Getting to the roots of far right xenophobia


Dr Matthew Goodwin is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham; his forthcoming book, “The New British Fascism: Rise of the BNP“, will be published by Routledge on May 4th

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.

EDL-thugsMeanwhile, 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.

This entry was posted in A Britain We All Call Home and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Pingback: Matt Johnson

  • Pingback: Chris Collins

  • Pingback: Knut Cayce

  • Pingback: James Purnell

  • Pingback: Philip Cowley

  • Pingback: Pucci Dellanno

  • Pingback: Florian MARCHET

  • Pingback: Ira

  • Pingback: Randall Gross

  • Pingback: LeftSide Of Ur BraiN

  • David M

    Excellent article, very interesting, and has significantly changed my perceptions on the issue.

    I do feel that answering concerns about identity can fit with a broader centre-left programme for ‘civic cohesion’, which to me seems similar to what French politicians in the 1900s (in light of the Dreyfus Affair and Union disruption) called ‘appaisment’. Multiculturalism, in pushing for an “appreciation of cultural diversity”, is and has no doubt to an extent been valuable, but an appreciation of what can be held in common is also vital it seems to me. Nonetheless I don’t mean that in the vague Gordon Brown/Boris Johnson demands for an appreciation of some vague, slightly jingoistic-patriotic ‘Britishness’, that sets us apart from other cultures within and outside our borders. Rather I feel there needs to be a search for a more human and empathic quality, where all members of our increasingly diverse national community can find some commonly held ground and a sense of cultural and economic solidarity.

    Vague? Yes…

  • Dave Citizen

    According to the “Davies’ J curve” theory, a significant rise of dissatisfaction is to be expected now as living standards are taking a dip after a sustained period of rise. I agree that, against this background, it is vital that Labour engages with reality on imigration. If they don’t, those with powerful interests in the status quo will use imigration to divide and rule, distracting Labour from the arguement for moving to a fairer and much less unequal society.

  • gillig

    Labour has a blatant racist immigration policy. Open borders to Europeans, and strict restrictions on the rest of the world. Sort yourselves out before you presume to preach to the electorate.

  • William

    UKIP,’far right votes’?Farage is genuinely anti EU,that’s all.’8 out of 10 voters consistently reject the suggestion that Labour had sensible policies on asylum and immigration’.Puff your book for all it’s worth. Some facts:1.Some people want to leave the EU.2.Some people want less or even no immigration.Neither group is far right, fascist, racist or whatever silly label Dr.Goodwin feels appropriate. They are legal views, and widely held by Labour voters,of whom 5 million vanished from 1997.BTW,Farage’s wife is German!

  • Gadfly

    It is the Labour Party which has links with the BNP. Check out the background of your candidates in Darwen.

  • http://EUreferendumcampaign.com Paul Wiffen

    When will pseudo-intellectuals like you stop trying to make out that it is about xenophobia? I studied French and German and spend half my time in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe whose economies I try to help by filming there. The issue is overcrowding and budget. We cannot afford to support all of Europe’s unemployed coming here because we have the best benefits for health, housing and children, not to mention bailing out countries who were stupid enough to join the Euro.

    The British people are just waking up to the fact that we are footing the bill for everyone. Of course they don’t want BNP racial hatred but they do want their country protected from the tsunamis of immigration that we are experiencing!

  • Pingback: Matthew Goodwin

  • Dave Citizen

    Being unashamedly on the left of British politics I do find it difficult to engage with the generally polarised public debate on immigration: you’re either a right wing xenophobe or some kind of naive ‘leafy suburbs’ liberal.

    Reality for me rests elsewhere. There is a blatant conflict of interests for one thing: immigration pushes up demand for housing (rents/values rise) and increases labour supply (wages fall) – all good for landlords and wealthy investors but mostly bad for ordinary workers. Other impacts also fall unevenly: poorer communities, facing the additional economic pressures of immigration, find that their identity and the community they fall back on for support in harder times is simulataneously being placed under pressure through the entry of new cultures and traditions and new attitudes in their schools and elsewhere.

