11 November 2019

How do we tackle prejudice in polarised times?

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Sunder Katwala writes on strategies for tackling prejudice, based on his speech to the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship Twentieth Anniversary Conference, at Bristol University.

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It is valuable to live in a democracy – though three General Elections and a Referendum in five years might suggest that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

The unprecedented frequency of these heightened moments is one reason why our politics has rarely felt so volatile or so intense.

There is a danger that the 2019 General Election campaign could prove to be Britain’s angriest election. The political stakes are high – over who governs the country, the decisions we want to make about Brexit and other important issues. It is also an election that will challenge those of us seeking to protect and deepen our social norms against racism and prejudice in politics and society.

British Future is a non-partisan think-tank, with charitable status. Our vision is that Britain should be a confident and inclusive society – and we recognise that this requires an engagement with the issues that people find most difficult and divisive.  So I want to look from that non-partisan perspective at the challenges of tackling prejudice in these highly polarised times. We do need our elected representatives – the governing and opposition parties, MPs, candidates and activists – to play their role in upholding and reinforcing social norms against prejudice. I also want to consider the challenges this context presents to voices outside of and above party politics – in faith, in civic society, academia and the media – as we seek to play our role of protecting foundational social norms without being derailed by a heated and politicised climate.

The ‘One Nation’ Test

If we want an inclusive Britain, every party that aspires to govern our country should commit to meeting this very simple ‘One Nation’ test: no citizen should feel there is a tension between supporting that party and their faith or their ethnic background.

I am sure that if Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and the other political party leaders were here tonight, they would sign up at once to this vision. Most candidates across all democratic parties would see it as a value they want their party to uphold.

Any honest account would also acknowledge that each of our major political parties have got some important work to do before that aspiration could become a reality.  But, as the parties hit the campaign trail, that acknowledgement might become rather muted.

We will hear a lot about racism in this General Election – perhaps more than ever before. The parties may express their distinct commitment to anti-racism norms quite loudly – primarily by challenging their opponents for falling short of them. As they trade accusations of racism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice, the most common response to any such charges may often be to emphasise once again their counter-challenge to their opponents.

But it is doubtful that an election campaign of racism “whataboutery,” in which each party shouts “you’re the racists” – and “no, you’re the racists,” at each other is going to prove an effective way to protect anti-racism social norms. Nor will it leave the climate of debate about racism and prejudice in a better place.

Antisemitism was highly prevalent in British society and British politics for many decades – and is much narrower today, as David Feldman has shown. So it has been a shock to see the argument about antisemitism return to the centre of British politics.  Casual anti-Muslim prejudice has become more salient and more broadly held than other forms of prejudice – the debate about Islamophobia has become more polarised too.

Labour and antisemitism.

Historically, Labour can probably claim the strongest record of any political party in Europe when pursuing race equality. Sadly, nobody could claim that the competition across this continent has ever set a very high bar. It can be more uncomfortable to acknowledge that racism was also a feature of the labour movement – or that some of the critiques of imperialism and capitalism of the left have featured antisemitic tropes.  Yet Labour’s historic achievements are certainly considerable, in pioneering anti-discrimination legislation in the 1960s and 1970s and ethnic minority representation in parliament in the 1980s and 1990s. That has since become expected of rival parties too. Labour’s commitments to anti-racism have become an important part of the party’s contemporary political identity.

So I think it can be regarded as something of a tragedy that a party with that tradition, history and identity should have got into such a bad place on tackling antisemitism that the Labour Party itself should be the subject of an EHRC investigation into the evidence compiled by Jewish members of the party into its failures of culture and governance – and why the charge of failing to act on racism is a painful one for many in Labour.

David Feldman has given detailed insights into antisemitism in society and politics tonight. It is not endemic in British society – nor among the political left. He has also offered us a persuasive account of why the defensive instinct to regard the charge as primarily a politicised smear became an important part of why this debate got stuck.

What is clear in 2019 is that Labour’s response to questions about antisemitism over the last four years have left relations more ruptured and damaged than they were.

