Tackling Islamophobia: We need to play the clever game

This post originally appeared on The Guardian‘s Comment is free.

In the aftermath of the Woolwich attack, Islamophobia is firmly back on the radar of British politics. The increase in attacks against mosques and renewed support for far right groups have reminded us all of the need to think seriously about how to root out anti-Muslim sentiment and tackle misperceptions about Islam. Today, few serious commentators cling to the bankrupt idea that Islamophobia is not an issue, or is the product of overly sensitive British Muslims.

The fact that this does pose a major challenge is why, alongside Muslims and non-Muslims, I agreed to join the cross-government working group on anti-Muslim hatred, to ensure that this type of prejudice receives the same resource and effort as Britain’s earlier fight against anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism and homophobia, and that this work is anchored in the latest evidence. But if we are to win this fight, then we need to fight clever.

One problem that we face are unhelpful opinion polls, which either attempt to show the world how many Muslims sympathize with terrorists, or how non-Muslims don’t like Muslims. They might be driven by good intentions but they often inflame tensions and provide new ammunition to extremists. And worse, they are often not even accurate.

The latest is a poll by the BBC and Comres, presented under the headline, ‘Quarter of young British people do not trust Muslims’, with a picture of two Muslim women in full religious dress. The messages are familiar: a large chunk of young Britons do not trust Muslims; they think Britain would be better off with fewer Muslims; and say most Muslims have a negative image. The poll was quickly the top story on the BBC Newsbeat website.

Yet as with many polls it comes with problems, none of which stopped the BBC running with a headline that will be taken by extremists on all sides as justifying their narrative. On the far right, groups like the EDL will argue this shows young Britons recognise the ‘threat’ from Islam. On the radical religious fringe this will be used as evidence for why ‘Muslim’ and ‘British’ identities are irreconcilable, and that Muslims should not give their loyalty to a nation that offers only hate in return. In between these two poles are the moderate Muslim and non-Muslim majorities, who will quietly conclude that either they are disliked by a new generation of Islamophobes, or that perhaps there is a reason why they should not trust their Muslim neighbours. In short, this is not fighting clever.

Let’s consider the problems. Like most polls this is only a quick and dirty snapshot of public opinion, which was taken in the aftermath of the Woolwich attack and tells us nothing about how these views might have changed over time. It’s like the polls after 7/7, which hit the press claiming a decent number of British Muslims endorse terrorism. But the polls never bothered to see whether these views had changed over time, or compared them to others in society, and so it was impossible to know if only Muslims felt this way, or everyone did. Put simply, they were meaningless (but still dominated headlines).

The BBC poll similarly has no sample of the wider population, so we have no way of knowing whether these views are unique to the young Britons who were polled, whether they reflect the national trend, or whether they paint a more positive picture of a young generation who are more at ease with migrants and minorities than older Britons. My money is on the last of these three, and here is why.

In recent years researchers, including myself, have shown there is a sharp generational divide in British attitudes toward immigration, minorities and Islam. The most rigorous of these studies was carried out by Robert Ford, who tracked British attitudes over time to show how young people are less likely than their parents and grandparent to express prejudiced views. Others have shown young Britons are more at ease with homosexuality, less likely than their predecessors to hold authoritarian views and less likely to endorse ideas advocated by far right groups.

In our forthcoming book, Revolt on the Right, we extend this picture to show how young Britons are not only less prejudiced, but less Eurosceptic and less likely to view British national identity along ethnic lines. It is this evidence, which has been reviewed by experts and comes with much more reliable data, that should lead the debate, not an occasional poll with an irresponsible headline.

These generational differences reflect much wider trends that have been shaping British society: the fact that older generations have memories of Britain before mass immigration, have little contact with others from different backgrounds and did not benefit from wider access to university education. This picture is markedly different for young Britons: they know nothing other than a Britain that is in the EU and welcomes migrants, and frequently interact with people from different backgrounds. This is reflected in the BBC poll, although these figures did not make the write-up. Almost two thirds of 18-24 year olds interact weekly with someone from the LGBT communities, one in two interact weekly with a second-generation immigrant and about one in three are interacting weekly with EU and non-EU migrants. This interaction is key, as it has been shown to reduce prejudice and boost tolerance.

