Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is there a "new politics of identity"?

The Searchlight Education Trust's "Fear and Hope" research is very interesting, and points out a number of challenges and areas where further investigation would be useful. I'm less convinced, however, by the claim that there is a "new politics of identity". Or, rather, I think the case is not yet proven.

For their research, the authors commissioned an opinion polling company to ask people a whole load of questions about identity politics. The shock horror finding reported in the press was that 48% would definitely or would consider voting for a party which would "defend the English, create an English Parliament, control immigration, challenge Islamic extremism, restrict the
building of mosques and make it compulsory for all public buildings to fly the St George's flag or Union Jack."

But before answering that question, people had been asked more than fifty questions on immigration, what they think about different religions, the extent to which different religious groups cause trouble, the extent to which different religious groups are similar in terms of habits, customs and values, freedom of expression, national identity and much more. This will have put people in a particular frame of mind when they got round to answering the question about support for a new non-violent far right party.

For example, we don't know how many people found the questions on identity really boring and stopped completing the survey part way through, or starting clicking answers at random (I've done this with YouGov surveys on brand awareness). If a large number of people who started the survey dropped out part way through, then it would suggest that claims about a "new politics of identity" are somewhat overstated.

This is not to dispute that the findings are interesting, but to measure the impact of the 'framing' of the questions, it would have been interesting to compare how many people would support a non-violent far right party if asked about it as the first question, rather than after answering several dozen questions on related subjects. We can see, for example, that the poll found that more people identified with the Tories than with Labour, and higher levels of identification for UKIP, BNP and the Greens then other polls have found.

An interesting comparative piece of research, which someone like the TUC might consider commissioning, would be to conduct a similar kind of poll but with a different set of questions.

For example, I wonder how many people would express definitely or possible support for a party which pledged to "defend ordinary working people, crack down on bankers' bonuses, protect British manufacturing from unfair competition, withdraw from the European Union, reduce excessive spending cuts by taxing the rich and renationalise the railways" after being asked lots of questions about bankers' pay, whether ordinary people get a fair deal, whether Britain benefits from the EU, whether they support spending cuts such as closing libraries and whether they think privatisation is appropriate for public services.

I reckon you could get at least 50% support for that party (let's call it the Bony Tenn Party) if you'd asked the right questions, which could then be used to argue that the time has come for the return of the Alternative Economic Strategy.

Searchlight might well be right that identity politics is increasingly important and that Labour is "marooned" in its response. But they need to do more than one big opinion poll to make that case convincing.

Shorter version of this post - what Yes Minister said.

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