Following Labour’s crushing defeat, many commentators and reporters have proffered the view that Labour has become sharply divided between its city – especially London – supporters and those in its traditional heartlands in Wales, the Midlands and Northern England. The former are deemed liberal and progressive in outlook while the latter are socially conservative. This supposed divide is widely accepted as being true and so has been uncontested.
However, it is far from true given that Labour has massive support from some of the most illiberal and socially conservative or, more correctly, reactionary sectors of society – much more so than the Conservative Party – most of whom reside in London and other large cities. Regressive attitudes are often to be found among religious and ethnic minorities.
Though data for the December 2019 election are not yet available, in the 2017 general election, the Runnymede Trust estimates that Labour received about two-thirds of the black and ethnic minority vote and according to British Religion in Numbers, an eye-catching 85% of the Muslim vote.
There is no reason to think that this has changed much two years later. On key social issues, religious-ethnic minorities tend to hold more regressive and intolerant views than the white British population on average, including that in Labour’s strongholds, and this particularly applies to Muslims.
While historically, the majority of ethnic minorities have voted for Labour, the reasons why Muslims vote in such large numbers for Labour has not been fully explored in surveys. A reasonable conjecture is that Labour councils, MPs and governments have been steadfast in supporting Muslim demands for separate rights and exemptions to the law together with a more open immigration policy.
Much survey evidence on Muslims in Britain is available but little on the other major religious-ethnic groups. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, for example, the views of Hindus, Sikhs, and African-Caribbean Christians may not be much better on social issues than those of Muslims. However, given the lack of data for these other groups, I draw attention solely to Muslims.
With respect to Muslims, an extensive survey conducted in 2015 by the polling organisation ICM, which formed the basis of a Channel 4 documentary What British Muslims Really Think, found some highly revealing opinions on key social issues.
In regard to women’s equality, 39% believe that women should always obey their husbands (45% for males; 33% for females – there is no difference in age groups); by contrast only 9% of non-Muslims think this. In regard to homosexuality, 52% want it to be made illegal (9% for non-Muslims) whereas only 18% agree that it should be legal (73 % for non-Muslims).
With respect to adultery, 66% would completely condemn the stoning of an adulterer whereas 13% would condemn to some extent while 10% would neither sympathise nor condemn; 5% would completely sympathise or sympathise to some extent (6% answered ‘don’t know’). Thus, one third of Muslims would not completely condemn the stoning of an adulterer – by contrast, 100% of non-Muslims would completely condemn the stoning of an adulterer.
Concerning freedom of expression, 87% say there should be no right to make fun of the prophet. On violence, 32% refuse to condemn those who take part in violence against those who mock the Prophet and 18% approve of violence against those who mock the prophet.
The survey found that those who sympathise with violence are twice as likely to live more separate lives and hold illiberal views on women’s equality and gay rights. What is worrying is that the views of the younger generation are not much better than those of their parents or grandparents.
These survey findings show that the views of very significant numbers of Muslims across the age groups are highly illiberal and markedly different to the majority white society – be it working class or middle and upper class. These views are a corollary to the manifestation of segregated Muslim communities in towns and cities across the country and they overwhelmingly vote Labour.
In stark contrast, outside Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, the indigenous British population is highly irreligious. Church attendance among the white working class is negligible and for the young, religion has almost become an alien concept. It is fair to say that they are alienated by the strong religious identities of almost all migrant settlers (the Chinese are the exception to this) and do not take kindly to the kowtowing to their culture and religion by the granting of concessions and legal exemptions by national and local governments.
What is almost forgotten is that the major reason for the Brexit vote was an end to open borders and free movement. On this, there is not just a divide but a chasm between Labour’s traditional heartlands and its leadership and members – and this indubitable fact has not been properly addressed by any faction of the party be it Blairite or Corbynite. Furthermore, it is not being hitherto seriously raised by the four contenders for the leadership.
The Labour Party has long held the view that curtailing immigration is racist and so, at its annual conference in September 2019, delegates voted not only to maintain freedom of movement but to extend it thereby demonstrating how out of touch they are with their supporters outside the metropolitan centres, as well as wider society. As with the decision to advocate a second referendum, it was felt to be a betrayal of the Brexit vote, the largest democratic exercise in the UK’s history.
If demands for tougher immigration controls are deemed to be socially conservative then a significant majority can be viewed as being socially conservative – a dubious assertion. Labour has paid a heavy electoral price for not adjusting its policies to the real world and for failing to come to terms with the consequences of the 1997 Blair government’s more open immigration policy and granting of fully open borders to the eight East European countries following their accession to the EU in 2004. Rapid population increase and attendant ethnic and religious change that followed have unsettled large swathes of society including traditional Labour supporters that fueled the Leave vote.
The danger for Labour is that as support drains from its traditional heartlands, so does its reliance on the religious-ethnic minority vote, especially Muslim, increase. This militates against their setting out robust policies on integration, something that the national party and the local councils it runs have steadfastly refused to do. Hence, the regressive, illiberal, views highlighted will remain unchallenged and, in turn, further alienate the majority white society. This does not bode well for Labour in future elections.
– Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the Civitas Think Tank