Young people are also more likely than older generations to have a university degree, and this matters. Indeed, in the BBC poll the idea that Britain would be better off by reducing the presence of religious groups had consistently less support among those who had gone to university. So why aren’t we having a debate about how to get more young people into university, rather than wondering about why only a small number don’t trust Muslims and other religious groups?

In fact generally the young people in the poll appeared at ease with immigration and Islam, but again this did not make the headline. Consider this; 25% of them saw immigration as the most important issue facing Britain, which was not only far below their worries over the economy but was also ten points lower than the national average at the time of the survey. Sure, young people were slightly more likely to say Britain would be better off if there were fewer Muslims, compared to other groups. But still, less then three in ten held this view and across all religious groups a large majority of young people showed little interest either way: they either thought it would make no difference, or did not know either way. We have always liked to shout about the negative trends in our society. But we also need to shout about the positive ones, too.

So, if we are going to explore these kinds of questions then we need to make sure that we do it properly, with good data and in a way that does not inadvertently legitimise the narratives of extremists. This means building stronger bridges between journalists, editors and researchers, and also discussing whether some polls and their press releases should be subject to some kind of peer review. In short, we need to take a more clever approach.

Matthew Goodwin

Though currently indifferent, young Germans may begin to reject the EU if economic conditions worsen

Image by Malik_Braun

Image by Malik_Braun

Until the start of the Eurozone crisis, sociological research on integration in the European Union depended very much on the idea of “permissive consensus” by the people, meaning a tacit acceptance of EU policy. In this context and in Germany in particular, the political and economic elites who pushed for the deepening and enlargement of the EU, and for the introduction of the euro, were not forced to consider their relationship with, and the approval of, Europe’s citizens.

But this has changed. The newest research into public opinion in Europe has found a loss of trust and an increasingly unsettled relationship between Europe’s governing bodies and voters. Now, the prevailing notion of the EU’s relationship with its citizens has developed towards a “constraining dissensus”, as belief in the comprehensive projects aimed at closer European cooperation is no longer shared by the majority of the people. In this context, political and economic elites in the member states, as well as at the European level, are aware that the EU and its political institutions are dependent on a certain degree of public approval. Particularly in those member states where the constitution does not allow for a referendum (like in Germany), politicians are acting between two partly contradictory levels: the domestic and national state level, and the European level.

We focus on two different Euroscepticism ‘stances’ that have been developed:

  1. Soft stance: This represents the criticism of single manifestations of the EU, such as its policies and institutions, without putting the entire EU into question;
  2. Grim stance: This is a general rejection of the entire political and economic process of EU integration.

In Germany, according to Eurobarometer data, the sense of “EU integration harmony”, between voters, social elites and political parties, which until relatively recently had been very stable, has crashed. According to surveys from 2011, the proportion of Germans that feel that Germany benefits from the EU is 48 per cent, lower than the EU average of 52 per cent. Using net-benefit figures (the number of people who recognise benefits, minus those people who do not see any benefits), the picture sharpens even more. Whereas the EU average rate for net-benefit is 15 per cent, this rate is 6 per cent for Germany. Only the rates in Italy (2 per cent), Cyprus (2 per cent), Latvia (0 per cent), Austria (-2 per cent), Greece (-3 per cent), Hungary (-9 per cent) and the UK (-19 per cent) are lower.

In particular, the further enlargement of the EU is now viewed very critically by Germans. Eurobarometer demonstrates that in no other EU member country, with the exception of Austria, is the rejection of further EU enlargement so strong, at 71 per cent, whereas only 22 per cent are pro-enlargement. What makes these figures all the more worrying is that all German governments have acted as a driving force (together with France) for the further integration and enlargement of the EU.

