It's easy to pander to prejudice and play on people's basic fears. Just read the Daily Mail on almost any given day and there'll be a diet of both. Yesterday, for example, they ran the provocative headline, "Immigrants who are a drain in the taxpayer", followed by a league table of the least employed citizens - from Somalia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan, alongside the highest employed - who are, apparently, from Australia, France, Canada and Poland. And although the news piece highlights the findings from an Institute of Public Policy Research report that some groups are fleeing persecution and violence, and need, "our protection", and that some "immigrant communities are clearly faring less well in the UK and are unable to contribute as much as others because of the poor socio-economic situation they find themselves in", the damage is done. The subtext purports that white immigrants are an asset, while black ones are a drain. And if you didn't quite get the "who's on our side and who isn't", message then the story directly underneath, "Muslim checkout staff can refuse to sell drink", affords you another clue.
I suspect that many Cif (Guardian website: Comment is Free) readers expect no less from the Daily Mail, but I do and I think we should expect more from the Conservative shadow cabinet minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. Ten years ago she was instrumental in helping us launch Operation Black Vote in the north of England, and I've been convinced that she has an important role to play in reshaping and challenging some of her party's dogma on race. It was a disappointment, therefore, to hear her state that the fears about immigration held by BNP voters were "legitimate". First, no one should disagree with her assertion that BNP voters must not be ignored, but there is a big gulf between listening to their views and accepting them as legitimate. The truth is in many areas were voters have felt ignored, the BNP have successfully fed them race hate-filled lies, distortions and half-truths. Surely it is essential, albeit a difficult job, for mainstream politicians to confront the untruths, not pander to them?
The largest single political gain by the BNP in recent history -11 elected councillors - occurred in Barking and Dagenham during last year's local elections. Among some of the more shocking lies were their claims that asylum seekers and refugees were paid 50k to move into the borough. They also claimed that due to changing ethnic demographics, burglary was up by 78% and violent crime by 61%. In fact, according to the Barking Post, burglary was down 11% and violent crime rose by just 1.5%. The other big scare claim the BNP peddled was that "foreigners" were taking all the social housing in the borough. The reality of four houses out of 20,250 given to asylum seekers or refugees only highlights another shocking BNP untruth.
I sincerely wish Ms Warsi well in her new political role, but she will quickly lose credibility from the very communities she is attempting to convince, if, as we get closer to an election, the rhetoric of old dominates new Tory thinking.