Thursday 10 March 2011

A response to the Searchlight ‘Fear and Hope’ report

Celebrate and defend out multicultural society

By Sabby Dhalu, joint secretary, Unite Against Fascism

A report, ‘Fear and Hope’, on attitudes in Britain to race and immigration, was launched by the Searchlight Educational Trust in early March. The report interprets the results of a survey conducted by Populus for the educational charity. However, while the results of the survey are very interesting, and deserve close study, the conclusions drawn by the report are contentious to say the least.

The headline from the report, picked up widely in the media, is the contention that the survey results suggest that 48 per cent of those surveyed would support an extreme right-wing party if it were clearly ‘non-violent’. This conclusion is based on the percentage of respondents who would ‘definitely support’ or ‘consider supporting’ a political party that ‘defends the English’, wants an English Parliament, would control immigration and challenge Islamic extremism as long as they were ‘non-violent’.

The first and obvious point to make is that this is hardly the definition of a far right party – all major parties entered the last election on a platform of controlling immigration and challenging Islamic extremism, and the issue of defending the English and wanting an English Parliament does not describe modern-day fascism.

Moreover, even if the British National Party (BNP) puts off some voters because of its known neo-fascist background, the electoral performance of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), shows that even a ‘mainstream’ hard right party cannot pick up 48 per cent of the vote. Even its remarkable showing at the Barnsley by-election this week only put it on 12 per cent – in a seat which had previously recorded above trend votes for the far right. It would be nonsensical to suggest that UKIP could generally storm ahead of the Tories on the basis of support for an English parliament. The disaster for the Tories and the Lib Dems in the Barnsley by-election is not due to the attraction of racist parties but the impact of the economic situation in squeezing living standards, falling real wages and unemployment.

Evidence

The evidence from a much wider ‘survey’ – the last General Election – is that when the population had the option of a mainstream, hard right party, it didn’t vote for it. So the survey results on this issue clearly call for a much more detailed examination than that offered by the report.

As countless other surveys over decades have shown, the issues that appear to motivate voters when raised in isolation, sink down their priorities when faced with all the issues confronting them and the real choices in a General Election. Fundamental issues of jobs, living standards, welfare provision and other bread and butter issues are far more important to voters than the defence of Englishness or the fierceness of promised immigration controls.

Overall, the report interprets the survey results as indicating a crisis of ‘English identity’, which it insists has to be addressed if this is not to attach itself to extreme right-wing solutions. However, the report’s conclusions as to how to respond to this alleged crisis suggest a series of concessions to the anti-multicultural, anti-Islam, anti-immigration agenda of the right.

Indeed, Searchlight’s own response is to shift their agenda from a focus on campaigning against fascism and neo-Nazism and to set up a new campaign – A Plague on Both Your Houses – that will equally prioritise Islamic ‘extremism’. Searchlight’s case for this appears to be that it is a failure to address ‘Islamic extremism’ which is driving those seeking an ‘English identity’ into the arms of the far right. This, the report claims, is the lesson of the survey results. However this is only possible through a skewed interpretation and less than forensic examination of its results.

Leading questions

First, the report makes no acknowledgement of the fact that leading questions always introduce a bias in the results. It is an ABC of polling on attitudes that the opinions expressed are highly dependent on the way and the context in which the question is asked. In other words, if you ask people if something is a problem they will generally agree.

When added to the constant media scare campaigns against Muslims and Islam – Sharia law, Halal meat, the Burqa debate and many others being just the most recent – it is not so surprising that “52% white Britons agree with the proposition that ‘Muslims create problems in the UK’”. Certainly groups like the English Defence League try to whip up an unfounded fear that Islam is threatening the ‘British way of life’. And the recent revelations that the Daily Star deliberately made up anti-Muslim stories to whip up these fears – like non-existent bans on Christmas, piggy-banks and the like – demonstrate just how extensive this is.

