Building Resilience in Areas with a Far Right Footprint
With the populist radical right often honing in on areas that are experiencing rapid demographic change, how can decision-makers and local leaders respond? On January 28th we heard about some of the lessons learned by local authorities who've been targeted by the far right in the past and the warning signs to watch out for - as well as how a town can change the narrative afterwards.
We were joined by speakers from Luton, Barking and Dagenham and Bradford who shared what they learnt about the signs to look out for, pitfalls to avoid and strategies that worked when it came to freezing out the far right. You can watch a recording of the event here, and we’ve written up some of the key themes below.
Bradford, Barking and Dagenham and Luton have all faced marked challenges from the far right in the past, with particular flashpoints in 2001, 2006 and 2009 respectively. Each experience of the far right is different – for example, the electoral form of the far right that emerged in Barking and Dagenham will have different consequences and requires a different approach to Luton’s problems with far right street activism. Nonetheless, some key themes that emerged:
1 – Narrative Shift
All of the speakers talked about how long the scars of community tensions can last, and the importance of a more hopeful vision for communities branded ‘racist places’. There was also an emphasis that these external perceptions were often at odds with the more cordial realities of those living in communities. And there was an additional feeling that a history of tensions could sometimes be used as a prompt for cohesion, encouraging the rest of the community to come together behind narratives of unity.
2 – Engagement and Civic Participation
All of the three speakers stressed the importance of community engagement, and the hard graft of reaching out to everyone in order to build trust and ensure that people have the space to be heard. This process of “learning to listen again” applied both to council and non- council functions, political and non-political. There was talk, for example, about how low canvassing contact rates had become in one of the three areas, but also of engagement programmes by local agencies and authorities.
3 – Networks and Partnerships
In each area, faith groups had played an important role, as key factors in reaching out to the respective communities and helping to steer the narrative. As well as offering physical space, congregations acted as a starting point for building community networks. Networks into communities were a key method by which word could spread and coherent strategies be developed. Partnership was the other element of this – with a coherent set of partnerships between community leaders, local media, the council and the police regarded as essential.
4 – Local Leadership
Leadership was a central tool for all three areas in building resilience against the far right. And while traditional forms of leadership, such as the local council, had played a pivotal role, non- traditional leaders had been some of the most effective actors in easing local tensions and rebuilding hope. These leaders often emerged through community work, and were closer to the neighbourhoods where the threat was most pronounced. There was some discussion of how this could be rolled out and how leadership at the local level could be encouraged.
5 – Creating Resilient Soil
Understanding that the far right take hold in fertile soil was an important element of the conversation. The session revealed that a sense of loss tended to emerge thanks to deprivation, de-industrialisation and discomfort with change, especially in places with high population churn. These factors create an environment that is easier for the far right to exploit. Such challenges cannot be addressed overnight, of course, and cannot always be tackled at the local level. However, the discussion suggested that certain steps – e.g. high profile public realm interventions by the council – could mitigate residents’ feelings of decline in some areas.
The unwanted attentions of the far right can pose a big challenge to community resilience in a town. They threaten the happiness and safety of residents, potentially damaging an area’s reputation and sense of pride. But, as the powerful accounts we heard on the 28th showed, there’s always a way to rebuild.
The next webinar in the WHAT WORKS series will be on February 18th, 2021, between 11am and 12.30pm. Entitled ‘Building a strong place identity and culture’, it will pick up on some of the key topics discussed the first session, about narratives around place and how this can prevent divisive narratives from gaining traction. We hope to see you there.