There is a great deal of pluralism in British Jewish communities, who regard their disputatious reputation with pride.  A century ago, the Jewish Chronicle was declaring that the Jewish community had no better friend than the Labour Party. That sense of Labour dominance, as a natural political home, strong in the 1950s and 1960s, had changed by the 1980s, with Jewish votes dividing and contested by the right and the left. The Jewish Chronicle’s front-page editorial appeal this week was not addressed to Jewish readers but to their non-Jewish fellow citizens – concerned that the issues of antisemitism will become incidental in this election. The newspaper can draw on clear evidence that a very broad majority of the Jewish population share the anxieties and fears that it expresses. So that will include many who are sceptical of the broader political agenda of the Labour Party today.

Crucially, it clearly also includes many whose natural party is Labour, and who therefore feel deeply upset and torn by this issue. The Jewish Labour Movement – a party affiliate for a century – has found itself unable to campaign as a group in this General Election, except in exceptional circumstances. Here, the Labour Party’s failure to meet the One Nation test in the eyes of Labour-supporting Jews is experienced as a dispossession of their sense of equal citizenship.

Most Labour MPs and party members are undoubtedly sincere in wanting the party to not just say it is committed to zero-tolerance of antisemitism but to act in a way that can persuade those whose trust has been lost. That has not happened in this parliament: too often, the issue of how to tackle antisemitism became embroiled in partisan and factional debates within the Labour Party itself. The pain of being charged with antisemitism led too many to declare the challenges to be a politically motivated smear.  The example of a National Executive Committee member, declaring to the ruling body that he had never seen antisemitism in the party, despite being a member of its disputes panel, exemplified a failure to put in place a process and culture able to keep the pledges of zero tolerance of antisemitism.

The EHRC report – which will now follow the General Election – might provide an opportunity to begin again. The depth of the fractures in these relationships makes many now sceptical that a sustained effort to reconnect Labour with British Jews can realistically expect to make more progress until after the next change of party leadership. Even then, the party should not be in denial about what a long and difficult road it will be to rebuild deeply fractured relationships. There has been a failure of empathy in the party – so that long and difficult road must start with structured listening to the experiences and pain shared by Jewish colleagues.

The Conservative Party, race and anti-Muslim prejudice

The Conservative Party would surely acknowledge that it has had a historically weaker and distant relationship with most of Britain’s ethnic minority communities. For many years, the party has regarded this as essentially a problem of “historic baggage” – the long hangover of the legacy of the era of Enoch Powell, somewhat reinforced by the less incendiary demands of the Tebbit cricket test a generation later. People remember the “Rivers of Blood” speech for its call for the mass repatriation of immigrants. What is often forgotten is that the occasion for that speech was the first race relations act. That was why Powell spoke of the “black man having the whip hand” over the white man. For first-generation migrants to Britain, that exemplified that the party was not on their side.

There is a much broader social and political consensus on overt racism – and for keeping those anti-discrimination laws across British politics today. Today’s Conservative Party is not the party of Enoch Powell – yet it struggled for another two generations for the British-born children of ethnic minorities to feel that the party was open to them.  Ethnic minority Britons are still only half as likely to vote for the Conservatives as white Britons – and the academic research shows that much of this gap persists when socio-economic status is accounted for.

David Cameron’s party made rapid progress on bringing ethnic diversity into the party in parliament: the Conservatives had only four non-white MPs in over a century from 1895 and 2009, so to have over 20 ethnic minority MPs a decade later marks a sharp acceleration. David Cameron’s success in making ethnic diversity a new bipartisan norm in British politics enabled Boris Johnson to appoint the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in British history this summer:  the party plans to give Home Secretary Priti Patel and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid prominent roles in the election.

While this story of “historic baggage” – the need to shed an outdated reputation – has some truth in it, it has also been something of a comfort zone, with a lack of engagement with the way in which the party has risked creating “new baggage” on several fronts during the last five years.

