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Nadia on... the Politics of Fear

21 June 22 words: Nadia Whittome
photos: Fabrice Gagos

Regular columnist and Labour MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome digs down into the politics of fear...

Sometimes, when people are most afraid, they look perfectly calm. Maybe it’s a mechanism related to fight or flight - that when filled with adrenaline and presented with threat, some people lock down and give a confident monologue to the camera. In parliament, that’s what I see every day: a ruling elite that is scared of the world around it, but swaggers nonetheless. 

You can tell they’re scared, though, because the politics of fear is written into everything they say and do. When protest movements emerge - like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter - their first instinct is not to engage with the demands they raise (demands so unreasonable as an inhabitable planet), but to ban them and threaten their organisers with jail. 

What they’re most interested in, though, is keeping everyone else afraid and punching down. There are two ways to look at what has happened to our society in the past decade or so. One story is relatively straightforward: since 2008, our wages have fallen further than any country in Europe other than Greece. Benefits have been cut back and stripped away from many people altogether. Food bank use, homelessness and child poverty have all rocketed. 

The other story is a psychological one just as much as it is financial. The death of industry, from mining to the textile industry here in Notts, and the retreat of the trade union movement over forty long years, have gutted working-class communities. Our high streets have gone into decline and our culture has become increasingly taken over by corporations and multinationals. Cultural and social alienation has made many people scared and isolated, just as much as being impoverished has - and that fear demands a narrative, to explain what is happening. 

The genius of our current ruling elite - in Britain and across much of the rest of the world - is that they have managed to win elections by greeting people’s fear and insecurity with more fear and insecurity. The defining theme of our time, as far as the Daily Mail is concerned, is how refugees and migrants are stealing our homes, school places and jobs. 

The Government is more than happy to go along with this agenda; that’s why trans people were explicitly excluded from a ban on Conversion Therapy in the Queen’s Speech

Emotionally speaking, the driving feature of this kind of politics - and the same can be said of the right-wing arguments behind Brexit and the election of Donald Trump - is fear. People are scared of losing what little they have, and persuading them to punch down is helpful if your aim is for nothing to really change. That’s what the culture war is: right-wing politicians and newspaper proprietors have realised that they are losing the argument on economics, so they’re inviting people to take out their feelings of alienation and economic insecurity on migrants, benefit claimants and food bank users, while continuing the very policies that made us economically insecure in the first place.

The debate on trans rights is an excellent example of the politics of fear. Here are a group of people who pose no threat to anyone, and some of who face a tirade of violence and discrimination. But if you read the pages of many newspapers, you will find an endless roll-call of reasons to be scared of them. Partly, this is because trans people are genuinely subversive to conservative notions of gender. But it’s also because punching down on them is an excellent way of stirring up ‘anti-woke’ sentiment. The Government is more than happy to go along with this agenda; that’s why trans people were explicitly excluded from a ban on conversion therapy in the Queen’s Speech.  

I’m in politics because I believe in a politics of hope. That doesn’t mean I think we can’t blame anyone for the fact that our living standards are falling. On the contrary, we live in a society that is dominated by the super rich and their endless drive to exploit us and make a profit; in which the 171 billionaires in the UK own between them £597 billion - about triple the annual budget of the NHS. Successive governments have failed working-class people and ignored them. Our social housing stock has been sold off by people who live in mansions and are millionaires, and want to blame it all on immigrants. I’m angry about all this - but I don’t think basing your politics on fear gets you anywhere. 

People in Nottingham continue to reject the narrative and politics we are fed. From the solid support for food banks like Himmah and St Ann’s Advice Centre, to all those involved in welcoming and assisting refugees through the Refugee Forum, Refugee Roots, Nottingham Arimathea Trust and Host Nottingham. There are so many examples in Nottingham of our city, in all its diversity, acting in solidarity and supporting one another - and that is a constant source of hope to me that society can be different.

The difference between hope and fear in politics is that hope can actually give us some answers - it can give us the real change that we need. To start with, we could have a drastic rise in the minimum wage, and in benefit levels; a publicly owned energy system that brings down bills and tackles the climate crisis; controls on rent and other essential household costs; and a ban on zero hours contracts. In the meantime, I’d urge everyone to join a union and fight for a pay rise. 

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