At present, it is unclear how Germans would react if the country’s €190 billion share of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) loan guarantee was to actually turn into real payment obligations. Considering that the people in Germany opposed the creation of the euro more than in any other member state, we assume that Germans (including young people, whose futures might be deteriorating because of the Eurozone crisis) would become openly hostile towards the EU. This cannot be ignored by the economic and political elites.

As part of the European MYPLACE project, in the late autumn of 2012 we interviewed 30 West German young people between 16 and 25 about politics. When they were asked about the European Union and the role of Germany within it, young people generally mentioned some positive aspects, but were critical of the current political state of the EU. They perceive the EU as an elitist project which does not encourage or enable the political participation of young people.

Positive aspects of the EU 

The positive points most often highlighted by young people were the freedom of travel within the EU and the fact that there is no longer a need to change currencies when traveling. Some also pointed out that the abolition of strict border controls also means easier import and export routines for the economically strong and centrally located Germany:

“Well, we are for sure a very, very important country in Europe, because of our economic strength. There are many people living here, so we also play an important role, because of the density of our population … . In former times, we were also considered as ‘Europe’s heart’ … or we considered ourselves that way.”

Indifferent/ambivalent views on the EU 

For some young people, the central role of Germany in the EU is also the reason that they have a critical view of the EU. They see that it is difficult for Germany to play an important position in the EU, because of its former involvement in the two World Wars. Nevertheless, Germany now has an economically strong position within the EU from which many commitments have arisen: e.g. payments for countries which are not able to follow financial EU guidelines. Thus they think:

“Well, I think Germany is important for Europe. But actually I don’t think that Europe is that important for Germany.”

Moreover, the majority of young people criticised the obligations that are being placed on Germany to support indebted countries such as Greece. These respondents fear that their country is being exploited and believe that the financial support should be lower. Additionally, the interview participants expressed a critical position towards tendencies towards globalisation as these are connected with the clash of very different cultures and a loss of sovereignty. They already feel that they (as individuals) have very little political power within Germany. But one voice among 82 million voices counts more than one voice among 500 million voices in the EU:

“There are so many problems connected with it. First of all … suddenly there are not 80 million voices any more, but, I don’t know, one billion voices? […] This means I suddenly have much less power with my voice.”

Finally, our qualitative interviews illustrated that EU politics is not at all transparent for German young people. They feel that there are fewer prospects for participating at the EU level than there are at the national level. This leads us to the conclusion that there are emerging parallel worlds. 

On the one side, the parliamentary democracy of an EU member state fosters tendencies towards professionalised participation of its citizens at the national level, which is then much more complicated at the EU level. Even though a range of youth projects and initiatives that aim to foster commitment to the EU formally exist, these reach only a minority of young people. None of the individuals that we have interviewed in this context has ever referred to participation in an EU-funded project or organisation.

On the other side, there are young people who engage in projects and institutions that display a form of self-organisation, mostly at the local level, that is distant from the conventional political engagement patterns that make any reference to the EU. Youths prefer to shift their engagement from smaller to bigger things – as they perceive it “from feasible projects to more abstract things”.

Currently young people in Germany prefer the “soft stance” towards the EU. But if the ESM’s loan guarantees turn into real payment obligations (which has already started with a real cash payment of €730 million for 2013), and if the socio-economic conditions in Germany worsen and thus the currently record low youth unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent in January 2013 (the EU average is 23.6 per cent) increases, a majority of young people could move to a “grim stance” towards the EU, much sooner than expected.

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Britta Busse is a Research Assistant at the Institute Labour and Economy, University of Bremen (project funded by the EU: “MYPLACE”).

Alexandra Hashem-Wangler is co-leader in the EU-research project MYPLACE (“Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement”) at the Institute Labour and Economy at the University of Bremen. 

Jochen Tholen is research director at the Institute Labour and Economy, at the University of Bremen, Germany. 