Miqdaad Versi has discussed the impact of Zac Goldsmith’s 2016 campaign for London Mayor.  There was almost no public debate or inquest in the party about the lessons of that defeat.

The Windrush scandal demonstrated that the failure to recognise the equal citizenship of black Britons was not just a question when the Windrush docked in 1948, or when Enoch Powell spoke in 1968, but continued to resonate in 2018. The Conservative backbencher Alberto Costa, whose parents are Italian nationals, has warned that a failure to protect the rights of EU nationals could repeat the cycle of creating reputational damage for a generation to come with the children of European nationals in the UK.  Boris Johnson’s language on race as a newspaper columnist and his relationship with Donald Trump may damage him with ethnic minority voters, and especially British Muslim voters. Johnson has every right to write columns about identity and integration – his argument, that the niqab should be discouraged but not banned by law, is held by many across politics and society. But using the jibe of “letter-boxes” was a serious error – an unstatesmanlike incivility that risks legitimising prejudice. We should expect our political leaders to do better.

The Conservative Party is under pressure to show that it is serious about tackling anti-Muslim prejudice. The evidence that Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain has presented tonight makes a clear case for an inquiry.

That the party is now formally committed to an inquiry was a direct result of the increased diversity at the top of the party. Had Sajid Javid not been the first Asian and Muslim contender for the party leadership, I don’t think anybody thinks that the leadership candidates would each have volunteered their support, on live television, for a party inquiry into anti-Muslim prejudice.

So the lack of progress over several months since the summer in forming that inquiry demonstrates the dominance of a reluctant and defensive approach towards tackling anti-Muslim prejudice in the party. Several hundred party members have faced disciplinary action, invariably because media outlets, pressure groups or political opponents have collated evidence of indefensible behaviour. The party has been slow to accept the need to move to a proactive strategy – to explore the scale of the challenge or to tackle its causes.

Former party chair Sayeeda Warsi has often fought a lonely battle to keep the issue on the agenda and it is a problem if challenging anti-Muslim prejudice is left mainly to Muslim Conservatives. There are not many Muslims in the Conservative Party. None of the parties has collected or published data on diversity – but the ESRC party membership project estimates that the Conservative Party is 97% white British: that would make it unlikely that more than 1% of the party membership is from a Muslim background. So a reasonable, rough estimate might be just 1,000 to 1,500 party members out of 150,000.  Ethnic minority party members have often felt under private pressure not to be publicly critical of the party’s record, nor to become defined by minority causes, if they want to advance within it.

The problem within the Conservative party on anti-Muslim prejudice reflects the breadth of casual anti-Muslim prejudice across our society today. British Future’s research into attitudes shows that 35% of people say they would be uncomfortable with a Muslim Prime Minister, while one in five say that of a non-white Prime Minister.  Those views are more likely to be held by older voters, and by those on the right, rather than the left, of the political spectrum. That gap illustrates Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi’s observation that anti-Muslim prejudice “passes the dinner table test”.

The debate about Islamophobia has been more contested, as Miqdaad Versi has discussed. Given the strong evidence that anti-Muslim prejudice is more widespread than prejudice against most other minority groups in Britain today – and it is impossible to have effective national or local action without any definition to work with. There is now agreement on the need for a definition, though there are different views about how to get the definition right.

Most Conservative Party members would see themselves as committed to fair chances and no unfair barriers, for those of all minority backgrounds, including Muslims. There is both positive and troubling evidence about how far that aspiration reflects the reality.

Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Nick Timothy was defeated in a selection this week because local party members preferred Saqib Bhatti, the first British Muslim to lead the Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. That wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago. A common trope among selectorates of both major parties, through to the turn of the century, even if they saw themselves as enlightened, was to impute prejudice to the electorate – and to ask whether the voters were ready for ethnic minority candidates outside of inner-city seats.

There is also evidence that an uncomfortably large proportion of the party membership has a weak understanding of what anti-Muslim prejudice is.