Secondly, some of the results produced by the survey present a more positive picture than the report would have us to believe. For example, the survey reveals that 63% of white Britons agree with the proposition that ‘On the whole, immigration into Britain has been a bad thing for the country’. This is evidently a strongly ‘anti-immigration’ result. But this is not contrasted with the result on different but related questions. So, asked what is their preferred policy on immigration 58%, 62% and 69% of Asian, white and black people respectively, think skilled and unskilled immigrants ‘who will help the economy’ should be allowed into the country, against 39%, 34% and 21% respectively who thought all immigration should be stopped.

Also the when asked whether “there are some things that people should not be allowed to say about race and if necessary they should be prosecuted if they do”, over 55% of all social class groupings (including 62% of C2s) agreed with the proposition. Whereas in response to “people should be allowed to say what they believe about race, however critical or offensive it might be”, less than 45% of respondents agreed.

Flimsy

Rather than thorough questioning analysis of the survey results, the report adopts wholesale the flimsily argued case that Britain is now divided into a series of ‘tribes’, with descriptions like ‘latent hostiles’, ‘identity ambivalents’ and ‘confident multiculturals’, which, it is claimed, define our broad attitudes to our identity and issues of race and immigration. The report argues that it is appealing to the concerns of these ‘tribes’ that should be the focus. And therefore the major political parties – and Searchlight itself – should respond by prioritizing a campaign that equally focuses on Muslim extremism as well as the far right.

Apart from the fact that this approach, if adopted generally, would simply feed into and deepen anti-Muslim prejudice, it will not reap electoral gain – as the report appears to suggest to both Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

There is much previous work – which this report does not reference – which demonstrates that immigration, race and related issues often poll very high in attitudinal surveys but this does not translate into the way votes are cast in elections. When it comes to the ballot box itself, these issues tends to drop well down most people’s priorities in choosing a particular party – except in some local situations where the election has been preceded by a particularly race-driven issue.

Nonetheless, the Searchlight report both argues that this raises a real spectre of mass support for the extreme right, and that the major political parties should adjust to these concerns.

Ed Miliband is warned that his policy of appealing to the ‘progressive majority’ and ‘squeezed middle’ has failed to address the issues of English identity politics. Whereas the approach embodied in Cameron’s Munich speech attacking multiculturalism is praised for addressing ‘…concerns over immigration and a changing world, as well as their belief that newcomers should accept the British way of life’.

Reject this approach

But the truth is there are very few votes in playing the race card – at least for Labour – and the evidence shows that strong assertion of the benefits of diversity, multiculturalism and the contribution of immigrant communities can impact positively on perceptions of these issues.

Contrary to Searchlight’s urgings, Ed Miliband should firmly reject this approach. There are no votes for Labour in shifting to the right on race and immigration. For example, research conducted by Greenberg into the 2010 election, showed that Labour did not lose the election because it was ‘too soft’ on immigration. The Greenberg research revealed that there were only 8% of voters who had seriously considered voting Labour but then didn’t. But this group was the least hostile of all groups to immigration, while also being the most hostile to cuts and in favour of tax increases. Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, overwhelmingly on the failure to deliver improvement in living standards and in reaction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea that Labour can recover from this electorally by attacking the interests of Muslims, immigrants and other components of its core support is a dangerous fiction.

The same research showed that the Lib Dems outpolled Labour only on one issue – their policy of an amnesty for long-term resident illegal immigrants. Tory voters on the other hand were the most hostile to immigration. As austerity undermines the Tories electoral support, we can expect more appeals to the Tory backwoods on immigration and race. It was no coincidence that Cameron’s speech in Munich threatening the funding for even moderate Muslim groups and attacking multiculturalism came at the point that polls put the Tories behind Labour for the first time since the General Election.

But these facts do not prevent the Fear and Hope report using their survey results as the political justification for launching a new campaign that equally prioritises opposition to far-right racist extremism and ‘Islamic extremism’, under the slogan ‘A plague on both their houses’.

Concern

It is of great concern that an organisation that presents itself as a key campaign against racism and the extreme right should go down this road, as it is likely to only strengthen the prejudice and unfounded fears about Muslim extremism that their own survey revealed.

