The government has announced plans to target 100 council wards where the BNP has attracted significant levels of support, in order to counter ‘far-right extremism’. Communities secretary John Denham has said,
"The steady creep of extremism is fed by groups that seek to manipulate people's fears, spread lies and increase misunderstanding. This pushes people to the edges of society, creating a 'them and us' mentality that left unchecked will undermine and weaken our core values of tolerance, decency and fairness.”This is essentially the same analysis that the government has adopted in its approach to what it sees as another ‘problem’ community, Britain’s Muslim population – analysis that ignores the government’s own role in creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.
And rather like its ‘Prevent’ strategy for ‘preventing violent extremism’ (PVE), involving the spending of between £70m and £90m targeted at local Muslim groups, this looks like yet another failure to understand the dynamics behind support for extremist political groups and to take actions that will simply make matters worse.
Organisations like the Muslim women’s group The Al-Nisa Society have criticised the government’s ‘Prevent’ approach for effectively stereotyping the whole of Britain’s Muslim communities as potential terrorists. They have also complained that it repeatedly confuses concerns about social justice with extremism and demands allegiance to ‘core values’ that a government embroiled in undermining civil liberties has little moral authority to make claim to. ‘Prevent’ at a local level has been accused of having little legitimacy, not least because it is led and directed by local authorities and the police rather than by community groups themselves, and there is evidence that it is providing cover for infiltration and surveillance by state agencies whose starting point is deep-seated, preconceived suspicions of Muslim communities. The result has been, at best, to alienate those who are anxious to undermine support for extreme Islamist groups but have backed away from further involvement in a fundamentally flawed solution.
There may also be a danger that the government’s new initiative will strengthen stereotypes, this time that all white working class communities are racist and that there are inherently 'far-Right' areas. But the big difference is that it is impossible to try and pretend that a high level of support for the BNP in some areas was just a protest vote. As my friend James at Cutting the Wire commented back in June, BNP voters clearly are racist and there’s no point pretending otherwise. This is backed up by a YouGov poll asking for opinions on issues like immigration, or the belief that Islam is a serious danger to western civilisation, where there were few surprises. However 44% of BNP voters (compared to 12% of all voters) disagreed with the statement that “non-white British citizens who were born in this country are just as ‘British’ as white citizens born in this country”. These are hardened racist opinions.
Nevertheless, the government seems intent on once again doing the wrong thing. It proposes "open and honest" discussions to allow residents to air grievances without being accused of racism, which presupposes that racist grievances have some degree of legitimacy, and to beat the drum for its tougher stance on immigration. Clearly calling meetings to tell people they are wrong is not going to work, but pretending they have a justifiable complaint against black people is pandering to racism.
The government also intends to tackle "myths" about social housing, presumably using research by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission showing that less than two per cent of all social housing residents are people who have moved to Britain in the last five years and that nine out of ten people who live in social housing were born in the UK. These statistics may be true but the government seems to assume that there has just been some terrible misunderstanding. As the BNP’s “Africans for Essex” claims in Barking & Dagenham have shown, these racist stories weren’t ever about the facts, they were playing to the prejudices of racist white voters who simply don't trust, as YouGov also showed, what mainstream politicians have to say.
What might have a greater impact is actually providing more social housing, Labour’s housing policy has been driven by a belief that the private sector should provide for most housing needs and that government should intervene only to protect the most vulnerable. Social housing investment, which has been falling since the 1970s, has therefore slowed almost to a standstill. In 2005 the Barker Review of Housing Supply concluded that the government needed to invest between £1.2 and £1.6 billion a year into new social housing to meet current needs. After 10 years of neglect and in the midst of a recession, however, it simply isn’t going to achieve this.
Labour’s free-market obsession, in housing as in so many other areas of policy, provides an explanation for why working class voters feel the party most once supported no longer cares about them. But the government clings, yet again, to the idea that the problem is just another failure of presentation. As John Denham told the Independent:
“I think that there has been a concerted effort over the last 10 years to target resources at the most deprived communities. But I think if we're honest about it, the extent to which that work has really engaged a lot of local people has been patchy.”So there you have it. The problem is patchy engagement. And so rather than accept its role in generating racist and extremist sentiment, the government looks set to spend more money on a solution that, at best, will make little difference and at worst, will indulge the bigotry of the BNP’s core support.