The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them

The forthcoming tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has prompted much debate – including the claim by Sam Parker in the Huffington Post that the invasion of Iraq and Tony Blair’s ‘hubris’ “robbed a generation of their faith in politics”. As a result of the Government’s refusal to change course, he and apparently his generation “don’t trust the political system, and… don’t believe in politicians”.  Owen Jones has similarly recounted his experience of discussing politics with young people: “When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched [against the Iraq war] ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t”, a sentiment shared by Andrew Murray who argues that the ‘shadow of the largest demonstration in history’ and the fact that it didn’t stop the war constituted a ‘body blow’ for British democracy.

There are good responses, on normative grounds, to both these articles, here and here, but is the claim true empirically?  Thanks to data available from the Audit of Political Engagement, the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society surveys, and the British Election Study, we can test the belief that Iraq has destroyed a generation’s faith in British politics.

Let’s start with measures of political efficacy – the perception of how capable people are of influencing political outcomes when they engage with politics. Figure 1 shows the political efficacy of young people (18 – 24 year olds) from the British Election Study (for 2001, 2005 and 2010) and from the Audit of Political Engagement (from 2003 – 2011). It also shows the efficacy of over 25s from the Audit series for comparison.

It is clear that the events of 2003 had virtually no effect on the perceived political effectiveness of young people, or indeed the rest of the electorate. In 2001, according to the British Election Survey just under 20% of 18–24 year olds reported having some feeling of political efficacy. By 2010, this figure had risen to 22%. The Audit of Political Engagement data shows that in 2003, 39% of young people reported some sense of political efficacy. This figure fluctuated slightly in the following 8 years, and was a slightly higher 41% by 2011. The lack of government responsiveness to the protests against the Iraq war therefore did little to disrupt British voters’ belief that they could change political outcomes if they engaged with politics.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (and Understanding Society from 2009) we can also look at interest in politics. Had the Iraq war destroyed people’s faith in politics, we might expect interest in politics to drop from 2004; if people didn’t feel that politicians would listen to them no matter what they did, why be interested in politics?

The British Household Panel Survey shows that in 2002, 60% of 18–24 year olds had at least some interest in politics. This fell to 57% by 2004 immediately after the Iraq war (hardly indicative of a collapse of political interest), and by 2010 had returned to 60%. There was no collapse in the political interest of young people after the invasion of Iraq.

Data from the British Election Study confirms these findings. Figure 2 shows a range of variables measuring the political attitudes of 18-24 year olds. It confirms that there was no sudden drop in their political interest between the 2001 and 2005 general elections. It also shows that whilst young people’s belief that it was their civic duty to vote in general elections did fall (by 6%) between 2001 and 2010, their overall satisfaction with British democracy – perhaps the most direct indicator relating to the argument that  Iraq destroyed faith in British politics –increased in the same period. In 2001, 58% of young people were satisfied with British democracy; by 2005, the election immediately following the Iraq war, this figure rose to 61%, and reached 66% by 2010. By the time of the general election after the Iraq war, young people were more likely to be satisfied with British democracy than they were before it. There is no evidence at all that an entire generation has been politically scarred for life by the invasion of Iraq or the events that surrounded it.

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

We can go further still in this analysis, however, and compare the political attitudes of the 18–24 year old cohort in 2003 with those of the 25–34 year old cohort in 2011. In other words, we can see how the political attitudes of the generation who were aged 18-24 in 2003 have changed as they have aged. Figure 3 below does just this, using data from the Audit of Political Engagement.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

The figures show pretty definitively that the young people of 2003 did not have their confidence destroyed by the invasion of Iraq, or Tony Blair’s refusal to call off the invasion. The proportion who agreed that they could influence politics if they engaged rose by 3% between 2003 and 2011, and their likelihood to say that they will definitely vote in a general election rose by a similar amount. Their interest in politics fell slightly (by 2%), but certainly not to an extent that would suggest a collapse in democratic confidence.

