openDemocracyUK

Polls, politicians and campaigners – how not to fight racism

The Populus Report, 'Fear and Hope', avoids the central role of politicians in creating a climate of ‘common sense racism’ within which the BNP and EDL have thrived, whilst appearing to endorse David Cameron’s recent ‘muscular liberal’ attack on multiculturalism.
John Grayson
16 April 2011

David Cameron’s Romney speech on Immigration was according to Thursday’s ‘Newsnight’ a response to a MORI poll which suggested 75% of Britons believe that immigration is ‘currently a problem’. Unfortunately for this poll driven politician that particular poll was taken in February, MORI’s April 2011 Issues Index suggests,

This month fewer (17%) mention race relations/immigration – the lowest percentage to do so since April 2002’ whereas 52% mention the economy, 24% unemployment and 22% foreign affairs.

Perhaps Cameron was in fact following a lead given by the recent Populus / Searchlight poll conducted by the polling company his chief political adviser Andrew Cooper founded and has recently left.
This Populus/Searchlight poll and report Fear and Hope on the basis of its findings, suggested that Cameron in his Munich speech on Multiculturalism was appealing to one of the six ‘tribes’ they had identified as Cultural Integrationists.Perhaps last Thursday’s speech was aimed at them as well. The six ‘identity tribes’ the ‘Fear and Hope’ poll claims to have identified amongst the electorate are Confident Multiculturalists (eight per cent of the population); Mainstream Liberals (16%); Identity Ambivalents (28%); Cultural Integrationists (24%); Latent Hostiles (10%); and Active Enmity (13%).

These ‘tribes’ have been conjured from a Populus poll which was designed,

to explore the issues of English identity, faith and race. The Fear and HOPE survey gives a snapshot of current attitudes in society today. It explores the level of fear, hate and hope. It details what pulls us apart and what brings us together.

But the survey raises a range of issues (and disquiet) for anti-racist campaigners. The decision by the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine to commission a political poll from Populus is very strange.
 
Firstly Populus has been the main internet election pollster for the ‘Times’ for the past few years. Its origins are in the Social Market Foundation a right wing think tank with links to the Conservative Party research department. Its founder Andrew Cooper now works for David Cameron.
 
Secondly the decision reinforces the apparent credibility of polling and market research to reliably inform political strategies on the left and in this case Searchlight’s anti-racist campaigning strategies. The poll emerges from the world of a political class packed with public relations, marketing personnel and pollsters, across all the mainstream political parties.
 
The party political activities of pollsters have gone mainly unchallenged in the UK, perhaps simply because of this dominance in centres of power. This is not the case in the USA where there have been challenges to politicised polling by the media in debates on healthcare, taxation, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as one former senior  Gallup executive put it recently
 
‘For years we pollsters have systematically misled the American public about the accuracy of our polls… (We) manufacture a false public consensus on policy issues’
 
A Poll with an agenda?
 
The scope and originality of the Populus Poll has been exaggerated.
It claims to be ‘one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys into attitude, identity and extremism in the UK to date.’ In fact its 5,054 respondents with a few exceptions are drawn from Populus’s standard panel it uses for its mainstream polling business. The Labour government’s quarterly Citizenship survey which dealt with many of the issues in the poll had a regular 16,200 respondents with large BEM and ‘Muslim’ samples. The Populus poll report does not quote this survey, which the Coalition has recently shut down.
 
The poll’s ‘91 questions’ and the methods used in analysing them are based on the controversial and contested ‘social capital’ theories of conservative communitarians like Robert Putnam – testing ‘trust’, social networking, and ‘bonding’ – as indicators of a ‘cohesive’ and healthy civil society. As Ben Fine has recently put it, flirting with social capital in this kind of attitude survey is surely evidence of "researchers behaving badly".

The Poll report and data analysis rely on Putnam’s most controversial notion that diverse ‘welfare’ societies like the U.K. with large scale immigration are inevitably unstable with resentment against migrants sharing benefits which existing citizens have paid for through their taxes. It is interesting that Cameron alludes to this untested theory in his Romney speech,

..Real communities aren't just collections of public service users living in the same space. Real communities are bound by common experiences… knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood ….And these bonds take time. And so real integration takes time too.

"Bonding social capital" in the survey is demonstrated by asking about networking with neighbours and socialising. The Report suggests that in some old industrial areas like Barnsley (where I live and work) the social ‘glue’ has melted away and left behind a ‘disconnected, distracted and increasingly resentful population’ (Themes p 6). No doubt even sociable Barnsley people would appear like this when they are asked (Question 10) whether they regularly ‘have dinner or drinks with neighbours’ (like their cousins in Surbiton no doubt). (1)
 
The poll questions are often partial and emotive. It must be a long time since respondents were asked what differences they thought they have with the "habits, customs and values" of Jews and Hindus – presumably just to highlight that many would definitely feel they had differences with ‘Muslims’ Nowhere is there any attempt to actually define ‘Muslims’. Presumably it was felt that respondents would already take for granted the media stereotype of Pakistani origin communities.
 
Blaming the electorate
 
The real questions about the poll centre on the analysis and commentary. Populus talks of ‘culture’ (the current code for ‘race’) and ‘tribes’. Here the anxieties set in - the last time we heard of ‘tribes’ in this kind of analysis was in 2008 when there was an attempt to construct the notion of a White Working Class. Then there was research and polling of the East End, and a TV series ‘White’ which managed to revive the reputation of Enoch Powell and blame the working class for the rise of the BNP.
 
The Fear and Hope report ‘spins’ the Populus poll results to suggest that there is growing support for a mass non-violent far right party from an electorate much more concerned with identity, and nation rather than class, and an electorate (they suggest justifiably) angered by immigration.  This leads to a series of recommendations which include a warning to Ed Miliband that he should not assume a progressive majority in England and should move his policy to mesh with ‘English identity’. David Cameron is given almost an endorsement for his recent ‘muscular liberal’ attack on multi-culturalism (now a "toxic brand" according to the authors), suggesting that he was playing the right music to his supporters whilst attacking the fascist BNP and racist EDL.
 
Campaigners reading Fear and Hope will come to the conclusion that Searchlight and its Hope not Hate ‘community’ approach to countering the  BNP and the EDL are abandoning the idea of antiracist campaigning. Attempting to move Labour even further right on immigration, with a "politics of identity and nation". The Report, using contested polling methods, in effect blames an allegedly insecure and xenophobic electorate for the compromises politicians have to make with racist policies. The Report totally avoids the central role of politicians themselves, their policies, and the media, in creating discourses and climates of ‘common sense racism’ within which the BNP and EDL have thrived.
 
In Barnsley campaigners face nineteen BNP candidates in May, the largest number in the country. After the Barnsley by-election in February the BNP were shaken and in retreat. We can only hope that David Cameron cynically blowing his dog whistle does not revive their prospects.
 
 
 (1) I am sure some readers will believe I am ‘making this up’ trust me, click on ‘Poll Archive’ and read the information on the Populus website.

NB There is a real problem with references to the Report. I have only been able to work from the on-line version which is not paginated. I have therefore quoted the section of the Report and the page number of that section when downloaded

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