What the government needs to know about communities in the UK

- 10 07 24

Labour has won a landslide of 412 seats at the General Election, but this does not guarantee a healing of community relations. 

The incoming government knows that it needs to bring tangible change to people’s lives. But Starmer and his cabinet have not specifically identified yet that alongside economic change or improvements to the NHS, they need to heal divisions in communities and prevent future tensions from escalating.

Why Labour need a community resilience plan

By remaining quiet on issues in communities beyond economic growth and local government, the incoming government is missing the opportunity to address current and potential future community tensions by creating a national strategy to build community resilience. This will involve linking existing resilience-boosting policies with newly-created, localised action plans. 

A resilient community is one which can respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations or disruptive challenges. These could be national in scale, or localised. Resilient communities can adapt during periods of hardship to remain relatively stable, or change for the better after facing hardship. 

We use the term community resilience to build on our 2016 Fear, Hope and Loss report, where we found that the drivers of hate go beyond issues of identity, and include standards of living. In 2020, we expanded on this in our “Hopeful Towns” project, explaining that resilience describes not only whether relations between communities are good or bad, but whether a place is well-equipped to establish those relations in the first place. 

Community resilience relies on three crucial characteristics that allow communities to withstand hardships: 

  • Availability and mobility of resources
  • Feelings of social connectedness 
  • Agency and empowerment

HOPE not hate research finds that all three of these characteristics are under threat in many places across the UK. 

Where there is a lack of resilience, trigger events that put strain on a community can be exploited by divisive actors to spread hate. They exploit complex and often tragic events to turn economic, socio-cultural or political desperation into scapegoating and sometimes even violence. 

The sense of a ‘common struggle’ is broken down as the far right whip up hate through simplistic narratives that place the blame for complex issues onto vulnerable groups – whether that be people seeking asylum using up resources, Muslim ‘hate mobs’ bringing disorder to London, young Black men escalating crime, or the LGBTQ+ community eroding family values. 

The government must seek to understand the protective factors that prevent tensions from spilling over, and the risks associated with their diminishment. Resilience is only possible with a certain baseline of financial, social and democratic wellbeing.  Although trigger events are unpredictable and impossible to avoid entirely, community tensions in response to them do not appear out of nowhere – they are reflective of the wider context within which the stressors occur. 

The new government should take concerning public attitudes on migration, multiculturalism and trust in democracy seriously, as they indicate disastrously low levels of resilience. Failure to promote community resilience around these issues in particular could result in violence, long-lasting harm and a considerable loss of trust from an already tender and downtrodden public. 

The key issues in communities today

Questions of cost of living, migration,multiculturalism and democratic satisfaction are other issues inflaming community tensions. 

Far-right and radical right groups have exploited feelings of scarcity, rivalry, disillusionment and fear. From polling commissioned by HOPE not hate in early June, we can see just how divided and negative attitudes on these issues are.

Perceptions of scarcity

Undoubtedly the top issue for the majority of people in the UK today is the rising cost of living. 

In our poll we found that 63% of people report feeling less than comfortable financially. 

This has prompted a sense of competition and division between different groups in the communities who are hit the hardest. 

Economic positioning is a decisive factor in the development of reactionary and divisive political beliefs. Subconscious racism remains rooted in communities when they feel pitted against each other and in competition for limited resources. 

Communities in the UK appear to be ripe for exploitation from those with “us versus them” or zero sum arguments. Low economic security combined with fragmented social connectedness leaves communities ripe for scapegoating; people can start to believe that migrants/asylum seekers/ethnic or religious minorities accessing services or help directly takes away the help from them. 

The new government has committed to delivering economic stability as their top priority. We will have to wait until the Autumn Budget for a clear picture of the mechanisms for this, but so far they seem to be relying on extremely strict fiscal rules to spur economic growth, address the cost of living and pull people out of poverty. 

A focus on economic growth is needed, but cannot be relied on alone as its timeframe and scale is too uncertain. Labour’s strategy for addressing the cost of living must be underpinned by an inequalities lens, and include direct investment into struggling households and communities. 

However, there is clear caution from Labour about the welfare bill derailing future spending. Their plan to spend just $4.8bn on public services leaves many concerned about the feasibility of their continued operation, let alone improvement. 

