Yesterday’s decision to vote for an election has set the clock ticking on what could be a bitterly fought, high stakes contest over Brexit, public investment and the very nature of the country we want to be. Brexit exposed fault lines in our society – over race, over class and over place – and deepened the divides on those issues. Whoever wins this election will have the difficult task of slowly rebuilding trust and understanding, not just between Westminster and the voters but across our whole society.
While the dangerous and divisive Brexit party will rightly get much attention from those of us who seek to stem the tide of hate, a challenge for voters is that even the Conservatives and Labour themselves have failed to tackle poisonous elements within their own parties. During this election HOPE not hate will be campaigning vigorously against the Brexit party, but also against the threats to unity and tolerance within our multicultural and pluralistic society – anti-Semitism in the Labour party, anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative party.
Labour goes into this election still bowed down by its failure to tackle the anti-Semitism that has damaged its reputation as an anti-racist party. Adding to the list of well-respected Jewish MPs who have quit the party in recent times, Dame Louise Ellman, a Labour stalwart for decades, stepped down last month saying that anti-Semitism had become “mainstream” in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
Earlier this year, the party revealed it had received 673 accusations of anti-Semitism by Labour members between April 2018 and January 2019, though the figure has been reported to be higher. A number of councillors have already been thrown out of the party and MP Chris Williamson suspended. In a recent poll for the Jewish Chronicle, only 7% of Jewish voters said they would back Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, jumping to 47% if there was a different leader. With little to no trust from the Jewish community that anti-Semitism has been extinguished as a presence within the party, it is imperative in this election that Labour take a zero-tolerance approach to any sign of hate speech towards the Jewish community, and implement that zero-tolerance approach relentlessly, without favour.
Though the Conservative party never fails to highlight left-wing anti-Semitism, it has been no more successful in tackling the anti-Muslim prejudice within its own ranks. Former Conservative co-chair Baroness Warsi has said that Islamophobia in the Conservative Party goes “right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top” but it was downplayed by the leadership for electoral reasons. Our own polling of Conservative members conducted ahead of the party’s leadership hustings in June found that an overwhelming majority believed the lie that “there are areas in Britain that operate under Sharia law” (67%), 43% preferred for a Muslim to not lead the country and 40% believed that we should lower the number of Muslims entering Britain. Last month a number of Conservative Party members were suspended for posting or endorsing anti-Muslim material online, though the party kept exactly how many secret. But the main promised investigation was downgraded almost immediately into a general investigation into all types of prejudice. Plenty has already been said about the toxicity of Boris Johnson’s comments branding niqab wearing women as bank robbers and letterboxes, but it is important not to forget that words have real consequences. Monitoring group Tell Mama said abuse incidents jumped by 375% in the week following his article. Anti-Muslim sentiment needs to be rooted out from all levels of the Conservative party, starting from the very top, and challenged whenever it is used to appeal to the prejudices of some on the right.
Last but not least, it’s imperative that the British electorate reject the ever-present threat of Nigel Farage and his politics of blame. Although he is back with a slicker branding, voters shouldn’t be fooled by his Brexit party operation — underneath the surface it’s the same discredited brand of blame-game politics and nastiness. Farage is desperate to pretend that the Brexit Party is only about one thing – a reckless, dangerous no-deal Brexit, whereas in reality it will prove a vehicle to smuggle privatisation, American-style libertarianism and divisive populism into Parliament. He would like voters to forget his greasing up to Donald Trump, his endorsing of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and of course all the Brexit party members that they had to drop like hot potatoes when their unsavoury views and prejudices were brought to the public’s attention. It’s imperative that Farage and his Brexit party, and the politics he represents, aren’t allowed to flourish or cunningly present itself as a solution to the genuine hardships in often ignored communities across the country.
As unpromising as the timing of this election is, it’s important that those of us committed to a politics of unity, co-operation and tolerance seize this opportunity to try and contribute to ending to the bitterness of the last few years. Whatever one’s party loyalty, we can work together to challenge prejudice in all guises – whether race, sexuality, gender, disability or religion - and ensure that those that seek to exploit and exacerbate social frictions and scapegoat minorities for electoral gain are not rewarded at the ballot box. We will be working hard during this campaign to ensure that the politics of division and difference are not allowed to succeed. The public deserve Parliamentarians who will work hard for everyone in society, without favour or prejudice, and a government that represents the country that it serves – because although we cannot know what challenges lay beyond the election, we do know that whatever the country has to face, we have to face it together.
Nick Lowles is Director of HOPE not hate.