Tory migrant poster crosses the line

By Jonathan Bartley
February 17, 2010

Like a lot of people, I have been watching the party political Twitter war reach a new stage over the last 48 hours, most notably with the launch of the spoof poster site http://mylabourposter.typepad.com set up by Conservative Home.

The Tories have clearly been hurt by the efforts of http://mydavidcameron.com/ over the last few weeks, which let's be honest, have provided some great entertainment. The "scum-sucking pig" Tweet from the account of Labour's David Wright MP was certainly jumped on with venomous glee by some Tories within minutes of it emerging, during the battle around the hash tag #ivenevervotedtory.

I am all for a bit of rough a tumble and having a laugh (I have an article on the Guardian website tomorrow having a bit of fun with the Vatican and the BBC). Indeed, I even submitted a poster to MyDavidCameron.com, which clearly wasn't considered humorous enough to make the cut (#fail) Incidentally, while I was a member of the Tory party once, I have never been a member of the Labour party, so my own use of the #ivenevervotedtory was somewhat tongue in cheek.

The first offerings from http://mylabourposter.typepad.com however immediately put some backs up. John Prescott and Eric Pickles quickly became embroiled in heated Twitter exchange over one Tory poster which appeared to feature a benefit fraudster. Prescott asked Pickles "Do you think Tories designing posters laughing at the unemployed is acceptable?". Pickles pointed out that the poster featured an actor from Shameless and started grilling Prescott about unemployment figures. It ended when Prescott announced he was going to dinner.

The most interesting moment however, came about half way through the exchange, when Amol Rajan, assistant comment editor at The Independent intervened. "Huge number of party political bloggers arguing about nonsense on Twitter at moment" he tweeted "Tribal thinking aims at power not truth".

For the theologians out there this should resonate. The New Testament contains a number of warnings about "party spirit". St Paul warns against it alongside 'idolatry' in no uncertain terms. Academics such as Walter Wink and Ched Myers have highlighted how it is the enemy of truth, and suggest a dark spirituality lies behind it. There is certainly a point in the rough and tumble when a line is crossed and vulnerable people become pawns in the party political game.

This is particularly relevant, because Tim Mongomerie, who runs Conservative Home and was behind the new spoof poster site, has just been profiled in the Financial Times as a prominent Christian within the Tory party. I got to know him quite well in the mid '90s whilst he was driving forward the Conservative Christian Fellowship. And whilst disagreeing with his political opinions on many things, I have a respect for him as someone who has integrity, motivation and commitment to his cause.

However in this case he has crossed the line, in first allowing, and now defending, a poster featuring migrants at Calais to be displayed on his new website.

It's one thing to have a laugh at politicians, who have placed themselves on posters and in the limelight, and must expect some political banter. This however has confirmed for many that the 'Nasty Party' is still alive and well.

Not only is this using vulnerable people for amusement, but also to try and get some cheap political gain. Groups working with migrants and asylum seekers - including many churches and other people of faith - have been working hard to ensure a sensible and measured debate during the general election, and to stop such groups becoming party political footballs. (We are involved in one such group - Still Human).

The timing couldn't be worse too. Damian Green, almost simultaneously, was explaining Conservative immigration policy to a seminar organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin.

The spoof poster does nothing to help the debate along, or the cause of those who work with migrants. Instead it relegates vulnerable people into one homogenous group. It then treats them all as underserving, and 'self-evidently' in negative terms, perpetuating stereotypes which are unhelpful to all except those who want more heat and less light around the issue of migration.

I have tried to make this point to Tim directly. He has not responded to me. But I hope that he will consider what he is defending very carefully, not just in light of his politics, but also with regard to his faith which he has placed squarely in the public domain. The FT headline called him the Christian Tory rewriting party doctrine. But this Conservatism is not of the 'compassionate' variety he has said he wants to champion. We all make mistakes. I know he has enough integrity to stand up and admit when he has made one. He should do so now.

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