HOPE not hate has been tracking public attitudes for over a decade, to better understand the drivers of fear, to gain deep insights into the communities most vulnerable to hate, and to seek opportunities where we can build hope.
Our ground-breaking Fear & HOPE reports have explored these issues since 2011, looking at what pulls us apart, but at the same time what brings us together.
Since our first report we’ve seen huge shifts in public opinion – many of which have been good news for a politics of hope. Society has become more socially liberal on a range of issues. From gay marriage to immigration, social norms have been dramatically moved to a more open and tolerant place.
In part this has been an organic process, a result of our society becoming both more diverse and more educated over time. But it has also been spurred by exposure to this growing change: the diverse Britain that we see on our TV screens is a key part of building our cultural ecology, as are our changing neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces.
But this positive picture doesn’t necessarily chime with what we’ve seen play out in politics or media. Scaremongering about asylum seekers arriving across The Channel, divisive public debate around race relations, trans rights and LGBT+ education in schools, as well as attacks on the “woke” world, have all been front and centre of British politics for the last year.
Of course, what we see in our politics is not necessarily a reflection of where the public sits across social issues. More often than not the messaging in politics and in media is used as a tactic to divide. Cultural conflicts are nothing new, but in the last few years symbolic issues and questions of identity have not just become louder, but more antagonistic in the so-called “culture wars”. It is not that there are specific “culture war issues”: it is that any issue can be politicised in such a way.
Moreover, culture wars shift over time, so that once consensus has been met on one issue, another may emerge. So we see figures such as former UKIP leader Nigel Farage shapeshifting his reactionary political tone across issues as diverse as immigration, fiscal policy and net zero climate targets.
And while our research reaffirms that culture wars are not reflected in deep polarisation in public attitudes, we do find that this strategy has had an impact in reframing political debates. In turn, the culture wars strategy has cut through in shaping a more reactive identity politics that is drawing in a newer audience to these messages.
Our research looks at the interaction between social attitudes and an increasingly reactive political space, finding a significant shift around identity issues. Not all issues have become polarised in the same way, however.
As the politics of identity have played out over the last decade, certain attitudes, values or framings on key issues have become more dominant. And that is changing the political landscape dramatically. Our research found that many respondents hold multiple and varying views that do not align with the attitudes we might expect on other social questions.
For example, someone’s views on crime and punishment might allow us to make a good prediction about their views on taxation. But repeatedly in our study, we found that this was not the case for the majority. What our survey thought about immigration was not correlated directly to how people responded on race relations. And what they thought about state spending was not correlated to their thinking on climate change.
What we saw in our research was a move away from attitudes structured on an ideological basis, towards a more complex picture, making it harder to predict attitudes across issues.
This complicating of public attitudes is, in part, the result of a political landscape where dominant framings on individual issues are attracting a wider base. There are a clear number of issues on which progressives have pulled consensus in their direction, such as LGBT+ rights, but for others reactionary framings have become dominant.
Growing social liberalism across society has been met with roadblocks. Those pushing for further progress have been shunned as “out of touch” or “going too far”.
As society has become more socially liberal, identity politics have increasingly been framed by the Right around a reaction to progressive values, cutting across multiple issues, from modern masculinity to structural racism and trans rights.
There is now public consensus around both the economic and cultural benefits of immigration, but on issues of asylum this falls short, with a large majority seeing asylum seekers as a security threat. The majority of people voice concern about levels of racism in Britain and acknowledge the everyday discrimination faced by Black and Asian people, but there is broad resistance among the public to challenge structural racism, and a majority reject notions of privilege based on identity. There is a broad consensus on gender equality, too, but at the same time a majority feel that feminists have gone too far and now jeopardise the rights of men.
Of course the majority of people do not attach enough weight to their views on one or two issues to compromise their views on others. But because it is harder to predict views on an ideological basis, we need to understand how identity issues intersect, and where new coalitions can potentially form.
The traditional far right’s politics of racial nationalism and opposition to immigration tended to appeal to a shrinking base of older, white British, non-graduate, and predominantly male group of voters. But the new alignment of identity politics identified in our research presents a more complex landscape.
Rather than there being one group who share a similar set of views and values, attracted to an agenda rooted in racial prejudice, we find that a more diverse group, with a more mixed set of views and values, are drawn to an agenda shaped by a reaction to progressive values.
Demographic characteristics are less of an attitudinal predictor, and we have witnessed a growth in reactionary identity issues among young people – and in particular young men – alongside an older, more traditionally conservative audience.
This would seem to contradict the vast majority of public attitude studies, where younger respondents generally hold more socially liberal views than older cohorts. Indeed, our research reaffirms that younger people are more likely to share more positive views of immigration, to embrace multiculturalism and support anti-racist initiatives, than older age groups.
In fact, we found that social attitudes among 16-24s are more likely to be progressive than they were 10 years ago. In 2011, just 41% said immigration had been a good thing for Britain compared to 61% today. Just over half saw multiculturalism as a core component of British culture in 2011, compared with 65% today.
But on certain issues, young people are more likely to hold some more regressive views.
They are more likely to think, for example, that political violence can be acceptable for something you strongly believe in, or that feminism holds men back, and are also the most likely of all age groups to believe that women can be to blame for sexual violence against themselves (25%).
And while more than twice as many people overall voiced a preference for democracy (54%) as authoritarian leadership (26%), just as many 18- 24s would prefer a political system based on liberal democracy with regular elections and a multiparty system (42%) as would prefer having a strong and decisive leader who did not have to bother with parliament or elections (41%).
Young people’s low trust in political institutions somewhat explains their openness to conspiracies about a “new world order” – where a group of elites controls events (a belief shared by 50% of 25-34s and 47% of 18-24s) – which opens a clear route to more extreme beliefs. Shockingly, more than a third of 18-24s agree that Jewish people have an unhealthy control over the world’s banking system (34%).
Rather than a unified bloc of “far-right” voters, the new politics of identity offers us a warning: that a diverse collective of voters holding reactionary views on certain issues might be brought together by those peddling hate. Our research highlights the importance of understanding how to engage with these new audiences.
This collective of voters includes traditional social conservatives alongside young reactionaries. It also sweeps together those whose precarity and uncertainty finds articulation though “status deficit”, and others who are generally socially liberal but become reactive when they see things pushed “too far”.
Clearly, different approaches will be needed to engage with each group and to widen resistance among other groups. But there can no longer be complacency among progressives about how certain demographics will act.
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