‘To tackle hate and division, Labour must reflect on what multiculturalism means’

John Denham
©Monkey Butler Images/ Shutterstock.com

The former Home Secretary’s divisive rhetoric will rightly get much of the blame for drawing far right activists onto the streets on Saturday. But the emotions driven by terror attacks and the military response in Israel and Gaza were already high. Most people don’t want the government to take sides, but the polarisation of those who do was dividing our society and causing turmoil in our Party. It comes when Labour seems to have gone quiet on  how to handle the differences that inevitably exist within a diverse society.

Labour has a strong record on multiculturalism

The last Labour government made mistakes, but we generally sustained a political commitment to multiculturalism and community cohesion. The influential multicultural thinker Tariq Modood has contrasted Labour’s legacy favourably with the rest of the EU. Today we seem less interested in that heritage.

David Cameron declared the end of “state sponsored multiculturalism” in 2010. Since then,  there has been no coherent government theory or practice of making a society of diverse ethnicities, faiths, values, and histories actually work.

The promotion of – in themselves unobjectionable – ‘fundamental British values’ masks a deeper assimilationist demand for minorities to adopt an unchallenged majority culture. There has never been a practical strategy to achieve this impossible goal. Instead, minority differences are used to fuel the politics of culture wars. 

Some multicultural practice still exists today but much of the energy and resource has been diverted to the counterterrorist Prevent programme. In the corporate and public sectors, the focus has shifted towards equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in employment.

Current strategies tell us little about how to live together

Centred on achieving fairness across different groups, EDI contributes little to developing relationships between them. There is often a ‘lived multiculturalism’ in the more diverse communities that demonstrate the ‘conviviality’ described by Paul Gilroy, but, as current events and the recent disturbances in Leicester show, it is not as resilient as we might like to imagine. 

It’s easy to mock Suella Braverman’s attack on multiculturalism when so many of the Cabinet seem to embody its success. But is the left clear what it is defending? While organisations like British Future have shown how events like Remembrance Day can unite rather than divide, Labour has said little about multiculturalism’s future. Keir Starmer’s recent Israel-Gaza speech was aimed at a UK audience. It recognised the threat of division but much more will be needed.

For many, ’multiculturalism’ seems to be a loose preference for living in a diverse society, a relaxed attitude towards immigration, and tolerance of difference, all resting on equal rights of citizenship under the law. 

This ‘thin multiculturalism’ reflects liberal and individualistic world views and values. It makes it useless for the tough job of bringing together a truly diverse society, because it immediately excludes all those whose group identities are strong and values socially conservative.

“If only liberals can be multiculturalists, multiculturalism is reduced to imposing liberal values on others”

Few of us are truly just individual citizens under the law. Most have strong collective and communal identities, and these sometimes conflict with each other. If only liberals can be multiculturalists, multiculturalism is reduced to imposing liberal values on others. Real multiculturalism – ‘thick multiculturalism’ – means working to create a society and nation where we all feel we belong despite our differences. 

Multiculturalism is a political challenge, but it is one of practice first, not policy or ideology. It requires us to talk with and more importantly listen to those whose views we don’t like and sharing and hearing other people’s stories.

That’s the only way we can find and build on the things we hold in common. The more we understand how we all came to be here the more easily we can identify the nation we want to build together. (And when we talk of nation, those who claim Britishness is inclusive and Englishness cannot be, risk excluding those who value Englishness as part of their identity and exclude others from feeling English). 

Multiculturalism is a practice, and a demanding politics

Multicultural political practice doesn’t mean we have to change our political outlook, but it does demand we seek an empathetic understanding of the other point of view. Showing solidarity with Palestine should not make us blind to the fear some solidarity actions create amongst Jewish communities.

Solidarity with Israel cannot ignore the pain of those who feel Muslim lives are not given equal priority. If we are sure our version of history is ‘true’ we can at least listen to why others cling to a different version.

The challenges are only growing. By no means all migration gives rise to communal tensions, but our global diversity means that many foreign conflicts are no longer ‘over there’ but intimately connected with the families, communities, and politics of our fellow citizens. The ‘white majority’ is fractured, with its own minorities who feel excluded and disadvantaged. The number of potential fault lines is not getting any less.

Multiculturalism cannot be a synonym for soggy liberal preferences. It’s a politics that is demanding and uncomfortable. If we can’t change our own Labour practice, we can hardly lecture others.

Of course, some people will exclude themselves: those who insist that Britain must be white; those who claim their faith justifies the murder of non-believers; those who would impose their views by force. But the multicultural tent needs to be a big as possible.

Let’s not pretend there are not people with extremist views amongst Saturday’s solidarity and far right demonstrators or amongst Zionists. The government has set up commissions on ‘countering extremism’ but its search for selective and ever more complex and unenforceable proscriptions of language will not work. The only sure way of countering extremism is to grow the social solidarity that leads every part of society to exclude its own extremists. 


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