What was the border agency doing at Kensal Green station?

In light of the "racist van", I found the Home Office's spot-checks at Kensal Green station intimidating and heavy-handed, says Matt Kelcher.

I'm proud to live in Kensal Green, in the London Borough of Brent. Its biggest asset is the diversity of its people, with the strength of our community demonstrated by strong local campaigns to prevent the building of a nearby waste incinerator and to save the local library.

All of which makes what happened on 30 July even more remarkable. 

As I approached the Kensal Green tube station, where I catch the Bakerloo Line to work every morning, I could see a group of burly men blocking the entrance to the station. As I got closer, I realised they were uniformed UK Border Agency officers, complete with protective vests and walkie-talkies.

I asked them what they were doing and was told it was a random check of identity documents to find illegal immigrants.  They didn’t seem interested in me and I walked straight through, but the two Asian women who entered the station after me were stopped, taken to one side and questioned.

Even as a young man, over six feet tall, with the confidence of a free born Englishman who knows he has nothing to hide, I found this whole experience to be extremely intimidating.  The station I use twice a day had suddenly taken on the suspicious air of a border crossing.

I shared my experience on Twitter and found many people had experienced the same feelings and problems.  Another resident, Phil O’Shea, told the local paper how he found the behavior of the UKBA staff to be “heavy-handed and frightening” and how when he asked what was going on he “was threatened with arrest for obstruction and was told to ‘crack on’.”

I’ve no doubt that there is a problem of illegal immigration which needs to be tackled, but surely this is the wrong tactic in the wrong place.

Very close to the tube station is a hostel, and many of the people who were stopped will have been foreign tourists – perhaps here for the one-year anniversary of the Olympics – on their way to see the sites.  At a time when we need all the money from tourists we can get, what message are we sending back out across the world?  Britain: a place where you sometimes need a passport to board a tube.

Brent already feels under attack. We are the borough which is hit worse than any other in London by the bedroom tax and benefit cap and the last thing we need is anything with the potential to split the local community.

As a diverse borough we were also one of the areas chosen for the Home Office’s infamous "go home or face arrest" vans.  With UKBA officers arriving just a week later local people will begin to worry what is next.  Should we start carrying our passport with us to the supermarket, or cinema, or park, in case we are stopped and asked for it there?

The rules are clear. Immigration checks cannot be speculative, the UKBA must have a clear reason to suspect someone is an immigration offender before carrying out an on-the-spot check.  Kensal Green does have a very diverse community, but surely this is not enough of a reason to target the station. Local people deserve a clear answer from the Home Office as to why we were chosen. (You can see the Home Office's statement on the incident here.)

I fear this whole episode was more about posturing than a real desire to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. 

Speak to any immigration caseworker and they will tell you that once an appeal to remain is exhausted and an applicant told to leave, the follow-up is very slow, or none-existent.  Targeting resources at these people – who the UKBA have addresses for – would surely be more prudent.  As would a real desire to enforce the legal minimum wage across the capital, which removes the demand for illegal immigrant workers.

Instead we get four large guys blocking the entrance to a tube stop located on a quiet residential road.  The government may feel the need to shore up their right wing under threat from UKIP, but it’s not fair that people in Kensal Green should pay the price for that.

Kensal Green station. Photograph: Hectate1 on Flickr, CC-BY-ND
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.