The ESRC party members project asks party members about the composition of parliament. Four per cent of Conservative members say they would like to see fewer women in parliament than there are today. Thirteen per cent say they would like fewer ethnic minority MPs. When it comes to Muslims, only one-in-six Conservatives say there should be more Muslim MPs in parliament – though six out of ten are happy for current numbers to remain. Yet 26% per cent of Conservative members said they would like to see fewer Muslim MPs – 17% saying they would like to see a lot fewer Muslims in parliament.

There are only a dozen Muslim MPs – 2.5% of the total – and only two Conservative MPs from a Muslim background. The idea that there are far too many Muslims in the House of Commons is an expression of casual prejudice held by an uncomfortably large minority of members. The party needs to acknowledge this problem, embark on the inquiry it has promised, and ensure that it goes beyond reactive disciplinary action to put in place an effective programme of political education to ensure members and activists can recognise anti-Muslim prejudice and tackle it.

The dangers of a simplistic ‘ethnic group’ lens

in an increasingly diverse Britain, where one-in-five first-time voters come from a range of ethnic minority backgrounds, meeting the One Nation test should be a matter not just of values but of enlightened self-interest. But political competition could become part of the problem too.

Different minority groups in the UK are voting in different ways. Labour’s ruptured relationships with the Jewish community will be a significant election issue, with both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats expecting to make gains.  The evidence on ethnic minority voting is much thinner than on every other section of the electorate, but does suggest that Conservatives flatlined or slipped back further from a very low base with both black British voters and British Muslims, while making some progress in eroding Labour’s traditional  strength with British Indian voters. Even that progress has been somewhat slower than the Conservatives had hoped, or than the socio-economic profile of Indian voters might suggest should be possible.

It would be especially unhealthy for British politics if the parties think about ethnic minority politics primarily in terms of supportive and opposing voter blocs.

The broad generalisations about minority groups are only part of the story of how people will choose to vote.  The media stereotype, of thinking of minority voters primarily or solely in group terms, prevents people seeing that the cleavages reshaping British politics exist within minority communities too. This misses the fact that black and Asian voters may often see this election differently because they are Remainers or Leavers; whether they live in towns and cities; or if they work in the public or private sectors. Ethnic minorities are an increasing part of the growing graduate population and of our multi-ethnic working-classes. Using only the lens of ethnicity misses these crucial nuances.

British elections often see noisy, self-promoting claims about the ability to deliver ethnic minority voters en bloc to swing seats, from one party or another: but such claims rarely stand up when the votes come in.  Temples, mosque and gurdwaras are popular for colourful political photo opportunities. The idea that those in the congregation want to be instructed on how to vote is an outdated stereotype of minority politics. I hope it is one that an increasing number of British-born minority voters will want to leave behind. You do not have equal citizenship if one party believes that your vote is out of reach and another that it is already in the bag – or if you are told that your ethnicity or faith must determine your vote.

The One Nation test depends on going beyond the question of which voters might be easiest to persuade. What matters most – from the perspective of equal citizenship – is that the parties, beyond the election, need to recommit to engaging specifically with voters from those groups whose citizens they have been least likely to persuade.

If relationships with Jews on the left or Muslims on the right risk becoming ruptured so badly as to risk recreating a community-based group vote, that should be an urgent call to action, beyond the campaign, for the parties to take that One Nation test, of being open to all citizens, more seriously – both during and beyond the election campaign.

How can civic society respond?

How can those seeking to protect and deepen social norms against racism and prejudice respond effectively, without that broader social mission being derailed by this heated, highly polarised political climate?

I want to suggest three useful foundations for tackling prejudice in polarised times:

Talk about boundaries – and be clear about what is permitted, as well as what isn’t.

The debate about racism and prejudice norms comes down to boundaries. In polarised times, getting the boundaries right will be ever-more important.

A key lesson for anti-prejudice campaigners is this: always be clear what is permitted, before drawing the line.

It must be legitimate to criticise the policies of Israel – but it is never legitimate to do so using antisemitic tropes, nor always insisting that British Jews account for the state of Israel whenever they want to talk about antisemitism in Britain.