Firstly, there is strong evidence to suggest that the best way to drive back racism is to positively campaign to highlight the benefits of diversity. Where the BNP has made above-trend progress has often been linked to local sensationalist racist campaigns, usually conducted by the local media with scant regard for the facts. This was the case in Keighley where the BNP progressed after a media furore about alleged ‘Asian grooming’, in Oldham following a similar campaign against ‘anti-white racist attacks’, or Barking where the local media legitimised the myth that African migrants were being given priority for public housing.

On the other hand, where local authorities and the media have promoted the benefits of diversity, community integration is stronger, and support for multicultural life deeper. For example, in Leicester – Labour’s only gain in the 2007 local elections – the council went on to run its successful ‘One Leicester’ campaign. When the EDL tried to hold an event there it met the strongest cross-community response from any city where it has tried to go. Or in London under Ken Livingstone where, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, the 2006 Annual London survey conducted by Ipsos Mori found that London’s cultural diversity was viewed positively by 85 percent of people in the capital and 71 percent believed there were good relations between different racial, ethnic and religious communities.

Exaggerated

Secondly, linking opposition to the far right to a campaign against ‘Islamic extremism’ is more likely to whip up exaggerated concerns that feed into the far right, rather than appease those who see this as a vital issue. The slogan ‘A plague on both your houses’ clearly implies that the problems are similar in approach and scale. But this is ridiculous. The BNP won around 5 per cent of the vote in the last General Election, and got much higher votes in some specific areas. No ‘Muslim’ parties – ‘extremist’ or otherwise – stood for election, for the very simple reason that they would get statistically zero support, including from the Muslim community. Moreover, given that the entire Muslim population (around 2.5 million in Britain) is less than 5 per cent of the electorate, every single Muslim of voting age would have to support extremist Islam for it to approach the degree of support for the BNP!

In fact, of course, polling on attitudes has repeatedly shown that Britain’s Muslims are more loyal, more law-abiding and feel more patriotic as a group that the white population and not at all ‘extremist’, however ‘extremist’ is defined.

In this context, it is of particular concern that it entirely unclear how Searchlight does defines the ‘Muslim extremists’ that it proposes to campaign against. One of the many features of the Islamophobia that is sweeping through this country is that many mainstream Muslim organisations have found themselves labelled as ‘extremist’, and feel that the suggestion is that Islam is by its nature extremist.

Vilified

Muslims seeking to ensure that their communities are represented fully in the political process have frequently faced accusations of ‘extremism’ – as for example was claimed against Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets. Mosques, which in fact play a key role in integrating young people from their communities and combating the sense of exclusion that in some cases has led individuals to link up with groups proposing violence, have found themselves vilified as whipping up extremism. The Muslim Council of Britain which is the largest umbrella body of the Muslim community in Britain and is extremely ‘moderate’ and non-party political, has found itself labeled as ‘extremist’ because someone associated with it expressed a view that armed resistance to the occupying troops in Iraq was justified.

Quite apart from making a whole organisation responsible for the views of an individual not speaking on their behalf, this raises the issue of what constitutes ‘extremism’. Is this view on the Iraqi opposition ‘extremist’ or a legitimate although minority point of view? How will Searchlight define Muslim ‘extremism’? How does it propose to draw the line between the protection of minority points of view and the rule of the majority, which is the essence of the liberal consensus?
Cameron’s ‘muscular liberalism’ of his Munich speech in February clearly proposes drawing the line against all those who do not subscribe to some ill-defined ‘British values’ – in other words, breaking from the essence of liberalism itself, the core of which is the right to hold and express minority views, cultures and values.

As Cameron put it in his speech: ‘Islam is a religion, observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology, supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist world-view including real hostility towards western democracy and liberal values.’ It is this whole spectrum Cameron proposes to target.

