Conservatives accuse Labour of raising immigration issue in marginal constituencies
Senior Conservatives have accused Labour of a “below the radar” campaign to raise the issue of immigration in marginal constituencies, especially where the BNP is eating into its core vote.
By Andrew Alderson, Chief Reporter
Published: 8:00AM GMT 03 Jan 2010
Labour MPs, including ministers, are said to have been using letters, leaflets and surveys at grass-roots level to portray themselves as tough on immigration so as to appeal to voters.
The Tories have accused Labour of double standards by raising the issue in constituencies whilst avoiding debate on it at Westminster.
The Sunday Telegraph has uncovered several cases where senior Labour MPs have been sympathetic to the immigration concerns of voters in their constituencies. They include:
* Tom Watson, a former minister, who has a significant BNP presence in his Midlands constituency, recently sent constituents direct mail updating them on the results of his immigration survey. In his letter, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East appealed to voters “to help me keep the pressure on Government” and added: “Like you, I want to see radical change.”
* Margaret Hodge, the Culture Minister, who faces an election challenge from Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, wrote to a constituent admitting the change from her Barking seat being a “predominantly white area populated with traditional East End families” had been “very unsettling for many people”. She added: “I respect your concerns about the pace of change”. The constituent had written to her saying he was a lifelong Labour voter but the BNP was now the only party that represented his views.
* Ed Balls, the Children's Minister, whose new Morley and Outwood seat in West Yorkshire has the highest number of BNP members in the country, has produced direct mail and surveys on immigration. He has also held two public meetings on the subject. One letter to constituents from Mr Balls, who is a close ally of Gordon Brown, was headed: “Let's talk about immigration. An opportunity to let me know what you think.”
* Mary Creagh, a Government whip and the Labour MP for Wakefield, has produced direct mail and surveys on immigration. In a recent letter to constituents, she wrote that “One issue has come up time and time again: immigration, and in particular, its impact on local communities and the Wakefield job market.” The BNP got 13 per cent of the vote in her seat in the recent Euro elections.
* Gisela Stuart, a former minister who is defending a marginal seat in Birmingham Edgbaston, where the BNP have strong support, discussed immigration in her 'annual report' delivered in September. She produced a leaflet with the results of her survey which showed that 66 per cent of respondents “believe immigrants should have to pay into a fund to support communities experiencing significant change as a result of immigration”.
Senior Conservatives have accused Labour of hypocrisy, claiming that MPs and candidates are starting to address immigration “below the radar” at grass-roots level because the Government now fears that its handling of the issue could lose the party the next general election.
Eric Pickles, the Conservative Chairman, said: “Gordon Brown needs to be very careful about the sort of material he allows his party to put out, particularly when it comes from senior ministers. Defending Labour's core vote from the BNP should not be done at the expense of good community relations.”
Mrs Hodge denied sending mixed messages, pointing out that she had warned publicly in 2006, in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, that BNP support was rising because white working class voters felt that “no one else is listening” to their concerns about issues including immigration.
She said: “I've been saying things quite loudly. It's not below the radar. I really resent that.
“I think all mainstream politicians have been fearful in the past about addressing some of the more difficult issues around migration, but I think that has changed recently.”
Miss Creagh said: “I think it is important to talk about why our country benefits from immigration, but also the steps we have taken as a Government to crack down on people who are maybe trafficked here and people who may be working here illegally.”
Mrs Stuart said: “The reason I raised this issue is because I thought the problem was a universal reluctance of all politicians, other than those at the extreme spectrum, to talk about it.”
Recent figures from Migration Watch UK indicate that immigration has more than quadrupled under Labour since 1997. Net immigration now stands at 163,000 a year, leading to predictions that the UK population will be 70 million in less than 20 years' time. England is already the most crowded country in Europe, except for Malta.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, admitted less than two months ago that Labour had played into the hands of the BNP by refusing to debate the effects of immigration. He said that “rational” discussion about the issue would have helped undermine the far-right party, which has seen its support grow over Labour's 12 years in power.
The BNP plans to make a big challenge at the next election. As well as Mr Griffin, its leader, standing in Barking, the party intends to fight more than 200 seats. The BNP already has two MEPs.
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