Coalition must tackle issues fuelling far right

June 29, 2010

BRITAIN/

Professor Ted Cantle is executive chair, Institute of Community Cohesion at Coventry University. The opinions expressed are his own.-

The apparent failure of the British National Party to secure a parliamentary seat at the May 2010 general election has obscured the growth in support for far right groups.

In 2001 the BNP picked up 47,000 votes, in 2005 it had grown to 192,000. This year it was 563,000.

Based on a new analysis by iCoCo of the voting patterns for far right groups, this appears to be part of an underlying trend of gathering support which threatens the stability of the UK’s communities, and would lead to the need for greater spending by local government and their partners on dealing with tensions.

Under a proportional representation system the BNP would have picked up12 seats for the BNP.

Many people do have real concerns about migration and change within their neighbourhoods and we dismiss these concerns as ‘ignorant’ or ‘racist’ at our peril.

There is no doubt that the increased population numbers and changes in composition of local populations have increased pressure on local services and these do have to be understood and addressed.

It is true they are often exaggerated by the far right – but some are very real and pressing and are most keenly felt in poorer areas who already feel that they are under the greatest pressure.

In engaging with those arguments, there will no doubt be some racist views with which to contend, but for the most part people are simply concerned about the pace of change and will respond to debates which acknowledge the problems and where there is a willingness to address them.

Communications are key. We have to remember that the far right are constantly putting out messages, spreading alarm with misinformation and false rumours. Counter messages therefore have to be at least as pervasive and persuasive.

Formal publications, and even myth busting leaflets, may well only serve to reinforce the myths, or they may be disbelieved on the basis that ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’ or simply unread.

Again, there is no substitute for face to face engagement and debate, in which local people are involved and, whenever possible, are recruited as the champions in their local community.

There is also a need to engage with communities in different ways.

In particular, it is dangerous to depend upon self-appointed community leaders who may simply be the community ‘gatekeeper’ and who use their position to control communications to preserve their position of influence.

We need to develop a new model of ‘gateway’ community leaders who are willing and able to open their communities to wider and more varied influences and to empower them to do things for themselves.

It is therefore also necessary to have a much better ‘map’ of local communities which is constantly updated to reflect the changing patterns of diversity – and also to recognise the diversity within particular communities.

In long established communities, social capital and leadership has been slowly eroded. Working Men’s clubs, trade unions, local shops, clubs and societies have been under pressure and in some cases all but disappeared.

These local institutions also provided an opportunity to ‘air’ their views and discuss concerns about what is happening (or what they perceive to be happening) in their communities.

In common with many other parts of society, there is some evidence that the ‘glue’ of social networks which helped to bind local areas together has given way to an individualised community in which families provide their own entertainment and have little time for their neighbours.

This is to some extent recognised in the Coalition’s commitment to a ‘big society’. In the context of poorer, insular and disaffected communities, we therefore need to ask how civil society can be rebuilt to give people the opportunity to learn about others, come to terms with change and develop shared interests.

There is a danger in regarding the BNP as a spent force. They lost ground because of campaigns to oppose them on the ground in places like Barking and Dagenham, but also all of the minority parties were squeezed by the media focus on the three main parties, especially around the televised debates.

That may not be the case next time. We have to recognize that they do tap into real concerns, as the ‘bigoted woman’ incident showed and we need more debate, not less, to answer these concerns.

But we also need to recognize that whilst the BNP is part of the legitimate democratic framework they do stir up tensions in local communities and are often accompanied by more extreme far right groups who peddle hatred.

These tensions then have to be dealt with by public agencies and community groups who have to try to calm things down and offer reassurance – a costly exercise in both social and monetary terms.

Picture Credit: A Nazi swastika is projected onto The Houses of Parliament in central London by activists to raise awareness of the possibility of far right politicians being elected in the general election, May 3, 2010. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

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