Mark Thomas considers the colour of Blunkett's dog

New Labour ministers say "bogus asylum-seekers" so often that I think they've been sponsored to say

Even before the local elections, talk was turning to how the far right might fare, and whether voter apathy was about to let racists into power. In the event, the turnout was higher than average in Burnley - which returned three British National Party councillors, so the blame for electing racists lay not with voter apathy but with voter enthusiasm.

If there were any signs of apathy in Burnley it was from the Conservatives, who managed to put candidates up for only five out of seven wards. Astonishing to believe, but the Tories couldn't be bothered to scramble for racist votes, which they normally go for with all the verve and composure of a pig after truffles. In all fairness, though, Ann Winterton did manage to perform a Paki gag days later, to reassure us that the "rights for whites" brigade is alive and well in the belly of the Tory beast.

Commentators give many reasons why Burnley voted for the BNP. Some say it was a desire to punish politicians. Some say it was due to boundary changes, and some that it was a reaction to poverty and the feeling of being disenfranchised. Heaven forbid that it might even have something to do with some parts of Burnley simply being full of racist scum.

The real question is how on earth can anti-racists vote new Labour? It has been new Labour's policies and the tone of Labour's debate on asylum-seekers that have helped secure the ground on which the BNP stands. Labour's first home secretary, Jack Straw, and his minister for immigration, Mike O'Brien, used the phrase "bogus asylum-seeker" so often that I thought they had been sponsored for saying it to raise money for charity. Under Labour, the word "bogus" became a polite code for politicians to talk about Kosovars or the Roma or whoever was being held up as teeming over Britain's borders by the Daily Mail that week. This theme of coded racism has been taken up by successive Labour ministers until we finally arrive at David Blunkett referring to asylum-seekers' children "swamping" certain schools. Blunkett is not a stupid man. He knew how Margaret Thatcher had used the word "swamping" and he knew that his remarks would be inflammatory. He knew he would be pandering to racists, and in my book that makes you a racist. Me, I can't wait to tell him that his dog is black.

Labour's Immigration and Asylum Act of 1999 was a milestone in draconian legislation. With Gordon Brown, Labour insists that its heart is set on reducing child poverty, yet under its asylum act it forces children into poverty. Britain supports asylum-seekers with a benefit allowance below the acknowledged poverty line: they get roughly 30 per cent less than normal benefits. New Labour, far from trying to eradicate poverty, is creating it by making people destitute before giving them their pittance. They hurt these people but all the while they mutter, like some Dickensian prep school spanker, that "it's for your own good".

New Labour continually chants the Daily Mail mantra that it has to be tough to stop Britain being seen as a soft touch. As if people fleeing torture and mayhem do a comparative study of benefit systems to see who pays more before getting into the back of a truck or the undercarriage of a plane. If they did, they would go to Belgium, where refugees get more than £90 a week rather than £34 (approximately) here.

It was Jack Straw who introduced the voucher system, where asylum-seekers received vouchers instead of cash, which they could redeem for food and limited goods from designated stores. Straw was well aware of the stigma attached to vouchers. Reports came back from the trial scheme in Kent that refugees had been identified by the use of vouchers and were spat at in the supermarket where they were using them. Yet he still forged ahead with the scheme because it played well with new Labour's precious Middle England. Blunkett abolished the vouchers, but compassion rings hollow as he continues to detain and disperse refugees.

The dispersal policy has led to refugees being taken away from support networks of legal help, social services with experience of refugees' problems, as well as cultural and community networks. This process of "dumping" refugees has led to attacks in Banbury, ruthless landlords from Liverpool to Hull; and culminated in a young Kurd, Firsat Yildiz, being murdered in Glasgow.

People who could be fleeing torture and other forms of persecution, for all we know, find themselves detained in prisons that have been renamed "removal centres". They are picked on, made destitute and forced to live below the poverty line so that new Labour can look credible to its right-wing key marginals.

And then they ask us to vote for them to defeat racism. They want us to support the party that has helped create the breeding ground for the BNP. They want us to defeat racism by voting for a party that is just a little bit racist. I'd rather die.