There was a notable increase of 8% in the proportion who felt that the British political system needs to be improved, but before we read too much into that we should note that the equivalent figures for the entire electorate are very similar: 63% of Brits felt that the British political system needed to be improved in 2003, and this reached 74% by 2011. The generation of 18–24 year olds in 2003 are certainly not alone in becoming more likely to think that British politics needs reform, and following the expenses scandal of 2009 perhaps this is not surprising.

We can see that the invasion of Iraq, the government’s refusal to call off the war, the accusations that dossiers were ‘sexed up’, and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction, actually did very little to undermine the faith in politics of any generation of British voters. These things may well have contributed to a growing feeling that the British political system needs reform, and to the steady decline in political interest over the last decade. But it is clear that there was no collapse of faith in democracy amongst the young people who protested against the invasion of Iraq – or amongst today’s young. People looking to pin the blame for the low political engagement of young people with British politics will have to look beyond Iraq for their explanation.

Stuart Fox


Not everyone is anti-EU: young people and the Eurosceptic vote

Endless speculation about the rise of UKIP, the threat they pose to the chances of the Tories or Labour forming a majority government after 2015, and the desperate need of both parties to woo the British ‘eurosceptic vote’, have become an almost daily feature of British political commentary in the last year. But is the British electorate really as unified in its Euroscepticism as this debate would suggest?

Data gathered from multiple sources casts doubt over such claims – and in particular, such claims fail to note the generational differences amongst the British electorate. For example, the British Election Study for 2010 shows that at the time of the last General Election, 22% of 18–24 year olds could be called ‘Eurosceptics’; that is, they disapproved of Britain’s relationship with the EU.  The next age group, 25–34 year olds, held virtually identical views, after which anti-EU sentiment became more prevalent with age, finally reaching a peak in the over-65s, more than half of whom were Eurosceptic.

Data from the Eurobarometer series confirms that young people have been less likely to be Eurosceptic than their elders for some time. The graph below demonstrates the fluctuating fortunes of Euroscepticism amongst the electorate – rising, then falling, then rising again – and it shows the differences between the percentage of 15–24 year olds and the rest of the electorate holding Eurosceptic attitudes. In 1975, there was almost no difference between the two groups, but the gap has been growing steadily since – and by 2010 reached 19%.

Likelihood of Eursocepticism in the UK, 1975 - 2010

Respondents saying that they disapprove or strongly disapprove of the UKs relationship with the EU in Eurobarometer surveys are identified as ‘Eurosceptic’

The differences in attitudes towards the EU, however, do not stop at ‘europhilism’ vs ‘euroscepticism’. Young people also hold distinct views of the influence of the EU. The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement series asked in four separate surveys – in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2010 – which institutions had the greatest influence over daily life. Taking the four together, on average 9% of 18–24 year olds identified the EU as having substantial influence over daily life, compared with 26% of over 65s.

In a time of increasing globalisation and declining influence for national governments, the perceived influence of trans-national institutions such as businesses and the EU can be of great importance to voters; such perceptions could well be at the root of differences in affection for or hostility towards the EU among different generations of the British electorate (see here for a further blog post on globalisation and the consequences for governments).

Another observation from the graph is the instability of Eurosceptic attitudes. There are several periods during which Euroscepticism fluctuated substantially in a relatively short time-frame, suggesting that attitudes on Europe are fairly malleable and could be quite responsive to political events (such as the effect of Europe on John Major’s government and the Maastricht Treaty).

What does this mean for Euroscepticism in Britain, and for the political parties hell-bent on mopping up (or at least not losing) the Eurosceptic vote in 2015? First, despite the regular citing of opinion polls in the press and the claims of Eurosceptic politicians suggesting otherwise, the British electorate is not unified in its hostility towards the EU. Politicians and political parties believing that they are representing the majority of Brits in their Euroscepticism may wish to reconsider; they may be alienating more voters than they realise, particularly the younger sections of the electorate.

