Grooming gangs: the new culture war frontline

Paul Cotterill
6 min readApr 4, 2023

In a way it’s surprising the government has taken so long to home in on ‘Pakistani grooming gangs’ as a core part of its culture war strategy.

Attacking trans people is a bit niche, and not that many people fall for it. Small boats can be a bit of a winner, if served up with a bit of invasion rhetoric, but for most people they remain a bit of a distant threat, and even shifting the focus on to hotels has only been partially success in creating the desired alignment of EDL extremist and the ‘legitimate concerns’ of red wall citizens, and has perhaps even hardened resistence to it.

But Braverman’s inspired/evil Pakistani grooming gangs intervention, now with Sunak’s connivance, has all the right ingredients for the volatile cocktail of hate the Tories need to regain electoral momentum. It feels like it’s everywhere, because you see brown men on the street all the time; it’s all about a direct threat to your own family members’ and it hooks nicely to the public sector-political-correctness-gone-mad theme, with the Rotherham child sexual exploitation (CSE) scandal still perhaps foremost in people’s memories, but with mention of Telford, Oldham and other towns also drawing to mind the imagery of front pages plastered with multiply rowed mugshots of the convicted.

And it’s working as planned. Scan social media over the last day or two and a dominant response emerging is along the lines of Tommy Robinson (our hero again) was right all along, but the liberal elite don’t care’.

Needless to say, the chances of this coordinated racial hatred messaging having real life consequences for Muslims, are high, because the government has given the green light; they may not be actively advocating violence, but they are creating the conditions for it be explained away as ‘defending our communities’ against outsiders with supposedly dangerous cultural values.

For those of us who don’t belong to the targeted ethnicity, but with an interest in both preventing CSE and racist hate, the pattern is familiar. Speaking out about the racist motivations, or the electoral motivations of those fostering this racism, makes you an apologist or worse for CSE; pointing out the fact that those of Muslim faith/Pakistani ethnicity convicted of CSE are in broadly the same proportion to non-Muslims/whites is portrayed as further apologism, political correctness and betrayal, because these are gangs we’re talking about, the evil bastards are in rows on the front page of the Daily Mail, and Suella is right that we’ve got to tackle the problem of their culture etc. etc……

And to be frank, if all we have to offer in response to this kind of accusation is the fact that white people engage in organized CSE aswell, then we’re not going to get very far, however pure our anti-racist motives; failure to engage with strategies and policies to prevent CSE across the board can and will make it look as though we do condone it, when compared with the far right’s proposed ‘radical’ solutions to the part of CSE they think needs tackling most.

An effective response to this newly devisied surge in incitement to racial hatred as vote winning culture war, then, lies at least partially in an understanding of the conditions in which CSE becomes a problem.

Back in 2014, when I wrote long and hard in response to the Alexis Jay report, this was the core of my argumen:

Asian men in some Northern towns may be the main perpetrators of child sexual exploitation not because of their ‘culture’, but because of the particular “infrastructure” that their working lives provides. In simple terms — they drive taxis, or have friends who do; they work in/own kebab joints, where young people (especially those unsafe and/or unhappy at home) congregate; they work irregular hours in family businesses, in which the don’t clock on or off, and in which absences of two or three hours go unremarked.

Now, of course, taxi driving and kebab shop owning can be seen as a part of an Asian ‘culture’, but it is more historically accurate to see it as a structural feature of changes in the economy, and the racial discrimination that accompanied those changes, which just happens to provide, in conjunction with the growth of mobile technology and social media over the last 15 years, the opportunity for people who happen to be of Asian ethnicity to become involved in exploitation. As Arun Kundnani sets out in relation to Northern mill towns:

“As the mills declined, entire towns were left on the scrap-heap. White and black workers were united in their unemployment. The only future now for the Asian communities lay in the local service economy. A few brothers would pool their savings and set up shop, a restaurant or a takeway. Otherwise there was minicabbing, with long hours and the risk of violence, often racially motivated. With the end of the textile industry, the largest employers were now the public services but discrimination kept most of these jobs for whites (Institute of Race Relations, 2001:106)”.

In short, I argued (and still argue), that there is a risk of CSE being perpetrated wherever perpetrators-to-be find themselves in positions of power over young vulnerable people, unprotected by necessary safeguards, find themselves. This can mean dormitories in private schools, or it can mean fast food joints where young people go because it feel better than being at what counts for home and where ownership of a car and access to food and drink creates a position of power.

Arguing that the main cause of CSE is opportunity with power — and that stopping it requires both removing opportunity and reducing vulnerability, whether that be by closing private schools or teaching police that ‘child prostitution’ is not actually a thing — remains the key way to debunking the ‘Muslim culture’ argument the racist in the EDL and the Tory party are so keen to push, because it offers a route to a coherent response: one focused not on perpetrator culture but on the need for non-police [1] resources and expertise. [2]

There is, of course, plenty of work to be done on the development of effective messaging in response to the Tories’s new culture war front with their EDL chums; copying out chunks of the Institute of Race Relations journal is not going to do much to help those currently coming under media pressure to conform to the new ‘anti-woke’ norms. We need messaging, instead, which reassures that their better ‘live and let live’ instincts have not betrayed them, that the Tommy Robinson grass is not greener, and that while CSE is a problem in our society, it is rooted not in ‘culture’ but in structural power imbalances.

Developing such messaging is not, though, the main purpose of this piece. I’m not good enough at it anyway. The purpose here is to set out the high importance of this new front in the culture war, and to offer some sense of strategic direction for the left. Conversely, if we don’t get a handle on it all quickly, a lot of people will suffer.


[1] We should be conscious of how such argument links to the need to systematically defund the police, but I will not cover that at length here

[2] The secondary argument to be made, if an audience can be gained for such discussion, is about current hypocrisy about culture and motivation.

As I set out in this thread, for example, it is striking that, while the Alexis Jay report on Rotherham in 2014 focused on the question of whether ‘political correctness’ about respecting Muslim culture had led to crimes being allowed to continue, in a way which the press picked up easily on, the 2021 report by the very same author into CSE perpetrated by white people in Lambeth Council’s social care institutions did not at any point address (white) culture or values.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.