High inequality will only worsen extremism in the UK

The aches of austerity have not been evenly felt in Britain but fallen hardest on the deprived communities in north of England. Here, towns are enduring the highest poverty rates and weakest economies, this according to a study. Its readings are a terrible forecast for post-Brexit Britain and should make governments gravely concerned about what austerity is doing to social inequality and further creating a divide between people.

The study by the Centre for Cities thinktank found areas such as Liverpool, Blackburn and Barnsley were facing cuts that on average were twice that of areas in the more prosperous south. Amidst a storm of council spending cuts, the poorest areas in the north faced the worst of it as local authority spending slumped nationally by half since 2010.

The sense of a regional fissure in England is only reinforced by the study which highlighted the extent of cuts to public services provided by local councils in the poorer areas compared to the more affluent regions primarily southward. This only further cements the sense that austerity was exclusively the poor paying for the mistakes of those at the top.

In a breakdown of the study, the five areas that endured the most dramatic spending slumps since the beginning of austerity have been those from the north: Barnsley (-40%), Liverpool (-32%), Doncaster (-31%), Wakefield (-30%) and Blackburn (-27%).  The overall national average is -14.3%.

This should not highlight somewhere like London as cocooned from the effects of austerity. The capital has endured the biggest absolute cuts with £3.9bn peeled from investment on services by its boroughs. The study showed that despite bearing only 16% of the national population, London had shouldered 30% of all local government cuts in Britain.

There are two worrying aspects to this, both economically and socially. The socioeconomic concern should be that Britain’s working class are further falling into the mires of poverty, despite most of those in it being in work. Against the backdrop of severe cuts, household budgets are further depleted by the chronic housing crisis which is fuelling demand in the private rent sector and allowing landlords to charge exorbitant rents. Within the workplace there is a lack of dignity at the lower end of the labour market where wages are not enough to sustain costs of living, and the threat of the axe always hangs over their head. There is a crippling sense of insecurity and powerlessness as people feel they are no longer stakeholders in their own society. In this sense, Brexit seems entirely understandable.

But there is also the risk that austerity-induced inequality left unattended by policymakers leaves a gap for extremists to offer radical and dangerous solutions that tear the fabrics of our society. Six years of polling by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate discovered that a rise in far-right extremist thinking centred around immigration and Islam was growing. They also found that negative attitudes towards both existed largely in post-industrial towns with negative attitudes correlating closely with economic deprivation.

Some of this is explained by the concentration of demographics in certain areas. It’s often said that towns with lowest rates of immigration often have the worst views. This makes sense. Greater interactions with immigrants and Muslims that foster a sense of mutual acceptance are unlikely to prompt support in the far-right. But in areas that have been left behind by successive governments and globalisation, where they don’t have enough contact with immigrants and Muslims, their images of who these people are is likely to be constructed by what they read and hear. And given the proliferation of anti-Muslim prejudice in certain sections of the media combined with dangerously inflammatory rhetoric used by some right-wing politicians, it’s not surprising that there are many who feel that groups like Muslims are an external threat to their local communities. This is perpetuated by terrorist attacks or shocking revelations of child grooming gangs. It leads to many seeing a degradation of national values and security caused by Muslims. They don’t see Muslims as part of their communities, but rather an alien limb attached to the body in need of being hacked off.

This underlines that there is a need on two different fronts for political parties to offer solutions to inequality. On a purely nationally self-interested note, it is bad for the economy. A society built on structures of low wage, weak workers’ rights and housing insecurity is not one with consumer confidence. A well-paid economy tends to stimulate local growth by encouraging consumers to reinvest their earnings into their local economies. But in times of austerity, a culture of saving for the unattainable house or paying rising rents, this is likely to not happen. The other side of it is that extremists recognise the resentment festering within impoverished post-industrial towns. These were once areas brimming with self-sustaining growth, security and a sense of communal solidarity and pride. The great industrial hubs roared with economic activity, and sometimes generations from grandfathers to fathers and sons found their stakes in society through the industries. They created deep social bonds between people in that they were labouring together. Unlike the modern job of the private and individualised cubicle in the workplace, the industries were the jobs of collectivism. And they provided communities with ways to live harmoniously. But in leaving these towns to rust amidst fast-paced globalisation and then imposing savage cuts on these towns, we have opened them up to the risk of being exploited by far-right movements who shift the blame away from the elitist institutions that failed them to their fellow migrant workers and the Muslim family down the road.

This is not the sign of a healthy society. We should be concerned by where we are going. Fostering a sense of community cohesion is facilitated not least by making people feel like their membership in it is valued, that they are its long-term stakeholders.

– Written by Rabbil Sikdar

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