David Starkey, who clashed with Owen Jones on Newsnight.
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Owen Jones: After Newsnight, David Starkey tries to rewrite history

Whatever David Starkey says, his Newsnight comments that "the whites have become black" were grossly inflammatory.

I'm in two minds about returning to "Starkeygate". The Tudor historian's comments on that episode of Newsnight were, from where I was sitting, so blatantly racially inflammatory (close friends instantly recognised my genuinely stunned expression when his diatribe began) that I was astonished that anyone would even attempt to defend him. Some did - largely by minimising his racism, unlike the white supremacists who have since filled my inbox with hate-filled bile ("you're a traitor to the white race", etc, etc).

David Starkey also enjoys the attention: I was warned beforehand that he loves to provoke controversy for the sake of it (this is a man who once called Scotland "a feeble little country"). His love of publicity is clear in his first article (in the Daily Telegraph) since Dreda Say Mitchell and I were ambushed with his ignorant bigotry in a BBC studio: he clearly relishes the fact that Ed Miliband joined the chorus of disgust at what he calls his "now-infamous opinions".

But as a historian, Starkey must surely object to attempts to revise the past, and that's why his self-justification in the Telegraph piece needs a response. Starkey is outraged that Miliband slammed him for making "racist comments", and then gives a few examples of what he said - without mentioning the key offending lines. But even his selective quotes distort what he said: "This sort of black male [gang] culture militates against education." Hold on a minute - can he really get away with inserting "gang" into that sentence - a word he did not use at the time in the studio and the inclusion of which completely transforms the meaning of what was said?

Starkey may be a bigot, but he is not stupid. He must surely understand why Miliband and others accused him of racism. On Newsnight, he argued that "the whites have become black". Funnily enough, he makes no mention of this in his article. Given we were discussing why people had become rioters and looters, this was a straightforward equation of being black and violent disorder. By becoming involved in the August riots, the white participants had somehow become black.

But in any case, as a historian, Starkey is aware that white people do not need to "become black" to become gangsters - the Kray brothers remaining the country's most famous examples. As for riots, they've taken place long before they were any significant numbers of non-white faces appeared on British soil - and that includes the Tudor period that Starkey specialises in. If we're just going to talk about riots in the post-war period, Starkey is surely aware of the 1958 Notting Hill riots, when groups made up of mostly young white men attacked black residents.

He had further suggested that, were you to listen to David Lammy - "an archetypal successful black man" - "you would think he was white". Again, this led to an obvious interpretation: to sound respectable was to sound white. In his article, Starkey attempts a convoluted defence: that the likes of Lammy and Diane Abbott "have merged effortlessly into what continues to be a largely white elite" and, in doing so, had lost "much of their credibility with blacks on the streets and in the ghettos". Of course, this raises other questions as to why Starkey thinks he's any authority on the attitude of black Britons towards prominent black politicians - but the bottom line is that none of this was mentioned in the studio.

And, of course, he began by suggesting a partial vindication of Enoch Powell, a politician who had argued that mass immigration would bring violent chaos to Britain's streets (a prophecy discredited by history). Powell was "absolutely wrong" about "inter-communal" violence, Starkey conceded. But the implication was that immigration had indeed brought disorder to Britain's streets - but by the unforeseen means of black people colonising white people with their culture. It was a means of scapegoating black people for riots that had involved people of all races. Starkey's friends apparently unanimously believe quoting Powell was an error. That's an understatement: putting the "Rivers of blood" speech on the political agenda at a time when people were angry and scared in the post-riot aftermath was outright dangerous.

Starkey lays the blame on "gangsta culture" in his piece. If he had done that in the studio, he would have been wrong, but it would have been an argument at least worth debating. But he was talking about black people and black culture more broadly.

His defenders have similarly misconstrued what he said: Toby Young argued that he "wasn't talking about black culture in general", but only a "sub-culture associated with a small minority of people of African-Caribbean heritage." Again, not what he said, and even Young was forced to admit "he could have made this clearer." My one-time sparring partner James Delingpole seems to imply I helped set the whole thing up: "it was a trap", he argued. I had apparently decided to add black people to my list of oppressed groups to take "perpetual umbrage and righteous rage on behalf of". The reality was both Dreda and I were taken unawares by a bigoted outburst, and had no choice but to respond. Perhaps more bizarrely was Howard Jacobson's argument that I had taken part in a "mugging"; I was a "baby-faced assassin", apparently - not a guest subjected to a series of outrageous comments who could barely get a word in edgeways. So, I should probably clarify that I did not compel Starkey to make racist generalisations.

Perhaps the only remotely thought-provoking element of Starkey's Telegraph piece is the suggestion, with white working-class culture facing a "systematic attack over several decades", the vacuum has been filled "with the values of 'gangsta' culture". But, to Starkey, to even listen to hip hop was to be part of "gangsta culture" ("do you glorify rap?", was a Brass Eye-style question he put to me). We know that there is a link between deprivation and gangs; it is this, not owning hip-hop CDs, that drives gangsterism.

We still need a debate about what caused these riots: and about the growing numbers of young people who feel they have no future to put at risk (not least in a country where over one in five 18-24 year olds are out of work and education). But racist comments by the likes of Starkey have no role in that debate. And - let's be clear - however Starkey and his allies twist what he said, his comments were racist. So let's not let the historian rewrite history.

Owen Jones is author of "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class"

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.