Fallacies and policies: the ‘Fear and HOPE’ report

April 7, 2011 — Comment

Written by A. Sivanandan

The director of the IRR takes issue with fundamental positions on racism and nationalism in Searchlight Educational Trust’s recent report.

We don’t have classes in ‘modern British society’. We have ‘tribes’. ‘Identity tribes’. Reflecting ‘a new politics of identity, culture and nation’, itself a product of ‘the politics of race and immigration’, and today ‘the opinion drivers of modern British politics’.

We have six of them. ‘Identity tribes’, that is. Namely, ‘Confident Multiculturalists’ (8 per cent of the voting population); ‘Mainstream Liberals’ (16 per cent); ‘Identity Ambivalents’ (28 per cent); ‘Cultural Integrationists’ (24 per cent); ‘Latent Hostiles’ (10 per cent); and ‘Active Enmity’ (13 per cent). Thus the new middle ground is defined by two groups of voters: Cultural Integrationists (‘motivated by authority and order’) and Identity Ambivalents (‘concerned about their economic security and social change’). ‘Almost half of all voters who do not identify with a party are Identity Ambivalents’ (the ‘floating vote’, in the old jargon). And it is this section of the population that has to be won over if it is not to be pushed further to the Right by economic insecurity and social change (arising from the politics of race and immigration).

So much for the report, shorn of its pretensions and prevarications. Now for the fallacies and policies.

In the first place, opinion polls (on which the report is based) are in themselves flakey. When they are used to measure attitudes, which are notoriously changeable (as the authors themselves say, covering their backs), the results may be fun to play with but hardly the basis for serious policy-making. When such an attitude survey deals with race and immigration (i.e. prejudice), at a time when the government and the media have been the attack dogs on both fronts, it is a foregone conclusion that you would find that ‘there is deep resentment to immigration as well as scepticism towards multiculturalism’. But to accept it as a given and not challenge it belongs not to the remit of an intrepid anti-racist, anti-fascist journal but to the realm of party politics, into which the report drags Searchlight.

Second, to classify society in terms of culture and nation when a whole third of the country is crying out poverty and inequality, and Con-Dem policies are threatening to structure such poverty into society through privatisation, is to privilege the fight for identity (the symptom) over the fight against poverty (the cause). Whereas, precisely because the symptom is being played for the cause, we need to fight both – on both fronts, the street and the polling booth, and so develop a culture of resistance, and not accommodation, a progressive political culture and not a reactionary cultural politics.

Third, although it is vital that, in marking out and winning over the middle ground, you combat both English nationalist extremism and Muslim extremism, to treat ‘both imposters just the same’ when they have different causes and trajectories is both simplistic and self-defeating. And this is particularly so at a time when the fight for freedom and democracy in the Arab world is threatening to take power away from the religionists and re-form Islam itself. Besides, if you are so fond of opinion polls, why not a poll to find out how many Muslims in Britain are fundamentalists and/or hate Britain – before shouting ‘fire’ in the flammable theatre of politics?

Fourth, it is precisely because the English Defence League (EDL) is, as the authors say, ‘better adapted to the new politics of identity’, and its brief, unlike the British National Party’s, is based not on skin colour (its membership includes Blacks, Asians and Gays) but on Islamophobia, which is spread across classes, that its nationalism appeals to the Identity Ambivalents. (Islamophobia must be fought on its own terms and in conjunction with anti-Muslim racism, its heir.)

Fifth, to contest the EDL (or the more ‘sanitised, non-violent, non-racist’ version that might take its place) on nationalist grounds is to entrench the mainstream political parties in the nativism that is being erected on the back of British values and the corpse of multiculturalism, on the path from integration to assimilation (in keeping with the rest of Europe).

And this is a betrayal of the anti-fascist movement. Not ‘they shall not pass’, any more, but they shall pass through the polling booth. The fight against fascism and the fight against nationalism go hand in hand. They are a continuum, two ends of the same spectrum. Hence the change in the terms of struggle from class politics to identity (i.e. nationalist) politics, particularly at a time of unrelenting and widening hardship, is no less than a betrayal of the poor themselves.

Related links

Searchlight Educational Trust

Read the Fear and HOPE report here

Read an IRR News story: ‘The IRR responds to Searchlight’s “Fear and HOPE” report’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Searchlight: polling the “new politics of identity”‘

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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