Former prime minister Tony Blair has said Britain needs border controls but not “nasty” prejudice surrounding immigration, which has become one of the key issues in the run-up to the general elections.
Along with the economy, jobs and the NHS, immigration and capping migrant numbers has been seized upon by party leaders as campaigning gathers pace.
Blair, who was prime minister when Britain opened its doors to Eastern European countries, cautioned that “playing the immigration card” could make the debate “ugly and nasty.”
“You talk to many Asian people – even if they are immigrants themselves – they want to have rules and order and a proper system. I’m totally in favour of that,” the former Labour leader said .
He spoke to exclusively to Eastern Eye while campaigning for party candidate Gareth Thomas in Harrow West in north London last Wednesday (8), where he met doctors and Labour supporters at the Alexandra Avenue polyclinic.
Blair said: “We need controls and rules for immigration but what we don’t need is prejudice. So whenever I see that creeping in, I don’t like it, because for me Britain today is a successful country precisely when it’s open-minded, when it’s tolerant and when people across the boundaries of culture and faith and ethnicity get equal opportunity. This is, to me, essential to the UK and to what makes us great as a country.
“This is an issue you’ve always got to deal with very sensibly.”
UKIP leader Farage said he wants to cut immigration into Britain by 90 per cent and the party is also calling for Britain to leave the EU, a move it claims would save the UK £10 billion annually.
Stressing that he didn’t agree with Farage’s stance on immigration, Blair said the best response was to “go out and tell them why they are wrong”.
“Any time you use it [immigration as a political tool], it gets an immediate reaction from the public but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it and especially today the way the world works.
“If you look at Britain and our history with India, that is a relationship of equality today of partnership, it’s a relationship in which people treat each other as equals in the spirit of friendship. You don’t need to inject into that the type of division that the politics of UKIP engenders.”
The Conservatives have pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if they are elected on May 7.
However, Blair believes this would lead to a period of chaos for the economy.
“What we’ve got to understand about EU immigration is the whole purpose of the European Union is to have the free movement of people between EU countries – by the way, I think there are something like two million British people that live and work abroad in Europe, so you’ve got to be careful of this because [if] you end up getting out of the European Union in order to stop that, you are almost going to cause huge problems for your own country,” he said.
Just weeks after a letter warning that a change of government would threaten jobs and deter investment – and co-signed by prominent British businessmen, among them Asian entrepreneurs, appeared in the Daily Telegraph – Blair appealed to Asian businessmen not to desert the party.
During his stint at Downing Street, Blair’s government was popular with business leaders.
However, under the current leadership, the Labour party has been accused of potentially stifling growth through proposed changes to employment laws.
“I hope they [former supporters] don’t [desert the party]. I think it’s important that they realise the next [Labour] government will be a business-friendly government, but there are inequalities within our society that we want to deal with.
“The politics that I represented in terms of encouraging Asian entrepreneurship and promoting it, I’m sure this will be the same with the next Labour government. I think he [Ed Miliband] is absolutely in favour of that,” he said.
Blair added that people should vote for the party because it would pursue policies for greater fairness and equality, and would take a “responsible and sensible” attitude to keeping communities together and without playing with the politics of immigration.
Late last year, Blair predicted that Labour would not win the election because it had lurched too far to the left.
However, when questioned on whether the party was veering away from his New Labour, centre-left vision, the former prime minister insisted that was not the case.
The period of post financial crisis presented a tougher set of decisions that all governments around the world had to take, he explained.
“So I’m out campaigning for a Labour government because I believe they will handle those tough decisions in a fairer manner,” Blair said.