THE BLOG

The Challenge For Progressives

30/08/2017 08:11 BST | Updated 30/08/2017 16:04 BST
Mike Blake / Reuters

Despite immigration being the public's highest priority for Brexit negotiations, it is simply not a point on which Remainers have managed to find much purchase before or since the referendum. Yet if there's one lesson the Brexit vote should have taught us, it was that difficult issues do not resolve themselves.

HOPE not hate's Fear and HOPE 2017 report, released today, has charted attitudes towards race, faith, immigration and belonging in England since 2011 - and it contains lessons for those who focus (or not) on the immigration issue.

The most detailed survey of its kind, asking over 4,000 people 140 questions pertinent to current events, Fear and HOPE 2017 offers a snapshot of the nation during turbulent times, shedding light on the effects of the referendum, the snap election, and the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London.

There is plenty to welcome. The survey reveals that, on the whole, we have become an increasingly open and tolerant country. Progressives will breathe a sigh of relief to discover that the public sees more benefits to immigration than six years ago and that there is no sign the recent terror attacks have fundamentally changed the outlook of society. An overwhelming majority (80%) of people were encouraged by the way people came together following the attacks, and showed little sympathy for English nationalists.

But digging a little deeper puts this rosy view into perspective. While the balance on immigration is beginning to tip, with sceptics feeling that Brexit will solve the 'immigration problem', these issues are not disappearing altogether. Instead, the battleground is changing and if 'hope' is to win over fear, progressives will need to keep up.

The first big challenge, unsurprisingly, is leaving the EU. Brexit will dominate politics over the next few years and looks set to trigger feelings of betrayal and resentment on both sides of the referendum. Fear and Hope 2017 reveals little prospect that a deal can be secured without angering and further alienating either side of this 'identity divide', who hold polar opposite views on what should happen to trade and free movement. A tiny percentage (6%) of people are very confident that Theresa May will secure a good deal for Britain in the EU negotiations.

Further, the report highlights how economic pessimism translates into fear and hate as concerns take on cultural attributions. Britain is looking at a tough period of economic downturn after Brexit, which could well trigger resentment and an increased hatred toward others.

Conversely, there has been a liberal surge (39%) across England as Remain voters disassociate themselves from 'Brexit Britain', becoming louder champions of multiculturalism and diversity. This liberal shift has resulted in a reduced middle, leaving behind a persistent hostile section of society (23%) whose views have not moderated since 2011. Attitudes towards race, faith and belonging have become increasingly polarised.

Integration, Islam and security will also be the next big challenge. While the vast majority of people stand firmly against the conflation of the actions of extremists with an entire religion, there has clearly been a hardening of Islamophobic attitudes among those more sceptical about modern society.

Muslims are regarded as uniquely different from the majority British public and 42% of English people in our poll say their suspicion of Muslims has increased following the recent terror attacks. A quarter of English people believe that Islam is "a dangerous religion that incites violence". Among the most hostile camp of identity politics, seven out of ten agree with this statement.

The conflation of terrorism with a failure of integration and a decline in British values has already started to seep into the mainstream. The assimilationist Casey Review's explicit focus on Muslim communities described a divided country. The Government's response, setting up its new commission for countering extremism, was established to identify extremism in communities where it threatened to undermine British values.

Promoting British values over culturally conservative attitudes and challenging violent extremism is mixing quite different issues. Shining the spotlight on British Islam risks fuelling Islamophobia while simultaneously alienating Muslim communities.

Just like the 'immigration debate', if progressives cannot engage with all these concerns around integration and security, these issues are unlikely to result in a rational and balanced conversation and will instead become dominated by those with an interest to make them divisive and toxic.