Poll reveals huge potential support for the far right. Why?

What <em>Searchlight</em>’s new survey tells us about race, class and immigration in Britain.

Could half of Britain's population vote for the far right? An alarming story in today's Observer suggests so:

A Populus poll found that 48 per cent of the population would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party committed to challenging Islamist extremism, and would support policies to make it statutory for all public buildings to fly the flag of St George or the Union flag.

The poll, which was commissioned by the anti-racist charity Searchlight Educational Trust, found that voters would be willing to support such a party if it distanced itself from fascist imagery and violence. The results won't be published in full until tomorrow, but here are a few initial thoughts, based on the Observer's story and Searchlight's executive summary:

Britain is no different from the rest of Europe. The past decade has seen a rise in popular anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment across the continent; if Britain has not seen a rise in support for far right parties comparable to France, Sweden or the Netherlands, it is not because Britons are exceptionally tolerant people. Rather, as the Searchlight report says, it is "simply because their views have not found a political articulation".

There is much to celebrate about what has been achieved in the past 30 years in terms of race relations: but this has been fought for and won largely by the communities at the sharp end of racism, not because of any exceptional aspect of the national character.

Today's prejudices are expressed in terms of culture, not race. Under Nick Griffin, the British National Party has made great efforts to adopt the language of identity politics; it has recently been outstripped in this by the English Defence League, which touts itself as a multiracial coalition of people opposed to Islamic extremism. English nationalism is on the rise, with 39 per cent of poll respondents identifying themselves as English, rather than British.

On the face of it, this can appear more inclusive, compared to the imperialist connotations of the Union Jack. But it's still nationalism, with all the hazards that entails, and the way the EDL has used it to rally large, indimidating demonstrations that target poor Asian communities in Luton, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford and elsewhere reinforces Gary Younge's claim that we are living in an age where old views have been grafted "on to new scapegoats". Racism by any other name?

– "Tough" talk from mainstream politicians doesn't help. We've seen over a decade of senior politicians, from Blunkett to Hodge to Brown to Cameron, making provocative statements about immigration, culture and national identity. This may draw praise from our country's right-wing press, but it has done nothing to halt the rise of popular prejudice. In fact, it's most likely fuelled it.

– Class still matters. Searchlight identifies "social and economic insecurity" as being a driver for anti-immigration sentiment. It'll be interesting to see how fully this is explored in the full report, but to me this seems to be a euphemism for class. Working-class communities around Britain were left out of the New Labour boom, and they're now the hardest hit by the coalition's cuts. Fears about job security, or housing, may well be expressed in terms of opposition to immigration (which includes a significant minority of black and Asian respondents to the poll), but this doesn't mean it's the cause.

Under Tony Blair, Labour exorcised the spectre of class from mainstream politics. This has inadvertently given racist and anti immigrant propaganda (whether from the BNP, or from more "respectable" sources) greater traction, because people no longer have a progressive framework through which to address their discontent.

– We can't rely solely on anti-racist campaigning. This is not to disparage the vital work done by both Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism, particularly in the run-up to last year's general election. It is crucial that racist and fascist politics remain firmly outside the mainstream, and that people be given the confidence to oppose them within their own communities. However, all this can do is create breathing space for the left to build a popular alternative to the causes of support for the far right.

Searchlight concludes from the poll that people are receptive to "messages of openness, acceptance and pluralism", but politics is also about conflict – about the assertion of one group's interests over another.

Support for the far right was on the rise well before the global financial crisis; in the aftermath, as a programme of cuts is being pushed through by a government that has placed itself unashamedly on the side of the wealthy, we need a political movement that can stand up for the whole of the working class more urgently than ever.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.