The far-right, immigration, and a failing political system
Extreme, right-wing politics is under the spotlight in the UK after Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik boasted about his strong links to British groups like the EDL. His actions and comments have energised the debate about extremism across the world and force us to question whether we should fear the far-right in this country.
Why go Right?
In recent years, far-right groups have benefited from a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and the abject failure of the major parties on this issue and others facing the working class. Globalisation has led to increased migration, and the desirability of the UK as a destination has led to net immigration in this country, which means more and different people in the country. It is always those who have the least who have most to lose, and are most wary of having to share what little they have with an increased number of people – this is simply human nature and is well illustrated if looked at through the prism of housing shortages. In Westminster only 20 per cent of the total housing stock is owned by the council, and they are able to house about 20 per cent of the 5,000 households who seek cheap social housing every year. Immigrant workers, who will often have to seek low paid positions, might well be eligible for social housing if they live in a borough like Westminster and so add to what is already a heavily congested housing problem. With people subject to pressures like these, it is easy for far-right groups to peddle myths about immigrants “jumping the queue” and parasitically bring in more dangerous, racist or Islamophobic ideas. I can see two acceptable worries about immigration in Britain. Firstly, people fear the economic challenge of migrants who must inevitably compete for jobs and homes, and secondly, they dread the cultural change that immigration brings, as immigrants import different values and ideas into the cultural fabric of the country. Whilst far-right groups have a number of members who are clearly, brutish, violent, racist, Islamophobic and unreasonable, I do not believe this explains their entire membership. It would be a scary thing if this did accurately depict all members and sympathisers as there remains a great number of extremist groups in the country, and until its recent troubles, the BNP was making serious political inroads at elections. A more likely story is that the vacuum left by the major political parties in this area has made it possible for far-right groups to garner some appeal amongst vulnerable working class voters.
The issue of immigration and the often conflated but quite different subject of asylum seekers have been approached quite catastrophically by major political figures in the UK. Allowing the more squalid parts of the media to dictate to them rather than really tackling the issue, both Conservative and Labour politicians have attempted to be “tough on immigration.” The zenith of this attitude came in February 2003 when Tony Blair announced live on television that he would reduce the number of asylum seekers by half without consulting ministers who had to row back on the announcement the following day. The major political parties are all guilty of avoiding a mature debate about immigration, but I believe Labour has the most to answer for on this issue. The Labour Party was in power and set the tone on this issue for more than a decade. They should be the natural home of the working class, the place where the least well-off can voice their concerns and be listened to. Labour had the opportunity and a historical and ideological responsibility, but with a few exceptions, failed to properly understand the scale of what was facing them. It is thoroughly unsurprising that Labour have lost more supporters to far-right organisations than any other major party. New Labour embraced globalisation, big business and the markets and sold this idea to white working class people with the promise of retraining and better jobs. This never truly materialised as the government was not able to create schemes and jobs to keep up with the pace of change. As a result they retreated into the “tough rhetoric” that the Tories had been peddling in opposition. More recently, the coalition government has talked big on caps and quotas for immigration, and quite apart from the economic and legal difficulties that this might create; it also fails to face-up to the underlying issues surrounding immigration.
People have legitimate fears about immigration. For vulnerable people, immigration may well be a thing that can fundamentally change their way of life, and the gravity of this must be realised. It is not simply an economic concern that people have, but a concern about the preservation of their values and culture and that is why it is such a major issue for so many people. Explanation and information is crucial. Whilst reducing or managing the number of people who enter the country may be a necessary part of current and future immigration policy, it is not enough simply to do this and stick with the tough rhetoric. Immigration brings diversity and great cultural benefits to this country. Immigrants are an essential part of the social and economic life of this nation and must continue to be so. It is up to political parties to engage with people on this issue at the local level, to dispel poisonous myths, answer questions and provide assistance to those that want it. It is not reasonable to expect the most vulnerable members of society to simply adapt to a world that visibly suits the most affluent. The quality of a society can reasonably be measured by the condition of the worst off within it; to have a set of people who are not only among the poorest and the least well-educated but also the most disenfranchised reflects poorly on all of us. The concerns of the working class must be heard.