Second, given the instability of attitudes towards the EU, and the fact that – despite this instability – young people have become less likely than their elders to be Eurosceptics since 1980, it is far from clear that Euroscepticism is here to stay. It is possible that the demands for anti-EU sentiments from politicians will wane over the coming elections as the older, more hostile, members of the electorate are replaced by younger voters more supportive of – or at least less hostile towards – Britain’s relationship with the European Union. It is also possible, of course, that young people’s attitudes may change; they may suddenly become more Eurosceptic if political events prompt them to do so (as in 1985), or, as they age and become more exposed to the EU, come to share the view of their elders that the EU is more influential in daily life than they realised.

Either way, it is possible that politicians may soon find themselves back-tracking in their attempts to outflank each other on Euroscepticism, and be forced into developing newfound enthusiasm for the EU to keep pace with the beliefs of the voters. Britain’s parties would be unwise to count on Eurosceptic attitudes becoming a common feature of the British electorate.

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Stuart Fox is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham

Young people and debt

It is now almost a truism to say young people have been negatively affected by the recent economic downturn. Youth unemployment now stands at 22% with 1.3 million 16 to 24 year olds out of work. As a result young people are increasingly likely to face acute financial trouble and are severely at risk of intractable social and financial exclusion.

In response to this situation, I was commissioned by Nottingham Community Housing Association – a leading social housing provider – to conduct research on the relationship between young people in their properties and debt. The research will inform its planned strategy of encouraging more effective money-management and the use of stable lending services (in particular Credit Unions) by younger tenants.

The study – due to be released at the beginning of the new year – focused on debt literacy and the awareness of the risks of payday loan companies amongst housing tenants aged between 17 and 25. Based on in-depth interviews with a sample of ten tenants in Nottingham city, the study gives an important insight into young tenants’ relationship with debt and borrowing. The report shows what steps need to be taken in order to minimise over-indebtedness and encourage more responsible money-management by young people.

Irresponsible borrowing and poor money-management have been significant contributing factors in the rise of over-indebtedness. Borrowing in itself need not be problematic unless it becomes unmanageable, but without effective support, debt problems can exacerbate social and financial exclusion, particularly for those young people in vulnerable, lower-income groups.

My research mapped out a robust outline of young tenants’ key financial challenges and the rationale behind their decision-making, providing a vital insight into tenants’ perspectives on borrowing and highlighting how they view high-cost money-lending agencies and their awareness of the risks of indebtedness.

The findings of the report were both positive and negative. On the positive side, my work indicates that younger NCHA tenants are – despite what some might imagine – reasonably debt-literate. Those interviewed emphasised their aversion to borrowing and were very sceptical of agencies marketed as ‘easy lending options’ such as payday loan companies. The overwhelming majority were well aware that such ‘easy options’ were high-cost and high-risk. Their borrowing is often restricted to small amounts and few had either borrowed or would consider borrowing more substantial amounts unless there was an immediate or unforeseen necessity that could not be covered by their existing income.

However the study shows that there are still limitations in young tenants’ financial knowledge, particularly in relation to responsible borrowing. Worryingly the study indicates that there is a lack of ‘future-thinking’ amongst tenants with regard to money-management. For example, the majority of young tenants’ debt awareness has been acquired due to their own or their friends’ and family members’ bad experiences of borrowing. This suggests a potentially dangerous situation where young people are learning about debt through being in debt rather than part of a preventative strategy of managing their finances successfully.

Moreover, their aversion to borrowing did not discriminate between more responsible borrowing options (such as Credit Unions) and other less stable lending services. Many instead expressed a preference to borrow small amounts from friends and family only when absolutely necessary, potentially leading to financial exclusion or future debt problems when these option are not available. Younger tenants are not inclined to enter into more stable borrowing programmes, such as bank loans, rather they emphasised the importance of being able to access money quickly. Such information is of key importance to developing an effective strategy for encouraging more responsible borrowing.

My research concludes by recommending that the NCHA might take into account in their financial responsibility strategy measures such as encouraging structured borrowing, providing preventative financial education, and supporting efficient lending practices such as Credit Unions.

Deirdre Duffy