Government told it must defend foreign workers
Politicians must start defending foreign workers to prevent extremist parties gaining sway during the recession, Britain's new European commissioner says today, in what will be seen as a veiled warning to the British government not to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Lady Ashton, who was until last autumn leader of the Lords under Gordon Brown, acknowledged in an interview with the Observer that there was a risk of significant advances in this spring's European elections for extremists in the present economic climate. She said mainstream politicians must be careful not to fan the flames: "In any kind of economic downturn, it is incumbent on us all to be putting across exactly the same message about the value and importance of having... diversity in communities; about the value and benefit of people from different countries coming and creating wealth.
"There are reasons we have to support that and not to get trapped into what the extremists would like, which would be to take their simplistic approach and fit it into a very complicated situation. So I hope that people will just reject as nonsense the idea that the solution lies in some kind of xenophobic attitude to people who live, work, study or travel in our country, because they bring the economy far more than they take out. The extremists have always relied on economic downturns ... as a way of recruiting people to what can be seen as a simple message, but actually is just hatred."
Her intervention comes amid warnings that the British National party could snatch a seat in the European parliament in June's elections, when Labour MEPs are privately predicting losses of up to three or four seats as voters respond angrily to job losses. The BNP took a council seat in Swanley, Kent, last week from Labour in a shock victory, suggesting it has begun to penetrate the southern English counties. It could profit in June both from a collapsing Labour vote in working-class areas hit by unemployment and the implosion of the hard-right Ukip, which took 16% of the vote at the last EU election.
Brown has been accused of fanning tensions by talking of "British jobs for British workers", a slogan promptly adopted by the BNP, despite the UK's obligation as an EU member to allow EU citizens free access to Britain to work.
The home secretary is expected to announce next week a reduction in permits for non-EU citizens to work in the UK. Brown's approach has caused private distaste in Brussels, but Ashton insisted it had been taken out of context and her former boss had been misunderstood. But in a warning to leaders tempted to pull up the drawbridge in a bid to protect jobs, she said Britain had traditionally benefited from bringing in workers to fill skill shortages, from Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s to Polish plumbers in the last decade.
Governing parties across Europe are braced for a backlash in June because of the economic crisis, and Labour MPs are concerned that in the UK the campaign for the local and European elections - being overseen by Harriet Harman, the deputy leader - needs a tougher strategy to combat attempts by the BNP to capitalise on the new nationalistic sentiment.
Yesterday the former cabinet minister Peter Hain warned that rising unemployment was a "heaven-made" scenario for extremists.