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Dropping out won’t fix the world: It is possible to drink a Starbucks latte with your politics intact?

The guilt of complicity is a red herring.

I have a confession to make: I have spent money in Starbucks. Not every day, but yes, on occasion I have ventured into the temple of mediocre coffee and smooth jazz and emerged with my politics intact. According to Louise Mensch, Theresa May and tedious hordes of free market apologists, this is impossible. The second one sickly drop of cinnamon latte passes your lips, you forfeit your right to comment upon the abuses of capitalism. Like Persephone in the underworld, who ate the food of the dead and was forced to live amongst them, you are doomed to remain a silent drone in a corporate wasteland, forever regretting your moment of caffeine-deprived weakness.

We have been hearing versions of this argument ever since protest became a regular feature of contemporary politics. The notion peddled by right-wing commentators is that you cannot have any serious, sustained objections to fiscal feudalism and its discontents if you happen to have grown up in a detached house, or attended an elite university, or if you once, in a moment of weakness late at night, found yourself walking out of a well-known conglomerate with a box of suspicious chicken pieces coated in unmentionable sauce and wondering what your life had become. Anyone who engages left-wing politics in a serious way faces this idiotic charge. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that because I have a smartphone and went to a private school, I have no business speaking about social justice.

At root, this argument is about a fear of ideology: a terror of real political and economic alternatives in a society that would still rather group people into warring tribes based on income and lifestyle. The left is not entirely immune from this sort of lazy reasoning. It is, of course, indicative that the vast majority of the British cabinet are millionaires, but even if they all lived together in a skip in Southend, it would hardly make their permissive stance on corporate tax avoidance morally tenable.

The trouble with that logic is that it cuts both ways. There are plenty of decent, politically right-on people who believe that buying an overpriced macchiato, or a pair of shoes they don't need, or whatever it is that alleviates, for a moment, the numbing exhaustion of daily life in a post-Fordist society in some way excludes them from the debate. A guilty little smile of complicity accompanies this thought process, as they hand over money at the cash register. We've had our imperialist latte, it says, so we're already fifth columnists, it says -- there's nothing we can do to make a difference, much as we'd like to.

I, for one, am sick of that excuse. If capitalism is a disease, everything and everyone is infected. Look around the room you're in and tell me with absolute certainty that there's nothing in it that was stitched by child-slaves in the developing world, or sold to you by exploited workers from the kind of company that thinks "sick pay" is the name of a minor 90s grunge band. There is almost no way to exist in this society without being contaminated by capitalism, unless you spend your whole life lying down in the dark, in a recycled rattan coffin, being drip-fed organic vegan mulch by a succession of fairly paid assistants, and if you do, I'm sure you'll feel great about yourself, but people will still make fun of you, and you won't be a step closer to changing the world.

Quarantining yourself from capitalism is not going to create a cure, and those who mock protesters and radicals for owning iPhones and buying burgers know that extremely well. Left, right and vacillating in the middle, we all need to decide if there is still room in this age of austerity for ideas and ideals, or if we truly want a world where we're just lined up into suspicious rival camps according to how much we earn. American libertarians call that sort of thuggish, annihilating excuse for politics "class war". Class warriors call it "missing the point".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.