How Labour’s researchers passed up a chance to expose Tory racism

A Liberal Democrat election poster that reads 'We propose putting patients first; we oppose putting targets first' above a Tory poster that reads 'Imagine 5 more years of it' above a newspaper clipping with the headline 'Council tax bills skyrocket'Yesterday Theo Bertram, a former advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, posted a tweet thread (starts here, ends here) on his work as part of Labour’s research team during the 2005 general election (the one that featured Tory slogans such as “how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?” and “it’s not racist to support limits on immigration” with the strap line “are you thinking what we’re thinking?”. Labour won a Parliamentary majority albeit with a share of the vote of just 35.2% — far less than some parties have lost elections with (for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party gained 40% of the vote in this past election but still lost). The Tories under Michael Howard appealed to their Daily Mail-reading base, as they had in 2001 but with even more nastiness, and still lost, their anti-immigration stance being exposed when it was revealed that Michael Howard’s dad was an illegal immigrant from Romania, saved from deportation (and likely later death in the Nazi concentration camps) by the intervention of a Labour MP.

Theo Bertram’s team used to send its members into functions run by Tories and Tory-associated pressure and fringe groups to record politicians saying something potentially incriminating; they recorded Liam Fox boasting to a Tory think-tank about Tory plans to cut public services and another shadow cabinet member saying something “so explosive it caused Michael Howard to fire [them] in the middle of the election campaign”. But one tape they decided to sit on: a Tory making racist remarks which, they say, would have exposed their pretence that their anti-immigration stance was “not racist” as a sham. They called the idea of releasing that tape “the nuclear option”, and they never did because the remarks were unpresentative of “most Tories and their leadership” and would have made the whole campaign about “one thing: race”. The tape, he said, would almost certainly be gone now, and he does not name the individual, so we do no know whether they are still alive or dead, or male or female, or what.

To start with, pardon me for not being especially convinced that the racist remarks were not typical of the Tory party. If someone like this was in a senior enough position that if his remarks would have changed the course of the election if exposed, it’s likely that at least some of his colleagues knew of and didn’t especially disapprove, especially if they were made to a meeting of a think-tank. The Tories have generally been against open racism and displays of it (e.g. that of Enoch Powell) end careers, but pandering to those who resent seeing “too many” brown faces in their home town and can couch their racism in less vulgar terms than the N-word has never been beneath them. That every kind of bigotry that doesn’t involve “nasty words” is a stock in trade of most Tory mid- and low-market newspapers is no secret, and the internal racism at others (the policy of not carrying positive human interest stories about non-white people, or as they say, those “of the dusky hue”, for example) is also nowadays known about. Why must we automatically assume that when the mask slips, it must not be representative?

Labour’s fortunes were, at the time, on the wane. They were bitterly unpopular among many left-leaning and ethnic minority voters because of the Iraq war and policies hostile to civil liberties. Some people allowed themselves to imagine that “decent Tories” would be preferable to Labour on these grounds and even the Liberal Democrats proved themselves to be no friend of poor or disabled people, or public services, when in coalition with the Tories. If the team did not want to just release the tape on its own, it could have been passed to people who could have investigated the matter further and come up with a more complete picture. To just sit on it was to run the risk of a wafer-thin majority turning into a loss; to release it could have turned it into a respectable majority and perhaps also influenced the 2010 result in Labour’s favour as well. It would, at the very least, have made sure the person involved never held high office ever again.

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