    Meanwhile the wealthy beneficiaries of mass immigration are nicely insulated, being part of an almost entirely separate culture and community, with reassuringly unaffordable houses, its own private schooling system, fast tracks to affordable university education and networks of friendly business employers. So, as immigration boosts the economy, profits rise, wages fall and inequality further divides the country.

    As someone who genuinely believes immigration has made Britain better for everyone, saying the above does not come easy. For me, tackling legitimate concerns about mass immigration has to start with the conflict of interests between the wealthy who set policies and the rest of us who must deal with any consequences.

    Labour is the only party that looks capable of turning Britain towards a fairer and more equal future. And maybe once we get there, it will be possible to have a sensible debate about immigration.

  • Pingback: Andrew Burden

  • scandalousbill

    Paul Wiffen.

    Do you realize that you can paraphrase your comment with “I’m not Xenophobic, BUT…”

    Needless to say that if anything you have said were, even remotely the case of “all of Europe’s unemployed coming here”; Cross channel transport would be the UK top growth industry. Presumably your omission of, the fact that Britain would sink link the legendary Atlantis because of the additional weight is to position yourself as a non alarmist. aThe EU Treaty may have its issues, but you and your blog have yet to touch on any of them. The notion of the UK being overcrowded by “tsunamis of immigration that we are experiencing!” is pure rubbish.

  • Tas Tustic

    What Dave Citizen said.

  • Pingback: Nottingham Uni

  • Robert

    Build the infrastructure and who cares, build none and you have problems, labour built schools hospital and no social housing and we have people who actually hate.

    The idea that families who come here do not get special treatment is blooming rubbish I’ve seen families go to the top of the housing list for having disabled children or to many children, and I see people who have been on the waiting list for years being refused housing.

    Play the game fair and people will not argue, play the game wrongly and you get people who hate.

  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/punctuated-equilibrium GrrlScientist

    actually, Paul (Wiffen), i live in germany and i can tell you that the germans are convinced that they’re bailing out everyone …

  • SR819

    Agree with the last comment, resentment towards immigration is understandable when immigrants are allowed to jump the queue for social housing, disability benefits, education etc. It is all a question of fairness. Why should some people, who’ve only just arrived in the country and haven’t paid anything into the system get to receive these generous benefits, ahead of people who’ve lived in this country all their life and paid their taxes?
    We need an honest debate on immigration, not one where anyone who voices concerns about immigration is branded a “racist”. We shouldn’t ignore the cultural aspects of immigration as well. The sociologist Robert Putnam has proved that more homogenous communities tend to be the happier, with less crime, anti-social behaviour, segregation, isolation etc. We must accept that immigrants from places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc are likely to share many of our cultural values, and therefore these immigrants are more likely to be absorbed into communities, due to these shared values and common reference points. However, immigrants from countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc don’t share these values, and of course it’s not their fault, but you can then understand why it is those communities that have a large ethic minority population that suffer from the most segregation.

    This is not a racist comment, but a comment that many in the Labour movement, like Lord Glasman, Jon Cruddas etc have made. We need to have the debate.

  • mhayworth

    Dr. Goodwin,
    You will never get to the roots of ‘far right xenophobia’ because you are incapable of admitting that the BNP (and the Nazi’s before them) were in fact ‘LEFT WING XENOPHOBICS’. If you can’t even be honest about the political leaning of these parties and their socialist policies, you truly have no hope.

  • Pingback: Daniel Pitt

  • Pingback: quelqueshue

  • Pingback: Matthew Goodwin

  • Pingback: Matthew Goodwin

  • Pingback: Matthew Goodwin

  • Pingback: Andrew Burden

  • Pingback: Jimmy Wavamunno

  • Pingback: Why we should worry about the poison of Le Pen | Left Foot Forward

  • Pingback: Le Pen’s fascists claim French youngsters are ‘joining in their droves’ | Left Foot Forward

  • YouGov Tracker

  • Touchstone Economic Tracker

  • Best of the web

  • Archive