Personal attacks against Priti Patel might be cathartic, and easy, but they yet again play into the Home Office’s hands. Why do you think she is still in post?

First published in September 2021.

Something I have been thinking a lot about this week is just how “good”, for want of a better word, Home Office communications are.

I mean, they are hideous, but they are also effective in their intended outcome, which isn’t really to ‘communicate’ so much as to undermine opposition.

The activist lawyers line was a masterstroke because despite it being objectively wrong and misleading, there is no way to demonstrate that without them being able to reinforce the message to their target audience.

It also provides them with the perfect cover for their claims that the asylum system is “overwhelmed” despite actual numbers of asylum seekers being down on previous years. “Don’t look at us guv. Look at those activist lawyers holding up the process.”

Likewise the strategic use of “consultations” with NGOs, INGOs, legal authorities, etc. It doesn’t matter that all of them say that the Home Office cannot legally do what it suggests. They can still put out press releases saying that they “spoke to UNHCR before implementing plans”, etc.

For most of the public, that reads as though they have gained the support of the very organisations which are out there condemning their actions at every step. It is quite a striking way of taking out the opposition before it has even managed to start opposing plans.

Then you have the carefully leaked batshit crazy ideas, like wave machines in the channel, or carefully coordinated ‘trials of using jet skis to deter dinghies crossing the channel’. They know they can’t actually do these things, but they also know they can stoke outrage.

All of that makes it easier to push through equally abhorrent policies, such as penalising asylum seekers for their manner of entry despite it violating international law, because those policies sound ‘moderate’ in relation to some of the ones leaked.

The problem facing organisations that oppose government plans is that we risk getting sucked into them the minute we do so. They know what their objections are, they might be callous but they aren’t stupid, and they have planned for it.

They are treating it as a game, and it is one which, if we are all being honest with ourselves, they are winning. That’s why it is so important – and I do this myself, so I hold my hands up to that – to think before getting outraged.

Personal attacks against Patel might be cathartic, and easy, but they yet again play into the Home Office’s hands. Why do you think she is still in post? They can be brushed off and used to make advocates for human rights seem unreasonable at best, unhinged at worst.

No one ever considers themselves the “bad guys”. The Home Office definitely don’t. So, when attacks get personal, and often misogynistic and racist in the case of Patel, it just helps them reinforce the idea that they are the “righteous” ones.

The same is true when misinformation is used to attack them. There are plenty of genuine things to condemn and oppose, but when we light upon something which sounds juicy but is easily disprovable, they can say we are just making stuff up and discredit legitimate criticism.

We all need to be more strategic about this, because they definitely are. We are getting outmanoeuvred for the most part, although some groups are trying hard not to be, but often it is well-meaning social media activists who are hurting us the most.

Outrage is easy. You see a story and rant. We all do it. I definitely do. It is not helpful though. They have planned for it. We become part of their communication campaign. It is time to stop being played and start being more aware of our objections, or we will keep losing. 


Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.


[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 19 Sept 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Flickr/UK Government. - Priti Patel. | 15 September 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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