Urban life - Darcus Howe corrects Margaret Hodge

A minister blames immigrants for her own failures and misses an obvious lesson

When Margaret Hodge, minister of state, recently addressed a conference on the topic "How does Labour win the argument for immigration?", she was speaking out of self-interest. In the 1997 election, the Labour Party polled 21,698 votes in her constituency of Barking, against the Conservatives' 5,802. The BNP languished on a mere 894. By the 2005 election, Labour had lost 7,872 supporters and the Tories' share remained roughly the same, but the BNP vote rose to a staggering 4,916.

Hodge blames the immigrant communities for this considerable movement away from Labour. The working-class whites are frustrated, she says, particularly by the failure of Asians to integrate; by their refusal to learn English; by teaching children in schools about the Diwali festival; by the refusal of teachers to promote Easter bonnet parades in Barking's schools.

The fact is that Labour had taken the Asian, black and white working-class vote for granted, using it as fodder at election time. Hodge is scapegoating immigrant communities to cover for her own political incompetence. Let me lay some of her myths to rest. Two generations of Asians have been born in this country, all speaking English fluently and, in Barking at least, with cockney accents at that. Their elders have been drawn into the English-speaking web by the young, not because Trevor Phillips or Hodge say so, but because it propels them out of darkness.

That sections of the Labour Party pander to the miserable social phenomenon of racism is not new for immigrant communities. The strongest racism comes from the poorest whites, declaims Hodge. Why? Because immigrants compete with them for jobs and drive wages down. This can be rectified only by removing the Thatcherite laws that restrict trade unions in their efforts to lift the wages of immigrants, such as in the case of Gate Gourmet. But that is Labour policy, and the party pays for it at the polls. So there!

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