HOPE not hate was established on the premise that when people are given a choice between hope and hate, they choose hope. The far right take root where hope is lost. They exploit people’s fears and frustrations, offering simple answers to complex problems in order to stir up hate and division.

Our fight against the far right has often seen this at the ballot box – such as with the British National Party in 2000s. Yet we have seen the same patterns emerge ten years later, as figures like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon deliberately seek out deprived northern council estates to sell their hateful politics.

Each time hate has lost out to hope, as we have seen the decline of the electoral far right in the UK, alongside dwindling street movements. But the anger and disaffection these groups both exploited and catalysed has not disappeared, and neither have the underlying problems.

Immigration and multiculturalism have become a focus for grievances felt in many communities. But there are deeper feelings of resentment, to a distant political establishment and an economic model that is unfeeling to place or people.

Our 2018 report, Fear, Hope and Loss, mapped attitudes in England and Wales. It starkly laid out how a feeling of loss, a lack of opportunities and economic decline in post-industrial and coastal towns was creating pockets of hostility.

In the National Conversation on Immigration, meanwhile, we found that immigration was seen as a national issue, passed through a local lens. Localised pressures or points of tension could often spill over into anti-migrant sentiment in places with little history of diversity. Sometimes these were directly related to immigration, such as neighbourhoods overwhelmed by large numbers of houses of multiple occupancy for a rapidly growing population of migrant workers. But often they were not about migration at all, and instead a reflection of broader resentments – about housing, healthcare, or a lack of secure employment.

This context is by no means unique to the UK. Across the world, we have seen the rise of populist politicians exploiting genuine suffering brought about by decades of uneven economic growth and political disillusionment.  We know that unless some of these underlying conditions are addressed, people will continue to feel this way, and the potential for a populist right to take hold remains. We need to not just respond to the manifestations of resentment, but treat the causes.

Why Towns

Many of these issues span cities and towns, and do not always automatically translate into hostility towards immigration and support for the far right. Towns do not exist in isolation from cities. Moreover, no two towns are the same –they are not proxy for ‘left behind’ areas. Each has a different geography, population, and history, and not all are feeling the effects of deindustrialisation or geographical isolation.

At the same time, there are clear differences between towns and cities. Wealth, infrastructure and industry, as well as cultural investments, continue to be concentrated in core cities. The populations of towns are getting older, as younger graduates leave for cities to find work. Towns are, on the whole, less diverse places with less history of migration, where people are less likely to have meaningful contact with someone from a different background to themselves.

The political impacts of this are beginning to show. Both the 2017 and 2019 general elections saw a number of seats change hands. City seats that had long been held by the Conservatives such as Putney and Canterbury were taken from the Conservatives by Labour, while the biggest change in the 2019 general election saw “red wall” seats, many of which had been in Labour’s hands since they were created, suddenly turned blue. Towns are an issue that crosses party lines; the Conservatives’ stronger towns fund and efforts to ‘level up’ have taken root alongside the establishment of the Labour Towns network as well as Lisa Nandy’s efforts to highlight the importance of towns for Labour.

While this towns agenda has so far had more of an economic focus, issues like good public transport, decent and secure jobs and good housing all have a big social impact. These are cohesion issues too. Getting these issues right means that resentments are less likely to form in the first place, and that it’s harder for hateful narratives about immigration and multiculturalism to take hold. It is not that towns are ‘racist places’, it is that the most cohesive communities are often those that are most resilient in other ways.

Integration cannot just be focused on the efforts of migrant and minority communities, but is about everyone. This means creating places that are confident, optimistic and welcoming, by ensuring everyone can access opportunities and feel more in control of their own lives. Our work campaigning against the far right has consistently shown that, for people to have faith in others, they need to have hope for themselves.

The Hopeful Towns project

HOPE not hate believes in a dual strategy for combatting extreme and hateful politics. We challenge the politics and organisations that spread division and hate – whilst also working to build the capacity of communities and our society as a whole, to resist their messages.

The Hopeful Towns project aims to find what makes a town confident, optimistic and welcoming to new groups, and to put the mechanisms in place to make every town hopeful. There is already a lot of hope to build on. We’ll be working in three pilot towns to better understand what gives them hope, and work with stakeholders to put this into action locally. But there are also things that need to change at a regional and national level to make this happen, so we’ll be working to push for policy changes here too, by building a cross-party coalition.