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