"Along with the technological revolution, the transformation of capitalism, and the demise of statism, we have experienced… the widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalisation… [these expressions] include a whole array of reactive movements that build trenches of resistance on behalf of God, nation, ethnicity, family, locality."1

The Power of Identity, Manuel Castells.

The anti-fascist organisation Searchlight has found itself on the front-line of a new politics of identity. What began as a fight against Fascism has broadened as British extremism has changed form over the past decade. It is now impossible to simply deal with the Far Right threat, as Searchlight has done for almost 50 years, without also addressing other forms of extremism acting as drivers and recruiters for the Right. That is why Searchlight commissioned the polling specialist, Populus, to survey attitudes in modern Britain. We hoped to gain a richer understanding of the nature of hope and fear.

There have been dozens of polls and analyses that have tracked changing attitudes towards immigration and race. However, Searchlight’s experience of this shifting dynamic – of a politics of culture, identity, and nation suggested that much deeper forces were driving attitudes towards ‘Others’. These forces did not seem to be adequately described by our traditional notions of social class.

The clearest manifestation of these deeper forces has been the rise of the British National Party (BNP), UK Independence Party (UKIP) and more recently the English Defence League (EDL). While some confidently wrote off the Far Right threat after the BNP’s poor results in last year’s general and local elections, Searchlight believed the threat remained, albeit in a new form. We felt that these far-right parties were simply symptoms of a deeper growth of identity politics, mixed with economic and (perceived and real) social change, which (left unaddressed) would eventually manifest politically. Nature abhors a vacuum; fringe groups seed in fertile ground.

This report and the survey which underpins it is Searchlight’s attempt to create a richer framework through which we can understand the dynamics of hope and fear in modern British society. It also highlights the risks that we face by not comprehending and not responding to strong forces which can divide communities both locally and nationally.

While the traditional class-based, left-right, social democratic/neo-liberal models of British politics still have some relevance, our central argument is that these need to be understood alongside a new politics of identity.

Much of the recent political discourse has been concerned with politicians accepting the rising importance of immigration as a political issue, and the sense that we increasingly lack ‘cohesion’ or ‘integration.’ But political elites are already behind the curve. Political parties have struggled and failed to catch up with the development of a broader and more fundamental politics of identity.

This new politics of identity means:

  • The politics of immigration, a politically active issue in the decade past, has morphed into a politics of culture, identity and nation. This represents a significant shift.
  • The BNP is tied to the old politics of race and immigration. They have failed to adapt, which means they are sinking under the weight of their own negative image. The signs so far are that they are not capable of adapting to a broader politics of culture, identity and nation and therefore unable to reach out beyond the extremist fringes of society.
  • Identity politics will shape-shift and consume extremist, fascist and racially-motivated political forces. These malign forces will not disappear and could merely find new, and on the surface, more respectable homes. The EDL and UKIP are already adapting to the new post-immigration, post-BNP environment and others may follow them.
  • The possibility of the rise of a respectable, anti-violence, anti-immigration, anti-EU, non-fascist, anti-Islamic extremist party of flag and tradition is possible. This is contingent on the perceived competence of the major parties, economic conditions, and credible leadership.

Given this context, and with the coming fiscal austerity, Searchlight Educational Trust commissioned this report and research to broaden discussion and understanding of the current political context. The basic hypothesis that lies behind the research is:

"There is a new political spectrum and dynamic that explains attitudes to culture, identity and nation."

New Tribes

The Fear and HOPE research has identified six ‘identity-defined’ groups in society. At one extreme of this spectrum lie liberals and multiculturalists. At the other end lie both active as well as latently-hostile groups.

These tribes can be defined as follows:

  • Confident Multiculturalists (eight per cent of the population)
  • Mainstream Liberals (16%)
  • Identity Ambivalents (28%)
  • Cultural Integrationists (24%)
  • Latent Hostiles (10%)
  • Active Enmity (13%)

We can see that, broadly speaking, the new politics of identity splits as follows:

  • Liberal 24%
  • Mainstream 52%
  • Hostile 23%

These divides constitute a new political understanding through which personal, community, economic, ethic, national identity, and global issues and attitudes can be understood. A person’s location on this spectrum is no longer accurately described by their socio-economic class alone. For example, voters of the DE social group split 5%-14%-30%-19%-10%-21% [see table: Segment breakdown by class].

By applying the attitudes of these ‘tribes’ to a series of questions focusing on standard of living, race, immigration, nation, identity, community, values, and religion, a number of themes emerge. The following are particularly noteworthy:

  • Optimism v pessimism; security v insecurity.
  • Economic change and identity.
  • Englishness, Britishness and identity.
  • Changing minority attitudes.
  • Social capital v social dislocation.
  • Working class fragmentation and dislocation.
  • Negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslims.
  • The refraction of individual issues through the prism of identity politics.
  • A potential political vacuum on the right.

This analysis is a challenge to central and local Government, political parties, the media, campaign groups and community organisations. A different political dynamic calls for a different approach to policy, communication, organisation, and prioritisation. This report concludes with a series of practical recommendations for a response to the new politics of culture, identity and nation.

The core message, however, is that this changing political dynamic cannot be ignored. As happened with the controversy over immigration, this new dynamic is real and it is not going away. The question is rather: which response will gain the most traction. If it is to be the political mainstream and not the political extremes then a swift set of responses is required. The choice is between a politics of unity or a politics of division. It is between hope and hate.

Searching for new ways to explain political behaviour change

Drivers of political behaviour are the subject of intense academic debate. It is clear that social class has lost much of its importance in determining voting behaviour. This is not the same thing as saying class is irrelevant. The alternative view which states ‘valence’ issues as the major explanation of voting has its own limitations. ‘Valence’ includes image and party reputation. It is a retail form of politics but in itself is unsatisfactory.

For the purposes of understanding what forms attitudes several assumptions have been made.

Firstly, class is weakening as an explanatory factor for peoples’ values, attitudes and voting behaviour. Secondly, while ‘valence’ factors are significant in terms of voting, they have less of an impact when it comes to cultural dispositions and social attitudes. Therefore, attitudes in relation to culture, identity and nation are formed on the basis of a complex interplay of:

  • class
  • personal experience
  • life circumstance
  • media

The central contention is that a politics of identity – where people congregate around the clusters or segments outlined above – has risen alongside a traditional left-right, class-based political axis.

Without understanding these clusters of attitudes towards issues of identity, an understanding of British politics is not possible. As class weakens as a means of understanding social attitudes and political change, and the old left-right dynamic of British politics weakens with it, there is a search for dynamics driving political change. The ‘tribes’ outlined here are intended as a contribution to that discussion.


1. Castells, M. The Power of Identity. 1997, p.2.

The New ‘Tribes’ of British Identity Politics >