This week, the British people go to the ballot box – the third time in four years, and the second time since the Brexit referendum advisory vote in 2016. It is one where the discourse of bigotry in the public arena is a major concern. That is why the two main contenders for the position of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, were asked on Friday night on the BBC, "What would you do to get the hate out of politics?"
As a non-partisan academic who has never joined a political party, I have advised representatives of all the major national political parties in the UK. This election, I have seen extremely troubling trends active in all of them when it comes to the issue of bigotry.
When it comes to Islamophobia, the Conservative party insists on underestimating the gravity of the problem, preferring to distract. On Friday night, Mr Johnson blamed the ‘scratchiness of politics’ on the inability ‘to get Brexit done’ – a redirection of concern par excellence. When pushed on the question of Islamophobia, there was more deflection. There have been calls by senior Tories, including the former chairperson of the party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, as well as scores of civil society figures, for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia. Despite agreeing to that initially, Mr Johnson on Friday chose to again bounce the question by promising an investigation into bigotry in general. He then tried to redirect concerns about Islamophobia by focusing on Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism – as though such accusations made the Conservative Party somehow better. Considering that Mr Johnson himself has been accused of Islamophobia, his failure to properly deal with the prevalence of Islamophobic discourse among substantial portions of his party will do little to reassure those who oppose Islamophobia. On the contrary, he has chosen to deflect responsibility time and again. At a time when the mainstreaming of Islamophobia has led to a rise of anti-Muslim hate crime, this is inexcusable.
The Labour party is the historical party of the anti-racist movement – but today, many Jewish Britons are deeply antipathetic, due to accusations that anti-Semitism is widely tolerated in the party. On Friday, Mr Corbyn insisted his party “have suspended or expelled members where we have found them guilty of anti-Semitic behaviour”. But no less than the Chief Rabbi has accused the leader of the party of allowing a “poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in Labour. The party’s shadow equalities minister, Naz Shah, declared the Labour Party should have done more to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks. There is undoubtedly a range of opinion among British Jews on the issue, and Mr Johnson claimed on Friday night that Mr Corbyn was ‘very well-intentioned’, accepting Mr Corbyn wasn’t anti-Semitic himself. But it would be irresponsible to deny that the leadership has failed to effectively deal with anti-Semitism. And many Jewish Britons, including traditional Labour voters, are going to be justifiably nervous about that – we all should be.
The twin concern about bigotry in our two main national political parties is important for not simply this election. It is an issue that should cause all Britons to pause about the future of the nation. We live in a time when populism on the left and the right has taken aim at our social cohesion, and where the top political leadership on both sides of the political spectrum has failed us.
Being the party of power for close to a decade – and currently leading in the polls – the Conservatives warrant more inspection in this regard. Mr Johnson should take that obligation sincerely – and his moves are wholly insufficient in this regard. But Labour has not acquitted itself sufficiently well either, and when Britons go to the ballot boxes, many will be torn about its record.
There are many reasons people will prioritise when they do decide to cast their vote. Many will consider the Brexit question above all else; others will be concerned about more local issues. Difference in politics is perhaps the most natural consequence of any open political system, and we should not be surprised in that regard. But after this election, the matter of our social cohesion will remain, and will target the vulnerable in a way unlike any other election hitherto. Howsoever the result will pan out, we Britons will be left with the same threat to our national fabric. And as yet, it does not seem our political leaders take that challenge with the solemnity it deserves. They would be well advised to do so, irrespective of this single election. The consequences of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism make that a necessity of the highest order.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace