the chair of the home affairs select committee, pointed out at the time, debating the Muslim face-veil is one thing; fear-mongering about the veil is another. Woolas went even beyond Straw's provocative remarks, accusing veiled Muslim woman of fuelling the rise of the BNP. That's unforgivable. Indeed, the overall and rather simple point seems lost on Harris. Language matters. Harris, it seems, is more of an irresponsible right-wing blogger than a responsible centre-left MP.

Now let's deal with Pickled Politics' nonsense about Woolas authorising force to detain and deport the children of illegal immigrants. The same accusation has been made against police officers in Glasgow, who, allegedly, handcuffed children during so-called "dawn raids".

The same rules apply to British citizens: if you're 12 or over and you behave in a threatening way towards a police officer, then officers are obliged to put their own safety first; even young teenagers have been known to wield a knife, especially in the fraught emotional circumstances of a forced removal.

So all the mentally ill women and bed-wetting children who were forcibly removed from the UK, and often sent back to dangerous hell-holes, were all knife-wielding maniacs, were they? This is another pathetic, desperate and unsubstantiated attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Again, shameful that it comes from a Labour MP.

This was government policy under Labour. I supported it then, as did the vast majority of Labour MPs. As did Phil. I support it now.

Do you support what happened to Jimmy Mubenga, Tom? Just asking.

During the election, in the aftermath of Gordon Brown's unfortunate encounter with Gillian Duffy, the wonderful Daily Mash ran an imaginary interview with Tom Logan, the Oxford English Dictionary's deputy director of A to C. As Logan said:

Guardian readers think anyone who doesn't love The Wire is a bigot. They think anyone who hasn't had an interesting experience in a two-star hotel in Ho Chi Minh City is a bigot. They think anyone who doesn't like Greco-Javanese fusion food is a bigot. It could just as easily have been a biting assessment of readers – and writers – of the New Statesman.

Harris likes to take predictable potshots at the Guardian and the New Statesman and their readerships, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Guardian and NS readers are loyal Labour voters. Nice. Out of interest, do we know what Harris's paper of choice is? Mail or Express? Or perhaps the Star?

Whisper it, but immigration is not an unalloyed virtuous thing. It has its downside as well as its benefits. Acknowledging that is not playing into the hands of the extremists; it is telling the truth, something that politicians are being urged to do with increasing intensity since the Woolas judgment last week.

Hilarious. He saves his last paragraph for his most lazy and intellectually shoddy argument – immigration isn't all good, we have to tell the truth, it isn't racist or extremist to talk about immigration. Yawn. The only thing more depressing than reading the ramblings of right-wing "lefties" is noting the vast array of straw men that they have to deploy to justify their unsubstantiated, ill-informed, pseudo-populist positions.

Did anyone say immigration is "an unalloyed virtuous thing?" Did Phil Woolas's campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth even focus on immigration? Or did it, in fact, bet the house on explaining to the "white community how the Asians will take him out . . . If we don't get the white vote angry, he's gone." Sickening. Shocking. But not, I guess, for Harris. His failure to condemn Woolas's race-baiting campaign speaks volumes. He and his ilk should be ashamed of themselves.