It is not racist to be concerned about the scale and pace of immigration to Britain – as long as you leave racism out of it. It is prejudiced to scapegoat Romanians for being Romanian.

It is not Islamophobic to critique ideas. Free speech includes robust scrutiny of any theological or political standpoint, whether about Islam or any other faith. But that crosses over into anti-Muslim prejudice if it criticises Muslims for being Muslim, stereotypes all Muslims as a group, or is a conversation about Muslims that Muslims could not be part of.

How to debate the boundaries in good faith

When those debates about boundaries become granular, they can become a useful way to separate the ‘good faith’ from the ‘bad faith’ actors.

Our chair tonight Professor Tariq Modood has identified several tests for getting this boundary between robust debate and prejudice right – and I think he alights on a very useful central question.  Are we talking about “the Muslims”, or “the Jews”, or the blacks and Asians, or the Romanians – or is it a debate – whether about identity or immigration or integration – that members of that group could also participate in? If they walked into the room, is it the type of conversation that could continue?

Some debates about boundaries are conducted in bad faith – for example, fascist groups can rebrand as advocates of free speech. We have seen norms deepen over time, yet the excessively loose use of charges of prejudice – whether by accident or design – will fragment the broad coalitions that we need to maintain.

A ‘good faith’ actor would always be willing to engage in dialogue with all other voices who are sincerely concerned to get the boundaries right. So we can also ask ‘good faith’ actors – but not ‘bad faith’ actors – to look through the other end of the telescope. Instead of free speech versus anti-prejudice, it has been useful to hear anti-racism groups articulate the value of the free speech boundary. Those concerned to protect free speech should not only critique existing proposals, but articulate a definition that protects their concerns while challenging prejudice too.

Consistency matters – but partisanship makes it hard

While it is important to tackle prejudice against our own group, it also matters that we all stand up against prejudice towards others. Perhaps the sole silver lining of these depressing debates about prejudice over the last couple of years has been the increased commitment of groups to do that. We have seen Muslim-led and Jewish-led groups showing solidarity and support to demonstrate that British Muslims and Jews stand together in challenging racism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim prejudice. They have rejected those who want to use these controversies to set minorities against each other.

Political consistency has been much harder to achieve.  It is entirely legitimate to challenge opponents who fall short, but it is clearly much easier to challenge opponents than to put your own house in order.

Partisan perceptions are powerful. People will quickly see their opponents’ behaviour as unforgivably egregious, even if it may be a clumsy rather than particularly malign example, while being more likely to see the behaviour of allies as understandable in context.

Messengers matter in reinforcing social norms: a twitterstorm of challenges that come solely from opponents will often lead to a defensive reaction of doubling down, so those within a political family have a particular value in reinforcing norms and boundaries.  So protecting social norms is fundamentally about the willingness to apply standards within your own political ‘tribe’ that you demand of the rival tribes. Here, civic society and the media can try to provide non-partisan scrutiny, encouraging each party to show that it will hold itself to similar standards to those that it demands of other voices.


These are depressing debates to be having in the Britain of 2019. In polarised times, when hate crime is rising, failures to tackle prejudice are a deep source of anxiety and fear. We need to recognise that – and to rebuild confidence that the case against prejudice can prevail.

The story of Britain in my lifetime has been of significant shifts against overt racism, across the generations, but slower progress than we would have wanted in fully realising a vision of racial equality.

We have higher expectations today, that prejudice in public life will be called out, than we had a generation ago.  We do need increasing pressure within our political parties, as well as beyond them, to think about what needs to change in order to make the ‘One Nation’ test not just an aspiration but a confident and active part of each party’s political culture, nationally and locally.

There is work to do, not just during but beyond this election campaign – so that the expectation of equal citizenship, held by citizens of every ethnic and faith background, can prevail over the challenges of tackling prejudice in politics and society today.

Sunder Katwala was speaking at the event “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in British Politics” at Bristol University, as part of the 20th anniversary conference of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship. The other speakers were Professor David Feldman, Chair of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck University; and Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. The event was chaired by Professor Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol.