Beyond Scare Tactics

The EU referendum campaign is in full swing, and Turkey is a problem. From Vote Leave a new leaflet highlights not only countries looking to join but spotlights Turkey by shading in the bordering countries of Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a good political pick because of its strong association with both the migrant crisis and the movement of terrorists. This insinuation that if we don’t vote to leave the EU Turkey will overwhelm us with migrants and terrorists from IS has extended to discussing how we’ll become the victims of crime due to a supposed Turkish predisposition. It is a dog-whistle at its finest.

One could argue the reason Turkey is featured in many Vote Leave advertisements is that it is simply one of the EU candidate states – yet one of the intriguing parts about the decision to highlight Turkey is how hard it would be for Turkey to actually become an EU member. To give a brief overview Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963, applied for membership in 1987, got candidate status in 1999, and finally had their (still ongoing) candidate negotiations start in 2005 which – regardless of anything else (such as opponents using vetos, arguments about geographical relevance) – cannot be resolved until Turkey opens its ports to Cyprus. In comparison Croatia applied for membership in 2003, started negations in 2005, and joined in 2013. For many the question is ‘if’ not ‘when’; Turkey joining the EU is a long way off and requires a lot of political manoeuvring. Billboards are using a very distant possibility to drive fears of terrorism and free movement of Turkish people, relying on unfavourable associations being brought to mind.

Watch out, the Muslims are coming.

The campaign run by the Goldsmith team against Khan during the London Mayoral race was another demonstration of scare tactics that rely on this “scary outsider” bias. The absurdity of painting Sadiq Khan – as much a radical Muslim as a plate of custard – as a terrorist sympathiser demonstrates clearly how little interest modern UK politicians have in even pretending to be for all people in their push to exploit wedges in society.

The mayoral race was important because it came down to the Conservatives either genuinely thinking that the political blancmange of Sadiq Khan was a dangerous man and sympathetic to terrorists, or they pointedly decided that public perception of Sadiq Khan and other Muslims by extension as regular Brits with a multitude of opinions is fine to sacrifice for some political gain. When the PM uses fancy footwork to say a man supports IS knowing that people will interpret this as referring to the terrorist group and not just the ideological concept of a state based on Islamic thought to legitimate false criticism of his opponent he loses credibility to govern fairly for all his citizens. With scare tactics you not only say a huge segment of your population are inherently dangerous, but you also say you have no interest in dealing with the divides in society if there is a chance for you to make a personal gain from it.

A calculation was made; Muslims won’t vote for us so it is okay to demonise them in the hopes that we win. And again with the EU Referendum a calculation has been made; let’s just play up these divisive fears to attract those who don’t know the nuances of Turkey and EU politics. Yet this gamble entrenches divisions that have real and harsh consequences to the actual population.

This is not an issue limited to one end of the political spectrum. Most political parties and groups in the UK are only interested in a narrow section of people they feel represent their voting base and frequently throw those deemed outside of this under the bus. Both sides of the EU debate are trying to out terrify the other with what will make us more susceptible to terrorists. I’ve heard someone discuss how “the Jews” don’t vote for Labour anyway so why bother dealing with antisemitism? Scottish voters are demonised for voting SNP and therefore there should not be a solid Scottish policy because they are not on “our” side anyway. Rural and coastal voters don’t get talked about as much as London and other cities. And god forbid the vitriol for those who don’t vote. Huge swathes of people get their needs ignored, or directly worked against in vote chasing, and groups of multitudes are portrayed as monoliths in order to appeal to those opposed to them. In the midst the actual humans of this country are forgotten.

If political groups only existed to win that would be one (still terrible) thing but the policies and words a political group chose not only shape the conversation around an election but become the spectrum for what is possible to be implemented and who gets to be involved. Once something outrageous has been said everyone else has to respond to it, lending it some legitimacy and further exposing it to the public. We need to respect people who wouldn’t ever vote for us and appreciate their needs as citizens even if we disagree with their thoughts. Turning around and using dog-whistles against huge parts of the population only succeeds in spreading both alienation and extreme misinformation.

A lot of people believe it is better to have a chance in power than to remain in opposition and therefore these tactics may be undesirable but ultimately worth it. But opposition – true opposition – is the process of calling that power to heel, and articulating the voice of everyone else. And democratic power is supposed to be about ruling with consideration of everyone, even those who won’t vote for you, rather than just a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule to ensure that you continue to have a chance to rule ad infinitum. MPs are not there only for the people that voted for them, or even just the people that voted. They are there to represent the whole borough and that thought has to come first.

This is partially the fault of our political system being so heavily tilted to “not them” voting. Voters are either seen as our tribe or our enemies. When the not-we voters start to be generalised in broad descriptors – Muslim, Asian, Jewish, Scottish – it triggers an opportunity to make use scare tactics rather than generating good policies and working towards opening up a political system that will naturally draw in people in a positive way. This obsession with voters is creeping into other aspects which will permanently tilt how politics is played out, with constituency borders based not on the actual amount of people living there but on those who are registered to vote, as if those who don’t could never have concerns in their borough.

Wedge politics pushes people out of having an actual voice as politicians pander to only those whose votes they may win (and frequently ignore “safe” voters concerns). Each time there is a vote people are chastised for not participating (or recently for signing up “too late” to participate, as if becoming engaged is something we have to decide months in advance or else we don’t deserve it) which takes away the responsibility of groups to look at how to appeal to them beyond scare tactics. Politics is meant to be about articulating a vision of the future – the best way to serve everyone in a society. To create a consensus where we abandon that for power is incredibly dangerous. It’s a slow dull trundle to a backwards and unrealistic representation of society and one where soon only an incredibly small sliver of people will be competed for and thus become the only ones who politically matter.

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