An English Defence League protest against Ukip in Gateshead, 23 April 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Guardian's claim that racism is "on the rise in Britain" is a little bit misleading

The longer-term average is slightly more hopeful than the initial statistics may appear.

Staffers over at the Guardian could be forgiven for seeing Ukip's election gains as evidence that Britain is indeed in the middle of a transformation into the rainy fascism island is has always threatened to become - yet the stats behind its pearl-clutching front cover splash today are a bit odd. Based on the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey from think-tank NatCen, the paper leads with this:

The proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium, raising concerns that growing hostility to immigrants and widespread Islamophobia are setting community relations back 20 years. 

New data from NatCen’s authoritative British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, obtained by the Guardian, shows that after years of increasing tolerance, the percentage of people who describe themselves as prejudiced against those of other races has risen overall since 2001."

NatCen has been running its survey since 1983 (although only annually since 1998), giving us a wealth of information about the British public and its attitudes towards other races, nationalities and sexualities. The nationwide trend in people self-declaring prejudice comes from this graph:

This a chart specifically of self-reported prejudice, with people being asked the following question: "How would you describe yourself … as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all?" Answers of either "very" or "little" are grouped together to give the value used in the above graph. The sample size was 2,149 people, which, given that the most recent ONS estimate for the population of the UK is 63,705,000 for mid-2012, means that we know this survey has a margin of error of (roughly) +/-2 per cent. That's relatively standard for a national poll.

The Guardian argues that, after a slow but steady fall over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the story of the last decade (or at least, post-9/11) was an equally-paced reversal, with one exception: the massive drop from 34 per cent to 24 per cent in 2012, which is attributed to the feel-good factor of the Olympics. The rise back to 30 per cent is a reversion to the overall trend.

But the thing is, that graph above is one the Guardian did itself. The graph that's in the actual report looks like this:

(Thanks to @danbarker for tweeting this).

The purple line is the same as the red line in the Guardian's graph - and the light blue line is the five-year average of annual results. An average like this is important for a survey like this, as we're most interested in the long-term trend and less interested in occassional strange results that might give a misleading impression (like, for example, the Olympics, or 9/11).

It's immediately obvious that the Guardian is right to say that the trend over the 1980s and 1990s was downwards, and over the 2000s upwards - but it should also be clear that this graph is a lot less alarming than the one without the averages. Not only did self-identifying prejudice peak at a lower level than it started in the 1980s, it looks like it's started going down again since 2009 or 2010. It makes the headline claim - that "racism is on the rise in Britain" - misleading, going by the BSA survey.

The survey is still interesting and useful, though, because it includes breakdowns of regional and demographic attitudes between 2014 and 2001. London has scored lower for levels of prejudice, while there is a clear trend where increased distance from the capital correlates with larger increases in prejudice score (Scotland and Wales having had double-digit increases). Men are more prejudiced than women; manual labourers and semi-skilled service workers have become more prejudiced since 1991, while white collar professionals have become less so. There's much here that chimes with analysis of Ukip's rise as being driven by the disenchantment of groups that feel they've been left behind by "metropolitan elites".

But perhaps the most interesting question should be: what does it mean to consider oneself "prejudiced"? We don't know if the numbers of people considering themselves "very" prejudiced has decreased while "a little" prejudiced has increased the same amount. It's also worth asking if the meaning of the word prejudice, and the word racism, has changed over the last 30 years. Racism is much more complicated, and manifests in many, many institutional ways, that aren't reflected in the BSA survey.

I'm a mole, innit.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage