“They think Britain is different. They think Britain will treat them better”


There was a moment recently when journalist Lewis Goodall made me cry.

“The kind of crushing thing”, he said, “is what pulls them, like so many before them, to Britain. It’s the esteem they hold us in. They think Britain is different. They think Britain will treat them better”.

It's poignant to think that, even after yesterday, many asylum seekers will still think like that. Because yesterday was a dark day for Britain. Once again our leaders dehumanised refugees. Once again they used disgusting rhetoric. Once again they brought shame on this country.

Even if you're optimistic the Tories will soon be voted out, don't underestimate the immense, possibly irreparable damage they are doing, as more and more people swallow their propaganda.

When you have a home secretary who uses the language of incitement, who tells you that 100 million asylum seekers are heading this way, who can't bring herself unreservedly to condemn violent, hate-fuelled protesters, you are in very deep trouble. You are heading for Trump-land.

And that's where the Labour Party – as the UK's main opposition party – is failing us and failing refugees. Because faced with relentless propaganda, it's not enough just to criticise the government's policies and tone. You need to meet it with relentless counter-propaganda.

Here are three things – all untrue – we are repeatedly told by the Tories: that people who apply for asylum are illegal migrants; that they should apply in the first safe country they come to; and that most of those in small boats are not genuine refugees.

All are now accepted as fact by many people – by no means all racist loons. They're accepted because the Tories are ruthless in their propaganda and unchallenged by much of the media. But also because Labour, cowed by the deliberately provoked anger, aren't contesting them.

Nobody doubts that, in power, Labour would implement more humane policies and stop flirting with breaking international law. That day cannot come too soon. But how will they go about reversing all these established beliefs if they choose to stay quiet now?

It's not that what Labour ARE saying, about a serious and complex issue, is wrong. Cooper regularly destroys Braverman. Some MPs don't hold back. Labour is right to talk about faster processing of applications, better coordination with the French and tackling criminal gangs.

But it's not enough.

It’s interesting to read the transcript of yesterday’s debate, or of the debate on 13 December when Sunak set out a whole set of measures.

Both follow the same pattern. Both carry the relentless drumbeat of Government propaganda, lies and smears. Both feature responses from the Labour front bench which, for all the entirely sensible points they do make on the policy questions, fail to counter the propaganda.

Both leave it to the SNP and Green Party to point out there is no such thing as an illegal asylum application; to highlight the UNHCR statements condemning the Government; to point out that leaving the ECHR would catastrophic. To say things that you'd expect Labour to say.

(A point not lost, by the way, by many in Scotland who wonder what sort of country they want to live in).

I understand why. There is an election coming. Labour believe, rightly, that none of us can afford for them to lose it. They're looking at those seats they need to win back; hearing those Tory attack lines; talking to those focus groups.

They’re honest about it. Wes Streeting recently told the News Agents :

“after 12 years of opposition we’ve recognised finally that if elections were simply won by making moral arguments and showing our hearts in the right place, Labour would have been in government since 1945…

…that’s not the anxiety voters have about Labour. It’s not about whether our heart’s in the right place, it’s about whether our head’s in the right place, too. So can we trust you with the money? Can we trust you on law and order? Can we trust you with national security?”

You can half see the argument. But it's misguided, and it's chilling in its implications.

It suggests that you can't combine harder-edged messages about processing and returns, criminal gangs and better coordination with principled messages about our moral obligations and the value refugees bring to our society.

It implies that the public shouldn't be inconvenienced with facts, as it might make them angry. It is followership not leadership.

It’s at times like these more than any other that the public need to hear from Labour about morality.

We need Labour to tell us why we have a responsibility to help refugees and why it matters that we abide by international law. We need them to counter the propaganda and show moral leadership. We need them, armed with facts, to tap into the compassion that most of us have.

My intention isn’t to attack Labour, but to challenge them. I understand the electoral dilemma, and the high stakes for all of us. But they shouldn’t pretend to themselves that their tactical silence doesn’t come at enormous potential cost.

What we are witnessing today is evil. And you don't need to be a historian to know that evil, left unchallenged, might lead you to some very dark places.

If you share my sentiments, please read and share this article, which I wrote in December. It’s very long. But then there’s a very deep well of propaganda to fight.