Endemic racism in the two main parties is a serious problem, but could be dwarfed by the Tories’ strategic moves towards weaponising immigration and the fear of others, as in this new Facebook ad.
Racism is widely recognised as a serious problem in the UK General Election, as shocking comments by individual candidates and party supporters are reported, reflecting what many observers regard as different forms of endemic racism in the two main party milieux – chiefly antisemitism in Labour and Islamophobia among Conservatives. The main charge made against the party leaders is that they have failed sufficiently address expressions of hostile sentiment towards particular groups by their supporters, particularly online, i.e. that they are failing to take racism seriously.
In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, it is suggested that he has failed to manage antisemitism, and sometimes that this is because he personally shares some antisemitic attitudes, instanced by his failure to recognise an antisemitic mural and comment about Zionists’ failure to appreciate English irony, both before he became leader. In the case of Boris Johnson, historic racist comments on ‘piccaninnies’ were reinforced by a recent Telegraph column about Burqa-wearers appearing like ‘letterboxes’, on which he doubled down during the Tory leadership election. Whereas Corbyn has mainly appeared embarrassed by the accusations, while denying antisemitism, Johnson has continued to signal the substance of his statements to his supporters, even while denying Islamophobia.
Strategic racism – the 2016 referendum and the current election
However it is wrong to think that these matters, troubling as they are, represent the main racist threat in the election. As I suggested four months ago, in the aftermath of Johnson’s election as Tory leader and appointment of Dominic Cummings as his principal advisor, a different kind of political racism is likely to take centre stage. Then Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler reported on 3rd November, ‘Tory sources predict Cummings and [Paul] Stephenson will revisit some of their greatest hits from the referendum campaign, including “Turkey week” in which they highlighted the potential for Turkish accession to the EU. This time it would involved drawing attention to the policy passed at Labour conference. “His official policy is open borders so Turkey week isn’t far away,” said one source.’
In 2016 Cummings directed the Vote Leave campaign, headed by Johnson, Gove and the ex-Labour MP Gisela Stuart (who is supporting the Tories in the current election), which systematically and effectively exploited racism on a massive scale.
- They ran an election broadcast, which scandalously aired on all major TV channels, with a racist theme straight out of Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech, in which a vulnerable old white women was reduced to tears as a surly foreigner barged ahead in A&E.
- VL targeted, according to Cummings, 1.5 billion pieces of propaganda at Facebook users, mostly at 7 million people in the final stages of the campaign. The main themes of this propaganda were that ‘5 million more immigrants’ were coming to the UK, while ‘76 million Turks’ would be able to come after Turkey ‘joined’ the EU (which they knew was not going to happen). The otherness of poor, mainly Muslim Turks was mostly implicit, like a lot of antisemitic sentiment, but no less effective for that.
- While the material varied for different segments of the audience, the cruder, habitually non-voting racist was a particular target. VL was credited with bringing out 2 million who didn’t normally vote – the margin of victory was 1.3 millions.
Although many observers wrongly identified Nigel Farage and Leave.EU as the main source of racism in the referendum campaign, Sadiq Khan accused Johnson of ‘Project Hate’, and in his recent memoirs David Cameron (having kept quiet at the time) ‘effectively accused Boris Johnson of mounting a racist campaign by focusing on Turkey and its possible accession to the EU. “It didn’t take long to figure out Leave’s obsession,” he writes. “Why focus on a country that wasn’t an EU member? The answer was that it was a Muslim country, which piqued fears about Islamism, mass migration and the transformation of communities. It was blatant.” Indeed, Cameron echoes the explicitly racist Conservative campaign slogan used in Smethwick in 1964: “They might as well have said: ‘If you want a Muslim for a neighbour, vote “remain”.’
A week after Shipman and Wheeler’s report, Michael Gove launched the first salvo of the new campaign in The Times: ‘Labour is now explicitly in favour of unlimited and uncontrolled immigration. And Nicola Sturgeon is their staunchest ally. The Corbyn-Sturgeon policy is extreme, dangerous and out of touch with the British people. It would mean massive pressure on public services – creating a shortage of school places, putting a huge strain on the NHS and increasing demand for housing. It would also mean Britons are less safe, as a Corbyn-Sturgeon alliance wouldn’t put in place the controls necessary to stop criminals crossing our borders.’ On cue, Conservative Twitter accounts and Facebook advertising began to pump out similar propaganda.
Responding to strategic racism
This strategic weaponising of racism is quite different from the endemic racism among sections of the main parties’ supporters, and the political charge we should make against it is the opposite: rather than failing to take racism seriously, strategic racism acknowledges the seriousness of racism by utilising it for electoral gain.
So we face a double challenge of racism in this election. So far the debate has focused on its endemic forms, and particularly on whether anti-Tories and anti-Brexiters can vote, even tactically, for a Labour Party which is compromised by its failure to eliminate antisemitism, even if the Conservatives are contaminated – perhaps even more broadly – by Islamophobia.
However the threat of strategic racism alters the stakes. Racism looms towards the very centre of the election. Corbyn, for all his faults, is not weaponising antisemitism; indeed he wishes the whole issue would go away. Johnson, on the other hand, is already exploiting and arousing fear of migrants, anxiety about migration and xenophobia, in a calculated and determined way. He may yet reprise 2016’s implicit anti-Muslim and anti-European material.
If that campaign is anything to go by, the biggest danger points will probably be at what one of Shipman’s and Wheeler’s informants calls ‘squeeky bum time’ – if and when the Tory lead falls below the level likely to guarantee a majority. In any case, on the 2016 model, the worst material will be pumped out most incessantly in the final week or ten days, to drum out voters who might otherwise stay at home.
This election is now about whether a party which is prepared to mobilise fear and hate will win an overall majority, to deliver a Brexit in which racism is already baked in by years of UKIP campaigning as well as Vote Leave and Leave.EU. It is about reawakening anti-immigrant sentiment which has calmed in the last three years, as neither the Tories nor Farage have bothered to keep it on the boil. It is about a party prepared to provoke the kind of active hostility which resulted in serious racist abuse and violence towards Europeans and others after 2016.
The anti-Conservative forces in this election, who are mostly content to face Johnson’s hard-right Tories in a divided way, have hardly come to terms with the ruthlessness of his and Cummings’ machine and how it is prepared to win. They need to wise up, and quickly.