By Robin Sivapalan
MARGARET Hodge, Labour Minister for Industry and MP for Barking, has sparked another row over immigration and housing.
Last April, in the run-up to the local elections, she provided a rallying call to the BNP by claiming that eight out 10 people she spoke to on the doorstep were considering voting for the far right.
She explained that this mass rejection of New Labour was due to its failure to address the shortage of council housing available to her white working-class constituents, while at the same time providing housing to asylum seekers and migrant workers. She described the new ethnic diversity in the area as a “gob smacking change”. The BNP went on to secure 12 seats on the council in Barking and Dagenham, of their 56 nationally.
She now suggests that the “legitimate sense of entitlement” of longstanding residents (black and white) should be considered a priority over the “real need of new immigrant families who come in”. She says more social housing should be built, of course, but insists such resources are always limited, so government needs to have a rethink so as not to “invite division”. The BNP has applauded Hodge’s comments, noting (correctly) that she is only reiterating the policy they have had for years.
Hodge’s comments have been criticised by nearly everyone else, including a call for resignation from a group of 97 lawyers and barristers; last year the GMB also called on her to resign. All the Labour Party deputy leadership candidates, however, refused to call on her to resign, and ultra-Blairite Hazel Blears even patted her on the back for bravely addressing these “thorny” issues.
Hodge’s comments come as support for the need to reinvest in council housing becomes overwhelming. After ten years of New Labour pressuring local authorities into blackmailing tenants into voting for part or wholesale privatisation of housing stock already depleted after the Tories “right to buy” drive. Labour has continued the Tory drive to boost the private housing market, pricing millions of people out of decent housing, pumping public money into the pockets of private firms and landlords.
Despite being told that vital repairs and improvements would not be made unless they voted for privatisation, tenants have fought back on estates up and down the country. The “fourth option” policy for housing has been won at the Labour Party conference for the last three years but ignored by ministers until now.
It calls for direct government investment in building a new generation of council housing, undertaking the promised repairs and improvements to existing homes, and securing funding for future maintenance.
Of course we would celebrate Hodge’s departure. But in fact Hodge has done little more than vocalise and justify the drift of a government policy that is further and further eroding the rights and entitlements of migrant workers and asylum-seekers, creating a tier of sub-citizens to be despised and feared.
New Labour has whipped up a frenzy against asylum-seekers and used the super-exploitation of migrant workers to try to undermine the conditions of the rest of the working-class. Government figures have made speech after speech asserting a mythical Britishness. Migrant workers, asylum-seekers, Muslims are more and more the scapegoats for the tide of privatisation, cuts and inequality which has burgeoned during New Labour’s watch.
British and migrant workers must cut against the logic of fear and separation and fight back in solidarity, refusing to compete for scraps of social provision. The trade-union movement must urgently step up its efforts to unionise migrant workers — calling for papers for all — and unite the working-class by demanding decent council housing for everyone.