OPINION: Tories missed a PR opportunity in Burnley

As PR stunts go, Michael Howard's visit to Burnley was deemed to be a big success, although I do confess to finding the politics behind it unsavoury.No one in their right mind could argue with what the Tory leader said about the odious BNP, and coming from him it does sound convincing. As a descendent of Jewish immigrants, Howard knows all about racism. Some have even suggested that Ann Widdecombe's 'something of the night' attack on Howard had undertones of unconscious anti-Semitism. The truth is that the Conservative Party briefing prior to the Burnley speech was not so much about the BNP but immigration and asylum. The politicians may have dropped the more racist 'bogus' tag to those fleeing tyranny in their own countries, but that has not stopped the gutter press from stirring the pot. Inevitably the Tories want to cash in on the fears that have been whipped up in people's minds. But at least Howard's attack on the BNP was genuine and believable; less believable is that anyone in Burnley is threatened by asylum seekers, especially as there are hardly any around in that northern town. For the Tories, immigration, immigration, immigration seems like a pretty good election PR strategy, yet they would never admit it. The Burnley speech was of course timed to coincide with the expanding Europe and the genuinely bogus idea that we are about to be swamped by Eastern European gypsies. The sad fact is that Labour just panders to the racists. David Blunkett may have said that he won a battle against Downing Street for a slightly more liberal approach but all that tells you is just how far to the right thinking is at Number 10. This is the Tories' problem. Labour is as right wing as they are on race and they are left with little to argue about. That of course doesn't stop the Tory spokesmen talking about foreigners on 'benefit holidays' even though Labour is ensuring that benefits are restricted. Wouldn't it be wonderful though if Howard used his position as someone with foreign ancestors to champion their cause? There are plenty of very good arguments he could use. America, the world's richest economy, is after all a nation built on immigration. Here in Britain the facts are that the growing economy needs immigrant labour. Can you imagine what would happen to London without immigration? The capital would be brought to its knees within days. I can't help thinking that the Tories have missed a trick here. Playing 'the race card' may seem like a good PR tactic, especially when some of the tabloids are in full cry, but what better opportunity will the Conservative Party ever get to ditch its nasty-party image?

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