Searchlight: polling the ‘new politics of identity’

Searchlight: polling the ‘new politics of identity’


Written by: Jon Burnett

Can the claims of a new politics of identity, made by Searchlight Educational Trust, be substantiated by an opinion poll?

On 28 February 2011, the Searchlight Educational Trust published Fear and HOPE, a report claiming to outline a ‘new politics of identity’ in England.[1] This document detailed the findings of an opinion poll conducted by the organisation Populus, drawing together the answers of 5,094 respondents who been asked 91 questions about identity, immigration, multiculturalism and race. The report was written by Nick Lowles, the chief executive of Searchlight and the editor of Searchlight magazine; and Anthony Painter, a former Labour party candidate who has published for the Labour leaning think-tank, Demos and worked with the US policy think-tank, Center for American Progress.

It was endorsed on the day of publication by David Milband who argued that people in the UK, in a ‘parliament of austerity’, are vulnerable to the lure of ‘aggressive forms of identity politics’. Whilst stating that the success of far-Right parties in the UK has been limited in comparison to many other European countries, he suggested that ‘if the emotional extremism of the far-right we have so far seen blends into something more calculating and more credible, then this run of marginalised extremism may be more difficult to sustain’.[2]

Miliband’s comments paraphrased a central message of the Searchlight research suggesting that there is widespread support for a new form of English political movement: one which eschews violence and racism, but promotes nationalism. Searchlight argues that the UK stands at a historical crossroads where understanding the new politics of identity will be a deciding factor in winning the centre-ground voter over; with the alternative described as a risk of ‘their fear turning to hate’.

The new politics of identity

So what, exactly, is the new politics of identity? Searchlight argues that the population of the UK can be broken down into six distinct ‘tribes’: confident multiculturals, mainstream liberals, identity ambivalents, cultural integrationists, latent hostiles and active enmity. These tribes, it is suggested, indicate a changing political dynamic in the UK within which twenty-four per cent of the population are ‘liberal’, fifty-two per cent ‘mainstream’ and twenty-three per cent ‘hostile’. Each of the tribes can typically be characterised in differing ways. And whereas confident multiculturals (at one end of this spectrum) are likely to be highly educated professionals, living in London or the south east and with a belief in the benefits of immigration, active enmity (at the other) are more likely to be lower-skilled, potentially unemployed and hostile to immigration.

The new politics of identity, Searchlight argue, cannot be understood solely by notions of class-based politics and left-right divides. Identity, they suggest, is changing; and the new politics of identity is driven by an interchanging dynamic of class, personal experience, life circumstance and the media. In the last decade increasing inward migration, combined with a focus on integration and cohesion underpinned by terrorist violence, has pushed issues of identity and immigration into the political foreground. Against this backdrop, the English Defence League (EDL) has emerged, it is claimed, as one symptom of ‘the shift from a politics of immigration and race to a broader politics of identity’. Understanding the nature of this shift and the nature of the forces underpinning it is central to understanding this new identity politics.

Methodological concerns

The claim of a new politics of identity made by Searchlight resides on the 91 questions which were used by Populus to poll members of the public. On the basis of these questions the tribes that are identified can be demarcated by their social class, form of housing occupancy, voting behaviour, employment, ethnicity and a host of other factors. Populus is a professional polling organisation which describes itself as providing ‘informed insight for clients in the worlds of business, culture and politics through the application of intelligent research’.[3] Amongst its past and present customers are the Times, the AA, BUPA and the British Army and it holds a high political profile. Its founder was recently appointed to work as director of political strategy for prime minister David Cameron.

Notwithstanding this wealth of experience as a polling organisation, the use of polling to establish a snapshot of attitudes to identity and race raises serious questions. Public opinion polls have long been treated with caution and, in particular, opinion polls about ‘race relations’ have been subjected to considerable critique. In 1963, the Institute of Race Relations began work on the most comprehensive survey of race relations at that time in the UK and this was published as Colour and Citizenship in 1969.[4] Chapter twenty-eight of this study, an attitude survey, received considerable public attention but was methodologically torn apart.

As these critiques set out, more than four decades ago, opinions polls reduce what can be complex and nuanced views into neat and convenient categories; they may reflect the immediacy of current events rather than long-standing changes in public consciousness; they push issues to the forefront of a respondent’s mind when they might not otherwise have been and present them as pressing and pertinent; they may reflect more the perspectives of the pollsters rather than the respondent as the ways of understanding a particular issue are predetermined by the poll itself; questions can be loaded and they are vulnerable to weighting (ie, placing emphasis on one set of answers over another).[5]

These concerns are particularly pertinent to the poll conducted by Populus. The questions asked are, in some cases, politically charged and presuppose the existence of attitudes and beliefs. Take for example, question 9 which asks respondents how far they agree, or disagree, with the statement ‘I don’t think new immigrants want to integrate’. Or question 18A, which asks respondents how far the following groups ‘create problems in the UK’: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. Or question 22, which asks people whether they would support or not a new party ‘which says it wants to defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the building of mosques and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George’s flag or Union Jack’. One thing that all of these questions have in common is an assumption that these are issues which, in one way or another, are bound up with a new form of national identity.

