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5 November 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 1:01pm

“Wild West Britain”: Is the right’s focus on knife crime a fig leaf for racism?

“London BLOODBATH”, “Wild West Britain” and “No-go zones”: from the mainstream press to election leaflets to far-right memes, knife crime has been weaponised.

By Anoosh Chakelian

If you live in or around a big city in Britain, you’ve probably seen one yourself. A leaflet – from the Conservatives or Ukip or some other right-wing party or candidate warning you about crime in your area – slipped innocently through your door. It looks like it has your best interests at heart, and violent crime has been going up lately. Perhaps you’ll listen to what this party has to say…

We’ve seen it in a local Conservative leaflet in Havering, an east London borough bordering Essex, in March ahead of the local elections this year. It declared: “Mayor Khan and Corbyn’s men are desperate to grab power in our Town Hall, so get ready for… A London crimewave with even less police.”

It also warned residents that this part of suburbia risked becoming like an “inner-city area”, and a Labour win would result in, “Havering resembling boroughs like Hackney, Newham, Camden and Barking, rather than traditional parts of Essex” – and “our cherished union jack flag being taken down”.

CCHQ disowned the leaflet, blaming the Romford Conservative association and saying it had been “withdrawn”.

Tories spoke out against it, including the peer and pollster Andrew Cooper, who accused the leaflet of “racist signalling”, commenting: “That is a truly hateful Tory leaflet – a case study in racist signalling. I couldn’t vote for anyone who put their name to that & CCHQ should condemn it.”

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Then there was Ukip Lewisham East candidate David Kurten’s leaflet released in May for a by-election in the south London constituency. It had the words “STOP THE KARNAGE” written in block capitals on an image of a knife.

This reflected a leaflet distributed by the Conservatives in 2010 ahead of the general election in Edmonton, a constituency on the northern edge of London, which had a picture of a bloodied knife on the front beneath the red, bold capital letters: “LABOUR’S CUTS”.

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Scaremongering, moral panic and gory imagery are also present in some parts of the press when covering knife crime. “London BLOODBATH”, the Express screamed in a June headline.

And then there’s all the talk of “no-go zones” in London by right-wing newspaper columnists, MPs, Donald Trump, and swathes of alt-right trolls online. Remember when extremist commentator Katie Hopkins called “Londonistan” a “war zone” and said her family isn’t “keen on me going to London now” and claimed “my friends don’t go there”?

Of course, violent crime in the UK has been increasing, so it’s natural for the press to cover it – and for political parties (either in opposition to the government or to the London mayor) to point it out.

But myths and memes about knife crime – for example, the false idea that more people are murdered in London than New York – quickly circulate on social media and in the mainstream press, and make their way onto election leaflets.

Regular coverage of knife crime on right-wing sites like Westmonster – which has been covering Britain’s recent violent crime incidents with the tagline “Lawless London” and “Lawless” for attacks outside London – and Breitbart UK hype it up by using alarmist language, and tell these stories to draw certain conclusions (for example, Westmonster has called for “more police on the streets, tougher sentences and stop and search backed by the government”).

This obsession with painting London as dangerous with no-go areas is tied to its diversity. The capital is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the world, and is a shining example of the success of multiculturalism.

Most coverage from the mainstream and right ignores facts that run contrary to the false narrative that people from ethnic minority groups are responsible for danger on our streets.

For example, the zeal to accuse politicians of bowing to perceived political correctness on stop and search powers (take the Daily Mail’s front page in August declaring “BEAT GANG VIOLENCE WITH MORE STOP AND SEARCH”) overlooks the fact that Khan actually already announced a “significant increase” in police’s use of stop and search in January.

Let alone any widespread recognition that black people are at least eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, even though they are statistically less likely to be found with drugs.

And very rarely is it mentioned that there’s no evidence that the level of police stop and search powers has an effect on killings. A College of Policing study of Metropolitan Police boroughs looking at ten years of data from 2004-14 found that stop and search had no effect on the levels of violent crime. In fact, in New York, since police reduced their use of equivalent stop and frisk powers, the murder rate has fallen to a record low.

The right’s focus on gang-related crime in London also doesn’t reflect when Glasgow was western Europe’s “murder capital” in the mid-Noughties, with the spiral of knife crime and gangs involving majority white men. Today, the UK’s highest murder rate is in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in Scotland, where the main town of Paisley is 97 per cent white.

Historically, groups like the National Front would prioritise publicising crimes by people from non-white British backgrounds for propaganda purposes. Not unlike tweets like the below by Hopkins:

For decades, the right has tried to “piggyback” on mainstream news story to “turn them back to their messaging, to their themes”, according to director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right Matthew Feldman, an academic who has been studying different strands of the right for 20 years.

“Insofar as there might be knife crime that’s associated with gangs, for example, and those gangs might also have a higher than statistically representative proportion of BAME communities, it plays into the – I’m stereotyping hugely and I certainly don’t believe this – ‘blacks are criminals’, ‘this group doesn’t want to assimilate’, ‘this group is particularly dangerous’,” he says.

In the last few years, Feldman says he and fellow scholars of the far-right have noticed different strands of the far-right coming to together around Islamophobia and anti-multiculturalism – using them as “populist issues that can help get many of their concerns into the mainstream”.

For example, the Ukip leader Gerard Batten – who calls Islam’s founder Muhammad a “paedophile” and Islam a “death cult”spoke at a protest to free Tommy Robinson, a thug with criminal convictions for assault and football hooliganism who previously led the English Defence League. Batten also marched alongside the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance at an anti-Muslim rally in Sunderland.

This was a “major, I think very significant, coming together of two wings – of the party political and the street demonstration group”, according to Feldman. “The idea that white, and in particular white working-class culture or ethnicity is under threat is one of the things we do see starting to congeal this century in a way it hasn’t necessarily before.”

I wrote recently how far-right extremism is finding a home in mainstream British politics, and nowhere is this dogwhistle more audible than in the exploitation of knife crime. Just last week, the front page of the Express yelled “‘Wild West’ Britain Out Of Control” – its sensationalist tone about a knife crime story not uncommon on British newspaper front pages.

“The way in which these things are framed by the mainstream media has a huge influence on how they’re picked up” by the far-right, finds Feldman.

For example, when the perpetrator of a terrorist attack’s faith is emphasised if they’re a Muslim, it “plays right into their [the far-right’s] hands”.

Whereas if the reporting is done responsibly – focusing on whether “this person may have been a criminal in and out of jail, or had mental health challenges” – it can lead to a “diminution in hate crimes against, in this case, targeted minority communities”, Feldman’s research finds.

“The way in which [crime] is reported and addressed in the mainstream can either fan the flames or indeed help put them out… Broadly speaking, the far-right is always there to hoover up these stories and turn them to their own ends,” he says.