Britain is winning the fight against racism. Photo: Getty
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Britain is becoming less racist

Demographic change is defeating racism, and racial prejudice is particularly rare among university graduates.

“If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” So said a slogan used by the Conservative party candidate Peter Griffiths 50 years ago.

And it worked, too. In the 1964 general election, there was a three per cent swing to Labour. In Smethwick in the West Midlands – the seat which Griffiths contested – there was a seven per cent swing recorded in favour of the Conservatives.

Such an appeal to racism could only have worked if the electorate had racist tendencies. At the time, Smethwick had the highest concentration of recent immigrants of any county borough in England. Most people did not like it. As Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the 1960s White Heat notes, in Smethwick “Most pubs excluded black drinkers from their lounge bars, and some barbers even refused to cut their hair.”

Britain has come a long way since. But there are concerns that economic uncertainty is leading to a hardening of racial attitudes.

That was the backdrop for this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey. It found a small upturn in self-reported racial prejudice, from 26 per cent in 2012 to 30 per cent in 2013. The results were published a week after Ukip’s victory in the European elections; predictably, the two were linked together as evidence of a rise in British racism.

It is not a narrative that stands up to scrutiny: 38 per cent of respondents to the BSA Survey in 2011 reported to feeling racial prejudice so the figure in both the last two years has shown a significant drop. An analysis of attitudes to racial intermarriage by Rob Ford, published this week, also reveals a far more positive picture. While almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. Opposition to marriage between white people and Muslims has fallen from 66 per cent to 28 per cent among the different age groups.

It suggests a country that has become far less racist. And it is a trend that demographics may be accelerating. Only 25 per cent of those born after 1980 admit to harbouring racial prejudice, a lower percentage than all older generations.

Racial prejudice is particularly rare among the better educated. Just 19 per cent of graduates admitted to racial prejudice, compared with 38 per cent of those without qualifications; one legacy of the fabled target of sending 50 per cent of school leavers to university is to make racism less pronounced – or, at the very least, less acceptable. Unsurprisingly, graduates are also significantly more likely to hold favourable attitudes to immigration than everyone else.

None of this is to deny that fundamental racial inequalities remain in Britain today. Ethnic minorities make up 12.9 per cent of the UK population but just 4.2 per cent of MPs. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to vote than white Britons. But even in these areas, progress is being made: groups like Operation Black Vote and TickIT are working to increase voter registration. There have never been more ethnic minority MPs.

At a time when America’s racial problems are flaring up once more, Britain’s progress, though not complete, should be a cause for celebration. After all, 2014 saw the BNP lose their representation in the European Parliament.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.