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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.