Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The backlash – who are ‘they’?

Undefined external powers are seen as responsible for a sense of loss in Britain, finds Rosie Carter. What will the backlash mean for Labour?

Over the last 18 months, I have run over 70 focus groups across the United Kingdom for Hope Not Hate, from Shetland to Penzance, Folkestone to Ballymena. Most of these have been about immigration, as part of the National Conversation on Immigration, the largest ever public consultation on immigration which we have run together with British Future.

But these conversations were often about so much more than immigration: inevitably much more complex, and often cathartic. People talk about their lives, their problems and frustrations, their fears, but also their hopes. They talk about their kids, and their friends. They talk about their identity, and more often than not, about broken trust with the political system. Often, people are talking about everything at once.

Wherever you are, and whatever the questions are about, you always hear about ‘they’. Sometimes this refers to migrants, an unnamed group of unknown people. Sometimes it refers to Muslims, more often than not as a homogenised and stereotyped group. Sometimes it refers to an out of reach and out of touch elite – the government or politicians, sometimes the European Union, sometimes big business and the city. But sometimes it refers to all these groups at once. The external powers who, directly or indirectly, account for this loss: ‘They took away from Grimsby and they never put anything back.’ Or: ‘They’re only panicking now it looks like their boat might be rocked, they didn’t care before.’

More often than not, ‘they’ are the people for whom the system works. They are the people who can make the rules, but also who can break the rules. They are telling you who you can and cannot be, what you can and cannot say. They have felt the economic gains of immigration, but not the local pressures. They are the people who always come out on top.

We find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it is areas which have lost most through industrial decline, places with little diversity and little opportunity, where the greatest enmity toward immigration is concentrated

Lost industry and changing work, local decline, alongside changing neighbourhoods and increased diversity means that identity issues and people’s standard of living become intertwined. Resistance to change is not only about a decline in welfare and opportunity, as these anxieties trigger a defensive instinct to protect and reassert a social position for those who are white and British.

As someone I interviewed in Basildon put it: ‘It’s huge chips on shoulders isn’t it?’

We are living in a time of ‘two Englands’, as academic Will Jennings calls it. One is made up of liberal, outward looking, and cosmopolitan areas. The other has places with greater scepticism of globalisation, where Euroscepticism flourishes, hostility to immigration prevails and people are anxious about cultural change, nostalgic for a rose-tinted past and more English in their identity. The divide between cities and towns is growing even further, the changing nature of work has replaced traditional industry with warehouses and service work. Graduates congregate in urban areas which celebrate diversity, while our towns age and many struggle to adapt to the pace of change.

Hope Not Hate’s new report, Fear, Hope and Loss, pulls together six years of polling from 43,000 people, and using the most up-to-date forms of data analysis maps political and cultural attitudes in England and Wales to neighbourhoods of 1,000 houses.

We find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it is areas which have lost most through industrial decline, places with little diversity and little opportunity, where the greatest enmity toward immigration is concentrated. Places where up to 61 per cent of over-16s do not have a single educational qualification, where jobs are few and far between, and where work is available it is precarious and badly paid, places which have lost the prosperity and sense of community they once had.

In contrast, we find those who hold the most positive outlook on immigration and multiculturalism are mostly in core cities or elite university towns, prosperous areas where there is ample opportunity. We find that 90 per cent of the 100 most confidently multicultural areas are within a few hundred metres of a university.

Globalisation and regeneration has favoured the more dynamic large cities, as has the move from traditional industry to finance and service sectors. This has only exacerbated the decline of old industrial heartlands and has led directly to the feeling of abandonment and anger that an increasing number of their residents feel.

Immigration has become a totemic emblem for the many grievances people feel in modern Britain. It is the most visible indicator of a changing Britain. The liberalism, vibrancy and multiculturalism of our cities is contrasted with the sense of loss and abandonment in our former industrial towns. Immigration is seen as a consequence of globalisation, jobs moving abroad and foreigners coming in and taking jobs here. And, as a man I interviewed in Lincolnshire told me, ignored by the political class: ‘We’re not left behind … the word we used was “abandoned”. Politicians don’t like it. Because that’s what it is.’

Towns all too often unfairly classified as ‘left behind’ have lost faith in politicians who have failed to address their problems. The ‘bigoted woman’ incident between Gillian Duffy and Gordon Brown in 2010 is marked as the moment that secured Labour’s dramatic fall from eighteen years of power. This one interaction encapsulated a feeling that Labour had lost touch with its traditional working-class support, failing to understand where anxieties about immigration were coming from, instead sneering at those who had remained loyal to the party. Eight years on, Labour is asking itself many of the same questions.

It is not about pandering to prejudice, but about genuinely understanding why people might feel like they do and working to rebuild the communities which have lost the most. People are angry about immigration, but they are much angrier about job losses and industry closure, precarity and poor conditions in jobs that are available, and a political elite who do not want to know. The strong view in many of these communities is that they have been abandoned by the political establishment in preference to addressing the needs and wishes of new arrivals in the cities.

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Our report sets a huge challenge to Labour. Areas which house the highest degree of active enmity towards migrants and minorities are also – or once were – overwhelmingly Labour-voting communities. But while they still might return Labour members of parliament and local councillors, the relationship between the Labour party and communities feeling a sense of loss and anxiety about the future is broken. Labour are seen to have abandoned them most, as a party who once represented their needs but are now distanced from their concerns. And if that relationship is to be rebuilt then Labour needs to do more to address the concerns, grievances and anxieties of these communities.

But Labour must also bridge a gap between its traditional base and its newer, growing support base. We found that areas which also hold those who are most confidently multicultural, who see immigration and increased diversity for all of its positives, are also disproportionately represented by the Labour party.

The 2017 election saw a swing in traditional voting patterns away from Labour’s traditional heartlands. The party performed strongest in core cities, university towns, and among a demographic of younger, university educated city dwellers. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw gains in post-industrial areas. While Labour celebrated gains in Kensington and Canterbury, the Conservatives gained Mansfield and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Many of the areas that swung in the Conservatives’ favour had previously moved from Labour to the United Kingdom Independence party.

If Labour overlooks its traditional base who already feel abandoned, the anti-establishment gap will only widen, opening the door for populist exploitation.

Our report also finds that people who were once most pessimistic about their futures, those who also held more negative attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism, have seen a surge in newfound optimism, as they feel Brexit will bring about prosperity and opportunity. But when Britain leaves the EU, a predicted economic crash will hit these communities hardest, adding even more to a sense that once again, politicians have failed to deliver for the people they are supposed to represent.

There has clearly been a shift in the Labour party over the last few months, to re-engage with its traditional heartlands, with the release of the party’s political broadcast Our Towns, and with small towns firmly on the 2018 conference agenda. But this focus on the needs of communities shafted by globalisation, and sneered at by politicians, needs to go beyond the bounds of television ads, Twitter feeds and conference centres. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour may be ‘for the many not the few’, but in a country where in 2018 there are reports of children eating out of bins, it needs to put forward a genuine offer to these communities which really listens and understands, beyond an ideological project.

To challenge a swelling anti-establishment feeling, Labour needs to better understand the traditional base it is losing. Most of all, they need to offer hope.

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Rosie Carter is senior policy officer at Hope Not Hate and author of the Fear, Hope and Loss report. She tweets @Rosiecarte

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Photo: Creative commons/Darren Wyn Rees

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Rosie Carter

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