Socialists and communists are not unfamiliar with this terminology. They have frequently been accused of ‘extremism’ on exactly the same basis. Equally the same could be argued for rather a large number of those on the right-wing of the Tory party. Or indeed within the ranks of fundamentalist Christian currents.

Different?

Is Searchlight’s proposed campaign against ‘Islamic extremism any different from Cameron’s? ‘Muslim extremism’ in the sense of those who advocate terrorist attacks on Western populations as a political response to the perceived culpability of the West for the oppression of Muslims globally is a minuscule current in Britain, composed of handfuls of people. The elevation of this to a perceived level of threat coming from entire Muslim communities, evidently creates a sense of isolation, siege and exclusion in the Muslim communities. This perversely can feed extremism.

The report on this survey does not delve into the real reasons for the misplaced concerns and misconceptions on Islam or immigration in Britain today. Many previous surveys have uncovered more information than this one – for example, the huge overestimate of the level of immigration or of the number of Muslims in the country by most respondents – which both explain the level of concern and indicate the misconceptions that need to be addressed.

For example, the idea that Britain attracts a uniquely high level of immigration is one that should be vocally rebutted. In fact, Britain’s foreign-born population at less than 5 million (or around 9.7 per cent of the whole population) puts Britain 15th out of 27 economies surveyed by the OECD (2005 figures). This compares to 33.4 per cent in Luxembourg or 23.8% in Australia and Switzerland and 33.4% in Luxembourg.

Much of the concern about immigration stems from the belief that it creates unemployment. In fact, in 2009 for example, those born overseas accounted for just under 4 million of those in employment in Britain, while British citizens working overseas are currently just under 5 million. The free movement of labour works both ways, and to the benefit of British workers.

Above all, immigration brings a significant benefit to the British economy, estimated at £2.5bn net benefit to the public finances in 2000, and will be substantially higher by now due to increases in the total number of immigrants and the proportion that are of working age. In 2006 the government estimated that immigration’s net contribution to GDP was to add £6bn in annual growth. This creates more jobs, it does not take them away. Similarly government research has found that a 1% increase in the ratio of immigrants leads to an increase of up to 0.4 per cent in average earnings.

Misconceptions

The assault on multiculturalism launched by Cameron, and praised by this report for addressing real concerns, in fact feeds these misconceptions and undermines the understanding of the reality of England and Britain today. There is a real danger of rising racism in Britain today, but not because of a crisis of English identity or a failure to confront ‘Islamic extremism’.

The real danger comes from attempts by mainstream politicians to deflect public anger about the impact of the economic crisis, falling living standards and cuts in services, on to innocent scapegoats – immigrants, Muslims, multiculturalism.

Many sections of the population most definitely do feel under attack. This is not because they are ‘English’ or suffering a national identity crisis, but because their living standards really are suffering as a result of austerity, inflation and cuts. It is all too easy to direct people towards a soft target on the basis of racism and an alleged discrimination against the English, when economic and political alternatives seem unavailable.

The launch of this report now, and the participation of key figures on the right of the Labour Party, clearly indicates that one aim is to apply pressure to the Labour Party to adopt this approach.

Much of the discussion around why Labour lost the last election has drifted on to this ground. But this is simply avoiding a more fundamental discussion on how the impact of the previous Labour government’s economic policies and military interventions undermined its support. It is to be hoped that the present Labour leadership rejects this pressure and continues to make the case for diversity and multiculturalism.

Sad shift

It is very sad that Searchlight should choose this moment to shift their focus from fighting the fascists to ‘Islamic extremism’. At a time when austerity and cuts are creating fertile ground for scapegoating and racism, providing a breeding ground for the extreme right, the real priority should be to explain the enormous economic and social contribution that generations of immigrants have made to this country, and defending Muslim communities from those who would blame them for their feelings of malaise

Rather than getting lost in their own terminology of ‘latent hostiles’, ‘identity ambivalents’ and ‘active hostiles’, Searchlight should work with all those seeking to break down racist myths, assert the benefits of diversity and expose the violent nature of the extreme right.


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