Paired with the party’s current ‘tough on welfare’ narrative, there are serious questions about the extent to which they will deliver for those most in need. Markedly missing from their manifesto was a commitment to scrap the two child benefit limit, much to the frustration of the anti-poverty campaign coalition.

Labour policymakers must make more of the connection between a strong baseline quality of living and reduced vulnerability to external stressors and potential flashpoints for tension.They must approach this issue with long term sustainability in mind, understanding that investing in proactive resilience is much more cost effective than the resources required to rebuild communities once they break down. 

Low democratic satisfaction 

People across the political spectrum feel that democratic processes don’t serve them. Our poll found that only a third of people agree that they are satisfied that the political system works well in the UK. 

This is mirrored by findings from the National Centre for Social Research: a record high of 45% of people “almost never” trust the government to put the interests of the nation above their own, a rise of 9% from 2019.

Unsurprisingly, the general election voter turnout is estimated to have been 60%, the lowest turnout since 2001 (59.4%). This is a major area of concern and needs to be addressed.

Without change, it will become increasingly difficult for the new government to prevent these people from being disconnected or at worst become actively anti-politics, joining a growing  movement of those who choose to ignore the system. 

Reform UK’s election vote share demonstrates how far-right parties can thrive off disenfranchisement: they position themselves as alternative representation against the system, despite not offering many positive alternatives of their own.

Starmer has recognised that politics has become toxic, and his government needs to follow through on his intentions to change that with a proper plan to increase democratic satisfaction. 

So far, Labour’s plans focus on increasing electoral participation. They plan to do this through amendments to rules around voter ID and registration and by giving 16-year-olds the vote. Whilst these changes might increase the voter base, they do little to increase the satisfaction and engagement of those who have withdrawn.

The establishment of an independent Ethics and Integrity Commission is important for institutionalising the pathway for restoring trust in politics, however, it will only cut through to the public if Labour engages directly with communities on this issue. 

It is also unclear whether Starmer’s government will repeal some of the anti-protest laws that have been passed by the Conservative party – but it looks unlikely. The last few years of democratic backsliding are not only a huge source of dissatisfaction for the public but contradictory to the standards of a healthy, pluralistic democracy, so this is a key area for change.

Labour’s plans for devolution of power from Westminster will also be crucial. Local authorities should also assist with the revival and support of community-based third sector organisations who can deliver locally on the issues that matter. Replacing “levelling up” with “local government” in the department name and ministerial titles is a cosmetic change that is nonetheless a clear and promising statement of intent.

Opposition to multiculturalism

In recent years there had been a discernible progressive shift in attitudes towards multiculturalism, reflective of improvements in race relations more broadly. However, this has been offset by a doubling down of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, whipping up panic and fuelling a culture war crisis around immigrants, Muslims and multiculturalism more broadly. Meanwhile, meaningful work to address community cohesion has all but ceased. 

Unsurprisingly, 60% of respondents in our poll feel there is an increasing amount of tension between the different ethnic groups living in this country. This is largely fuelled by a lack of regulation of misinformation and disinformation on social media, a complete absence of a centralised strategy on multiculturalism and community tensions, and the government irresponsibly perpetuating inflammatory culture war rhetoric to score political points . 

The recent escalation of conflict in Israel and Palestine has further increased negative attitudes towards multiculturalism. Prior to October 7th, there was a fairly consistent third of the population who were not supportive of multiculturalism. Since then however, this has risen, and continues to rise, with today over half (56%) believing that multiculturalism has failed. 

Labour are inheriting a fractured and divided country. Worryingly, only a minority (19%) of respondents think that relationships in communities will get better over the next few years.

Community cohesion is going to be a key issue going forward, but one that is notably missing from Labour’s agenda. Labour indicates in their manifesto an intention to reverse the previous governments’ decision to “downgrade the monitoring of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate”, but this needs to be part of a holistic, centralised strategy for addressing cohesion between and within communities, one that is cross-sector, multi-scale, and with a whole of society framing. 

Worryingly, we have also seen an increase in intra-ethnic tensions, for example between Jewish and Muslim communities and Hindu and Muslim communities. Crucially, Labour must avoid generic cohesion initiatives that lazily group together white and non-white communities, instead prioritising nuance that can and should underpin successful policy. This must include working with local governments to create and implement localised action plans that reflect local dynamics. 

