Why economic hardship could fuel support for the far-right in Wales

Rosie Carter, Head of Policy at the HOPE not hate Charitable Trust

The long-term impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen, but it is clear that any loss will compound existing inequalities, adding to the economic challenges already worsened by Brexit.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has predicted a “tide of poverty” to hit Wales after coronavirus, deepening existing problems. And the uneven geographic spread of these impacts means that isolated towns reliant on already at-risk industries and declining populations could bear the brunt.

This context is not just a huge challenge for individuals and families, but it will also have a substantial impact on communities, with the potential to damage social cohesion.

HOPE not hate’s new report, which analyses exclusive new polling of over 1,000 people in Wales, representative of the Welsh population, highlights that although most people in Wales are open, tolerant and welcoming, there is a sizeable proportion of the Welsh population who are susceptible to swing towards populist right support or far-right sympathies if conditions are stressed.

The research identifies a contradiction between broad perceptions of Wales as a welcoming and tolerant nation and pockets of hostility towards multiculturalism and immigration. But it also finds that these pockets could grow, as economic hardship emerging from the pandemic feed anger and growing mistrust in the political system.

HOPE not hate research has consistently shown that the balance of social and cultural attitudes are often tipped by worsening economic conditions, as the very real resentments and frustrations that people feel about their own lives are exploited by those who seek to divide.

Our report outlines division in Welsh society by grouping the population into ten ‘identity tribes’. Polling shows that half of people in Wales fear they or a family member will lose their job as a result of the pandemic, and one in five say they have applied for universal credit (19%), been furloughed (19%) or had their hours reduced (21%)as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Racist beliefs

We identify a minority of the Welsh population who hold hostile attitudes and racist beliefs, but our research also highlights that divisions could grow as economic hardship resulting from the pandemic feeds mistrust and pessimism.

The research identifies a group who make up 8% of the Welsh population who are particularly likely to swing towards greater hostility. Largely female and middle-aged, this is a group of people who are uneasy about the pace of change, linked to their strong sense of decline and pessimism for the future. They are a group who have traditionally voted Labour, but don’t think that politicians listen to them, and don’t feel that the political system serves people like them well.

This is not a group of people who share particularly strong views about culture or identity issues, and although many voted Leave in 2016, most are fearful about the impacts of Britain’s exit from the EU. But their precarity makes them vulnerable from those who work to divide by scapegoating immigrants, and create a direct link between a feeling of loss and growing diversity.

There is a job to do to challenge racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and discrimination in all its forms. But there is also a job to challenge growing economic inequality in Wales so that it does not feed further social division.

Building back better from coronavirus, for everyone, by supporting people and communities and offering hope, can start to heal, rather than deepen, divides.

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