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28 June 2010

Alan Johnson’s attack on the immigration cap should be taken seriously

Shadow home secretary is no airy-fairy liberal.

By James Macintyre

Alan Johnson should be listened to when he attacks the Tory-led coalition government’s proposed cap on immigration. Partly because of what he calls “eye-watering” cuts to the Home Office budget, the former home secretary has described the decision to go ahead with a cap — first proposed by the Tories under Michael Howard in the 2005 election, and which business people have criticised — as being “at best . . . a gesture; at worst . . . a deceit”,

It has come to something in our “new politics” when plain-speaking Johnson is positioned to the left of Vince Cable, who defended the cap yesterday. Especially given that Johnson is by no means what David Blunkett might call an “airy-fairy” liberal.

After my colleague Mehdi Hasan and I interviewed him last November, this is what we wrote about Johnson and immigration:

In a speech to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) on 2 November, he conceded that successive governments, including his own, have been “maladroit” in their handling of immigration and asylum. Is this a populist tack to the right, in the run-up to the election? From a centre-left point of view, Johnson’s position might seem depressing.

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He rightly told BBC1’s Question Time that there was no “constitutional obligation” to invite the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin. But then, in his RSA speech, he unashamedly declared that he wanted to talk about immigration “today, tomorrow, next week and on any occasion I can”.

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Isn’t this meeting the BNP halfway? Johnson repeatedly emphasises that immigration “has been good for this country”. Intriguingly, he also says he wouldn’t have “permission” to talk about immigration unless he first highlighted the concerns that opinion polls suggest many people share on the issue. Who must grant this “permission”? Johnson laughs, and says: “Me!” adding: “The public.”

Or does he mean the press — in particular, the Daily Mail? No, he says, but “Daily Mail readers”, among others. Johnson even chooses to defend the Tories on immigration, saying they represent a “mainstream, centre-right” party engaging in a “decent, centre-ground debate on immigration”. This, despite the Tories having stuck to the 2005 pledge, under Michael Howard, for an immigration “cap”, which — along with campaign posters asking “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” — led to accusations of “dog-whistle” politics.