The desperate Tories have one idea left: Target the migrants, ramp up the fear

Nesrine Malik

Achilling preview of a new turmoil is unfolding. “Migrant hunts” at hotels housing asylum seekers, protests including the hard right or arranged by its members, most recently this weekend in Rotherham, have doubled over the past year. The signs are that it will only get worse, as the Conservative party, having run out of credibility and ideas, looks set to spin the wheel and put everything on culture war.
Last week, Iain Anderson, a senior Tory business leader, quit the party as he had learned in discussions with party insiders that Rishi Sunak plans to “ramp up the culture wars” in his 2024 election strategy. In the same week, the party’s new deputy chair, Lee Anderson, said that the next election will probably be “a mix of culture wars and trans debate”.
A vulgar departure from the dog-whistle approach of the past there from Anderson, but clarifying nonetheless. It was “Brexit, Boris and Corbyn” that won it for us in 2019, he went on to helpfully explain. We managed to hoodwink voters last time, he basically stopped short of saying, so now we have to find new ways to do it. We have already had a trailer of these new ways. During his party leadership campaign, Sunak robotically repeated vague claims about the left coming for “our women”, and has since made “small boats” central to his pledges in government. With a busted flush on the economy and political stability, and no hook on which to hang a positive, flourishing vision of the future, the Conservatives’ policy offering has been whittled down to the only thing they have left – fear.
Will it work? Well, yes and no. In terms of securing them another shot at government, it’s probably too late for the Tories to turn it around using only the threat of men in women’s changing rooms and the “invasion” of a few thousand asylum seekers. But that’s not a reason to see these plays as harmless, last-ditch efforts that will evaporate when they are no longer in government.
The Tories tilt the ground eternally in favour of populist politicians, whether they are in government or not, and keep vulnerable minorities exposed to hate speech and sporadic violence. Think of culture war as a foot in the political door, permanently wedged, preventing it from swinging shut once and for all on the right’s prospects. So yes, it will work, if it means people can take stock of how little they have and be manipulated into blaming an immigrant housed temporarily who has even less. Expect all manner of bogeymen from the government in the next few months, but the main focus will be on migrants, always public enemy number one. Their vilification has a long bipartisan history that predates the Tories, driven by the tabloids and a cast of far-right politicians and parties such as Ukip and the BNP.
But there is a more recent history, roughly traceable to Boris Johnson’s demise, where tougher rhetoric and policies have escalated. Suella Braverman embodies this new thuggish approach, as does Anderson: a B-team of heavies brought in when the more slick and smart are too squeamish to do the job. If you can no longer cheerfully promise sunlit uplands under Johnson, you can then claim that you cannot deliver on those promises as your hands are tied because immigrants are aided by human rights conventions and lefties. If you can’t fix your failures, weaponise them. So we end up hearing a lot less about how the government can make your life better, and a lot more about the number of arrivals, small boats, hotels dedicated to their housing and the “alleged” behaviour of asylum seekers harassing young girls, which to this day has not been proved.
The result is an explosive combination of anger and a target with a bullseye clearly painted on its back. The threat of the migrant, a drain on public funds and on the prowl for white schoolgirls, is most resonant, as we have seen in the attack on a hotel housing asylum seekers earlier this month in Knowsley, in predominantly white areas where a sort of hysteria has built up – a swirl of racism, misinformation and deprivation.
You hear the stats on small boats on a regular basis. So here are some others about the conditions of some of the places those migrants are sent to, and then blamed for. In 2017, Knowsley became the first local authority in England to stop offering students A-level education, and it still offers only limited provision. It has among the highest rates of school absenteeism in England. The youngest person arrested after the riot outside the asylum seekers’ hotel this month was 13.
It’s not just about poverty and unemployment. It’s also about torpor and inactivity. And the devil makes work for that. Over the past decade, Knowsley council has lost 45% of its government funding, cut by £485 per person – more than double the average across England of £188. Already in one of the most deprived areas in the country, the council has been hit harder by austerity than any other local authority in the country, and has been almost entirely overlooked by any levelling up plans.
The result, most vivid in Kirkby, the site of the riots, is multigenerational unemployment, a town centre desperate for rejuvenation and ultimately a heady microclimate of racism, isolation and urban mythologising about invading monsters.
Upstream from this scene, there is a more couth version of this hysteria feeding the one on the ground, broadcast throughout the land by newspapers and ghouls such as Nigel Farage, who always has a berth, whether it’s on phone-in radio or GB News, to frame immigrants as a central source of the country’s problems. These genteel city folk would never do anything as vulgar as set fire to a police van, but they will hold the line that doing such a thing is not a ludicrous far-right position, but the expression of people’s legitimate concerns, not about living standards, of course, but entirely unproven allegations of sexual violence. The stirrers’ pay-off isn’t a jail cell for vandalism, but a handsome payment and a following.
Combine this with a desperate government, a country in the grip of a cost of living crisis, Brexit’s unfulfilled promise and hard-right parties hoping to make hay of it all, and you have fertile ground for culture war seeds to take root. They may not flourish fully in the form of another Tory win next year, but they don’t have to for their legacy to be potent and widespread. And as long as Labour has no counter-offensive, either in terms of serious investment in struggling areas, or in terms of culture by taking on deeply entrenched anti-immigration sentiment, then it too will remain vulnerable to attack from a culture war industry that will only redouble in opposition, stalking a country where hate speech and violence tear at our social fabric. The Tories may go, but they will spread as much of the poison as possible before they do. The lesson we must learn before it settles in the water for another generation is that after every riot, protest and violent outbreak, the right question to ask isn’t how has it come to this, but how could it not?
The Guardian