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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.