Labour’s Problem with Integration

December 14, 2012 3:10 pm

This week’s census data showed that the UK is becoming more diverse than ever. Much of the debate around the statistics has been about immigration.  That is an important discussion to have: the pace of immigration in the last decade has been very rapid, and there is a genuine need for new policy and political responses.

However, a more immediate and practical question for many people is how we live well together in this new world – how can newcomers integrate in ways which both help them to thrive and allow us all to build stronger communities? So it is good news that Ed Miliband addressed this question directly in his speech today. But it is clear, both from some of the reactions to the speech (or at least to the media coverage of it), and from the tendency for Labour politicians in the past to be rather quiet on questions of integration, that this is a difficult issue for Labour. So why is this?

The conspiracy theorists would say that Labour has been in thrall to minority interests because ethnic minorities tend to vote Labour (66% of ethnic minority voters voted Labour in 2010).  Aside from the fact that the conspiracy theories around Labour and immigration are manifestly untrue, this argument rests on the false assumption that the UK’s minorities are somehow opposed to integration: all the evidence suggests that this is not the case.

Labour has sometimes been hamstrung by a perceived tension between tolerance and a defence of ‘traditional’ communities. But this is a false choice.  In fact, there is a great deal of consensus about integration, from people with different political views and different personal backgrounds, and between immigrant and minority communities and everybody else: everyone should learn English, play by the rules, respect one another, and take as full a part in community life as possible. If that sounds obvious, that is because it is, but the frenzied debate about divided communities, segregation, and multiculturalism sometimes leads politicians and journalists to forget that.

It is also a false choice because, in most places, people are ‘rubbing along’ pretty well, and are much more comfortable with diversity than the media or politicians given them credit for.

None of this is to deny the real cultural anxiety about immigration that exists (particularly in some parts of the country), nor to suggest that any of this is easy, but is merely to remind everyone taking part in these debates that a) there is a fair degree of consensus about the objective and b) things are better already than is often suggested.

So integration might be uncomfortable territory for some people on the left, but it must be at the heart of any vision that claims the ‘one nation’ badge. Ed Miliband was right today to address the issue of integration directly, and to recognise people’s anxieties while also presenting an optimistic vision of a diverse and welcoming UK.

The challenge for Labour now is to take these ideas further, both in practical policy terms and in ‘big picture’ political terms – to suggest either that today’s speech contained a ‘comprehensive strategy for integration’ or that it has laid to rest Labour’s demons on the issue is being over-optimistic, to say the least.

The policy challenge is to develop the theme of the everyday that came through strongly in today’s speech, and to mainstream an integration agenda into thinking in other areas (education, housing, poverty reduction etc), while also recognising that most of this needs to be done by local government, or by communities themselves. The political challenge for Labour is to develop a more sophisticated account of how ‘One Nation Labour’ relates to a wider sense of national identity and purpose. So Ed Miliband deserves credit for today’s speech, but it must be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR

Latest

  • Featured “Tory Welfare Waste” – why Reeves’ new attack line will cut through with voters

    “Tory Welfare Waste” – why Reeves’ new attack line will cut through with voters

    Rachel Reeves will make a speech today slamming the Tories’ handling of the welfare system, and will trial what looks like could potentially become a recurring line for Labour in the election run-up. “Tory Welfare Waste” is the takeaway line from today’s speech, and is likely to stick in the craw of the Tories, who have spent years trying to paint Labour as the party of profligate welfare spending. But annoying your opponents is not the only effective attack line. Fortunately, this […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured 8 questions Iain Duncan-Smith must now answer

    8 questions Iain Duncan-Smith must now answer

    In November 2011 Iain Duncan Smith promised – one million people would be on Universal Credit by April 2014. Three years on fewer than 18,000 people are receiving Universal Credit. Despite over £600million being spent on the new benefit the programme is beset by chaos, waste and delays. This afternoon Iain Duncan Smith was forced to appear before the House of Commons to answer questions about this failing programme. But once again he refused to answer the simplest of questions about his […]

    Read more →
  • Comment They left us wanting more – Gordon Brown is only the latest big beast to depart

    They left us wanting more – Gordon Brown is only the latest big beast to depart

    “Always leave them wanting more.” It’s not entirely clear who said it first, but this has become one of the more popular, if rarely achieved, political clichés. Of all the recent political leaders we might have expected to stand aside with a clamour for more ringing in his ears, Gordon Brown would not have featured prominently in discussions. Brown’s Labour leadership culminated in the party’s second worst General Election performance in the post-war era. Although he opted to remain in […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Regional banks: a crucial ingredient to help small business

    Regional banks: a crucial ingredient to help small business

    On 19 November, I was at a meeting at the German Embassy with the head of the German Savings Banks Group, Sparkassen, Georg Fahrenschon. Herr Fahrenschon told us that local savings banks were the biggest single driver of economic resilience through the global financial crisis and in the recovery since. This was because of their support for small businesses, which are the backbone of the German economy. In the US, the economic recovery has been far stronger and more sustained […]

    Read more →
  • Comment To win back people’s trust, we need to be honest about what the limits of politics are

    To win back people’s trust, we need to be honest about what the limits of politics are

    With just over 6 months to go until the next General Election, one would expect there be to a lively debate across the political spectrum mapping the key battlegrounds of the election campaign over the coming months and presenting some of the major policy ideas of each party. Instead there appears to be a general mood of helplessness among both the Conservatives and Labour. Numerous commentators have highlighted a fundamental disconnect between the political class and the electorate; an insidious […]

    Read more →