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Publication - Professor Bridget Anderson

    UK report on the discursive construction of justice in politics

    Citation

    Hartman, C, Dupont, P-L & Anderson, B, 2018, ‘UK report on the discursive construction of justice in politics’., pp. 1-35

    Abstract

    This report critically examines the discursive construction of justice as political representation in the United Kingdom, taking as a starting point two recent and highly mediatised events. The first is the 2017 general elections, called by the Conservative Party in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to consolidate its authority ahead of Brexit negotiations. The second is the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower, part of a social housing estate in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, killing over 70 residents and leaving many others traumatised and homeless. Our analysis mainly draws on written statements issued by key actors (political parties, advocacy groups, institutions), complemented with semi-structured interviews offered by individuals and organisations closely involved in the response to the Grenfell fire.

    Apart from their coincidence in time, with the fire taking place only a week after the elections, these two events present a number of parallels that make them particularly well suited for a study on political justice. In both cases, a recurrent theme of public discourses is the criticism of out-of-touch elites, which echoes the populist turn currently observable across Western Europe. However, the characteristics and interests of these elites are depicted very differently. In the context of the general elections, they are often represented as a pro-European and globalist middle class willing to sacrifice the economic interests and security of the British nation(s) on the altar of free movement and anti-racism. In Grenfell-related debates, the elites are portrayed as mainly upper-class whites who seek to entrench their economic privileges by capturing political institutions.

    The discourses analysed also diverge in terms of the ‘ordinary people’ or the ‘community’ who are seen as misrepresented by political elites. In the general election, the ‘left behind’ are (hard)working parents whose sex, race, abilities, sexual orientations and religions generally remain unstated but who are regularly juxtaposed to the female, non-white, disabled and homosexual beneficiaries of ‘targeted’ policies, as well as to the ‘Islamic extremist’ perpetrators of terrorist attacks. The working class plays a similarly prominent role in the claims of Grenfell fire activists, but unlike in the general election, it is a racialised working class that is also subjected to stigma and discrimination. This symbolic disadvantage is perceived as manifesting itself in the neglectful and sometimes contemptuous treatment received by local authorities.
    A final instructive parallel between these events is the ubiquity of migrants as objects of political discourses and their contrasting oversight as subjects of political participation. During the general election, migrants are regularly depicted as a threat for public services and social cohesion, although those in work (especially in strategic sectors, such as healthcare) are also recognised as contributing to the British economy. Nevertheless, their exclusion from the national vote is largely taken for granted, despite the participation of some in local elections. In the aftermath of Grenfell, the declaration of an amnesty for undocumented survivors brings their victimhood under the spotlight, but the laws and policies that underpin their irregular status remain unproblematised, thereby tainting the whole Tower with the stigma of undeservingness.

    Full details in the University publications repository