From methodology to solution

The nature of the poll then rests on a set of questions which are, at the very least, politically loaded. And the nature of the questions asked inform the recommendations made to counter the problems they bring to the fore. The image of the tribes that are described as making up the UK perpetuate a particular vision of racism, how it is expressed and the solutions which are consequently required. However, by reducing racism to attitude the Searchlight report reduces racism and its expression to the actions and behaviours of the six tribes which it identifies and demarcates. The state is taken out of the picture insofar as its role in creating, maintaining and setting the agenda of contemporary racism is not mentioned.

As such, what this perpetuates is a picture of racism held, to a greater or lesser extent, by the six tribes that are mentioned which needs to be resolved and mitigated by the government. And in that sense the recommendations are reduced to providing ways for each of these different tribes to find a conduit for political participation and belonging. Consequently, ideas of social capital – a notion developed by the American academic Robert Putnam and ushered into policy development by Tony Blair’s Labour government – are invoked as a way to understand the new politics of identity. This theory, succinctly described by Searchlight as a chain of thought which suggests that diversity (by which ethnic diversity is meant) leads to social isolation and reduced solidarity, leads to a solution of governments needing to put in place measures to increase social capital and civil renewal. The role of the state, its laws and apparatus as mechanisms through which institutional racism is manifested, is airbrushed out of the picture.

Where the state is discussed, is through its capacity to ensure that tribes do not veer into the latter two categories (latent hostiles and active enmity) in a context of economic austerity. The tribes said to be most at risk here are that of the identity ambivalents: a group made up largely of Labour supporters and the cultural integrationists: a group made up largely of Conservative supporters. The identity ambivalents, according to the research, are in some senses the embodiment of the ‘squeezed middle’ which has been evoked time and time again by Labour leader Ed Miliband. Although the research suggests that they possess a ‘firewall’, in the form of antipathy to violence, which stops them actively supporting far-Right parties associated with aggression this is the group (along with cultural integrationists) said to be at risk of turning to a nationalist party which sheds associations with racism and extremism.

Ultimately, this spectre of support for a new ‘respectable’ form of far-Right political movement lies at the heart of the new politics of identity which is discussed. Searchlight argues that this form of identity politics explains why the British National Party is in decline: because it is ‘entwined…with the old politics of race and immigration’. And they suggest that, although the EDL is better placed to respond to the new politics of identity, its association with an ‘assertive and threatening form of nationalism’ limits its potential. What is left, according to Searchlight, is a ‘political vacuum on the right of the identity axis’ which mainstream political parties need to counter. Consequently, they argue that there needs to be a shared sense of national identity: one that ‘has to be real and link to the everyday experiences of ordinary people’. ‘For the supporters of multiculturalism’, it is claimed, ‘there needs to be an acceptance that most people do want to belong and share an identity, particularly around the idea of a national identity’.

A retreat from anti-racism?

Searchlight has a meaningful and important history fighting against racism in the UK. But as John Grayson has argued, questions have to be asked whether the Fear and Hope report represents ‘an anti-racist policy agenda at all’.[6] Of course, Searchlight is correct that racism is never static. And of course, Searchlight is correct that the current climate of austerity is impacting upon the changing manifestations of contemporary racism. But by relying on the dubious methodology of an opinion poll to understand these changes, this not only downplays the impact and role of institutional racism; it shifts the fight against racism into a fight to change the outcomes of attitude surveys.

Appeals for political parties to foster a new sense of national identity, as a core part of this strategy, are nothing new in British politics. Yet by reducing the fight against racism to a fight to get votes, the only real beneficiaries of this research are likely to be the politicians who it appears to be aimed at.

Related links

Fear and HOPE

Searchlight Educational Trust


Read an IRR News story: ‘The IRR responds to Searchlight’s “Fear and HOPE” report’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Fallacies and policies: the ‘Fear and HOPE’ report’

[1] Nick Lowles and Anthony Painter, Fear and HOPE: the new politics of identity, (London, Searchlight Educational Trust, 2011). [2] David Miliband, 'Insecurity is fuel for the far right's hate', Guardian comment is free (28 February 2011). [3] Populus, 'What we do', Populus Limited (Downloaded 23 March 2011). [4] E.J.B. Rose et. al, Colour and Citizenship: A report on British race relations (London, Oxford University Press, 1969). [5] Jack Field, 'Race relations and the polls', Race Today (June 1969), pp. 35-8; Danny Lawrence 'How prejudiced are we?', Race Today (October 1969), pp. 174-6. [6] John Grayson, 'The problem with fear and hope', Migration Pulse (30 March 2011).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “Searchlight: polling the ‘new politics of identity’

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