For someone who lectures undergraduates about extremist politics, recent weeks have given us much to discuss. A by-election in Barnsley confirmed both the decline of the BNP, and the ascent of UKIP which is recruiting far right votes.
Meanwhile, a new poll organised by Searchlight suggests “huge numbers of Britons” are waiting to support a respectable anti-immigrant party. Three-fifths of white Britons think immigration has been bad for Britain, and around half of all respondents think Muslims have created problems.
This, of course, is nothing new. One reason I became interested in extremism was a poll in the early 1990s which suggested one fifth of Britons might consider supporting a Le Pen-style party. And ever since the late 1960s - and long before mass immigration and the financial crisis - we have known that large numbers of Britons endorse anti-immigrant ideas and policies, like those that appear in far right manifestos.
These voters have long desired more restrictive immigration policies, expressed anxiety about the impact of immigrants on society, and dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties on this issue.
Labour bore the brunt of this criticism. Consider this: under the 1997-2010 Labour governments, not only did eight out of ten voters consistently reject the suggestion Labour had sensible policies on asylum and immigration, but around the same portion also rejected the notion that Labour was even being open and honest about the scale of immigration into Britain.
The Searchlight poll adds a sense of urgency to the debate about how the main parties might respond. Against the backdrop of his brother pointing toward some of the negative aspects of immigration, David Miliband calls for a more convincing response to the anxieties of these potential far right voters. These are traced to the “casualised economics of the rapidly shifting global age”, and there are warnings about the effects of an economics of austerity and fiscal consolidation.
We are told that a long period of low wages, casualisation of work, unemployment, higher prices, fiscal cuts and VAT and fuel duty increases “will refract into greater identity anxiety”.
Out of curiosity, I put (David) Miliband’s response in front of my forty or so undergraduates who spent the week reading an academic study on what drives public preferences on immigration policy. Their brief was to critically evaluate the extent to which this debate is anchored in the wider evidence base. Sure, it might not have been the most systematic or representative focus group, but it was interesting. And it tells us something about where this debate is going wrong.
As most students (rightly) noted, the discussion continues to gloss a growing body of evidence across Western democracies about what is driving anti-immigrant hostility, and support for the far right. As the political scientist Elisabeth Ivarsflaten notes in the study, which examines survey data across 18 states, the research clearly demonstrates that economic concerns are less important to citizens than concerns over threats to their identity, culture and ways of life.
Economic-based concerns certainly influence public support for more restrictive immigration policies, but this support is driven far more strongly by concerns over perceived threats to the unity of the national community. In fact, when looking at what shapes preferences on immigration policy, Ivarsflaten finds that concerns about cultural unity, ie unity of language, religion and traditions, are nine times more important than concerns over crime, and five times more important than concerns over the national economy.
The point is that citizens feel a strong emotional attachment to the national community, and a sense that its unity is under threat lies at the root of their hostility to immigrants and minority groups, and by extension support for the far right. Miliband acknowledges the interplay between these economic and identity factors, but still the bulk of interest remains fixed on the former. The dominant narrative puts heavy emphasis on making the economic case, and is reflected in the argument that immigrants and minority groups make valuable contributions to the economy.
The evidence, however, tells us clearly that this narrative is unlikely to satisfy the concerns of citizens who are deeply concerned about these issues, and who Labour needs to satisfy. It downplays and often ignores a complex but extremely powerful driver of anti-immigrant hostility. As one of my students summarized:
“It’s not only the economy, stupid.”
So what do to? For Ivarsflaten, the inevitability of rising ethno-cultural diversity means that the main challenge for the main parties is to increase the appreciation of cultural diversity among Britons. This means countering a perception not only that immigrants, asylum-seekers and increasingly Muslims, threaten economic goods like jobs or social housing, but also the language, traditions and religion of the majority population.
Miliband is right to emphasise the importance of building up the resilience of local communities, and forging links across different groups who share common grievances and aspirations.
Not everything under community cohesion worked, but evidence-based initiatives that focused on strengthening these links were backed up by decades of research in social psychology which shows they work. Unfortunately, cuts to cohesion budgets will inevitably starve some of these programmes of funds.
More broadly, however, and as I outline in my new book – New British Fascism: Rise of the BNP, the blunt reality is that we are living in an era of high levels of public concern over immigration, anxiety over the role of Islam in British society and profound dissatisfaction with the performance of the main parties (though especially Labour) on these specific issues. Winning these voters back into the political mainstream is going to be hard enough. It will be even harder if we continue to ignore the real and powerful forces which are driving public attitudes on these issues.