Migration hostility

Anti-migrant hatred is in many cases an extension of anxiety around multiculturalism – stereotypes around migrants being violent, criminal, dishonest and a danger to women and children are closely related to racist and Islamophobic stereotypes. This has come to a head in the last few years around people seeking asylum in the UK, especially those arriving in small boats.

Scarcity narratives and scapegoating also come into play, as people worry that resources allocated to people seeking asylum and refugees are wrongfully taken away from them. This has been difficult to refute with the soaring costs of the asylum system and the backlog built up in recent years.

We can see an indication of feelings of competition and division in the fact that those who describe feeling worried about their financial situation are more likely than any other group to think immigration has been bad. 

Over the last two years in particular we have seen asylum and immigration become the main outlet for these frustrations, stoked by hostile rhetoric and irresponsible policy from the Conservative government. Labour has an urgent responsibility to lead politics and media to change migration policy and discourse from one of vitriol and performative cruelty to one of compassion and effectiveness.

As promised, Labour scrapped the Rwanda Plan on day one, claiming it was no more than a “gimmick” that was “dead and buried before it started”. Whilst a welcomed departure from the Conservatives’ performative and unworkable cruelty, there is a long road ahead to repair the damage they have left behind. 

Notably, there is little detail available of the “more effective approach to tackling illegal immigration” they have promised. The Border Security Bill expected to be announced during the King’s Speech later this month that will give counter-terrorism powers to “smash” criminal smuggling gangs leaves concerns about the extent to which Starmer’s “tough on crime” angle to migration leaves room to inject some long-awaited compassion into the discourse.

At the community level, there is also the huge question of temporary accommodation, another major piece of the fragmented asylum system puzzle Labour are inheriting. Labour has pledged to end the use of asylum hotels, large scale military sites and barges within a year of coming to power, employing 1000 new caseworkers to clear the backlog and reduce those in temporary accommodation. 

Whilst we welcome this as indeed hotel accommodation has often been a source of community tensions, it is crucial that the resilience of communities is also considered when making plans for dispersal accommodation.

The safeguarding of vulnerable people is paramount, as is engaging with local governments and statutory services to ensure that community attitudes towards key points of friction – such as access to healthcare, school places and general infrastructure – are understood and evaluated prior to a decision being made.

What does this mean for the far right?

HOPE not hate has recorded an increase in far-right activity over the last few years. Far-right anti-migrant activity alone increased by 102% in 2022, and a further 20% in 2023. Far-right terror convictions are at an all-time high. Unfortunately, we might expect to see more of this in the years to come, and communities across the UK will be at the short end of the stick.

The radical political right fared well in the election outcomes. Despite only winning five seats, Nigel Farage and Reform UK came second in 98 other seats and took 14.3% of the popular vote – the third party by vote share. The scale of this protest vote confirms our long held fears of a growing anti-politics movement, and low levels of resilience to divisive narratives. 

Additionally, under a Labour government, the radical political right are likely to become emboldened in their opposition role, goading Labour to shift towards the right or accusing them of being soft-touch, with knock-on consequences for public attitudes.

Following Rishi Sunak’s resignation as leader of the Conservative Party on Friday morning, the other big question is of the future of the Conservative Party. Will Reform’s vote share push for a more radical right strategy? What does this mean for Labour’s opposition? Will they be forced into chasing the right’s increasingly inflammatory narratives? How will this land with protest voters and the wider public?

Change for communities

It’s clear that people in the UK need change: to their individual circumstances, their relationships with others in the community and their relationships with those in power. 

They’ve resoundingly, but not necessarily enthusiastically, chosen the Labour party to deliver this for them; notably, despite a landslide victory, Labour won only 34% of the vote share, and only 21% of Britons think they are going to do a good job

Whether Starmer and his party can rise to the challenge is yet to be seen. What we can see now is the risks of not delivering for communities. 

If Labour fails to manage or meet expectations, this will exacerbate disillusionment and anti-politics sentiment, delivering people into the hands of the far right. This raises serious concerns about the potential state of the country when we return to the polls in five years’ time.

Hold on to Hope flowers

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