Despite the angst, diversity is basically working in Britain

14th December, 2012 1:17 pm

Today, Ed Miliband called for a comprehensive integration strategy. Let me write it for him:

“Each local authority must demonstrate that it is helping local citizens access opportunities for work, education, social support and life. Alongside this, local authorities should demonstrate that they are working in partnership to combat hatred and antagonism where it exists.”

That’s it. And this is the problem with the whole area. The reality is that it is a patchwork of local challenges rather than a singular national challenge. It worries me when national politicians say things like:

“There is another idea we should also reject: the belief that people can simply live side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond – never learning to appreciate one another.”

This language has become part of Labour’s discourse over the last couple of years but actually it is troubling. It is perfectly respectable to get on with your life while remaining respectful of others without any need to form ‘common bonds’ with your neighbours. It is starting to creep into the territory of telling people how to live their lives. This is always where notions of the ‘common good’ end up: at best irritating, at worst, intrusive.

We all network and bond in a series of ways. It is the ability to carry multiple allegiances and accommodate many ‘identities’ that is so fundamental to life. It’s who we are. It is definitive of us as a species; we can’t help ourselves. Where people are working to build community ties, such as those providing care and support to the elderly, that is to be warmly encouraged – and supported. That’s different from lecturing people about the relationships they should form.

Despite the angst, diversity is basically working in Britain. We are skeptical about immigration but largely comfortable with diversity. The census shows, for example, that we are now overwhelmingly comfortable with mixed-race marriage. The majority favour gay marriage and that will grow even further over time given the attitudes of younger cohorts. The same goes for ethnic diversity and, probably, immigration too. The changes that this country is experiencing have barely even begun and it is heading in one direction whatever the short term anxieties.

There are two main types of community where antagonism overshadows interaction: communities that have experienced very rapid demographic change and those that have experienced rapid and negative economic change. A few places fall into both categories. A national politician’s job is surely to help those communities adapt their economies, housing and public services to the change? At the local level politicians should want to intervene more readily where mutual misunderstanding is creating tension but there is little that can be done from national level other than provide support.

Essentially, as a national politician you can marshal resources, build institutions and insist that local actors have some answers to the challenges they face. That’s it. Humanity will do the rest. No need for lengthy ‘comprehensive integration strategies’. Yesterday, I spent the day with an expert visitor at the school of which I am Chairman of Governors. At the end of day the visitor commented on how caring the students were of each other and how the staff also displayed a deep care for the students. It has never been something we have deliberately prioritised. It happened because we are building an institution in which they are safe to explore their humanity. Create the right foundation, build the right institutions, enhance people’s capabilities and the social thing happens – in a whole myriad of ways.

The disappointing thing about Ed Milband’s speech today is the yawning gap where an analysis of the importance of institutions in fostering social cohesion should sit. He mentioned that a key moment in his father’s life had been when he learned English at Acton Technical College. In his conference speech, he referenced the forgotten 50%. Yet, in neither speech has he noted the contribution that Community Colleges make to integration and opportunity. Labour’s university-educated elite don’t seem to have any awareness of the massive contribution that these institutions make to integration – they teach English to 100,000s a year. Community colleges – which are far from perfect but make an enormous contribution nonetheless – are seemingly invisible to Labour.

It is in colleges that English will be taught and learnt. Then those students may then go on to acquire a skill, a set of A Levels, move into an apprenticeship and even study for a degree or a professional qualification such as teaching. If you are constantly focused on behaviours, relationships and culture, it’s easy to miss real institutions of potential change.

And today, instead of initiating a conversation about institutions and power, Miliband was instead having a conversation about culture and behaviour. Instead of focusing on what national politicians can reasonably be expected to do, we are focusing on the areas where their influence is minimal. The Big Society failed for precisely this reason.

We can talk about Britishness, culture and ‘common bonds’ until the cows come home. Unless there is a solid and realistic agenda to go along with it then it’s interesting but no more than that. Meanwhile, underneath all this, there was a decisive move to reassess Labour’s opposition to the immigration cap. If the test is ‘what works’ then, again, let me provide a shortcut: the immigration cap doesn’t.

‘One nation Labour’ can go in one of two directions. It can either be about building institutions that enhance human capacities and take on imbalances of power. Alternatively, it can be a series of moral injunctions and imperatives. We’ve been there before and the reality of Government just takes over. Just ask David Cameron. And Gordon Brown. And Tony Blair. And John Major. And every other leader who has gone down the road of ‘virtue’.

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