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Owen Jones faces David Starkey on Newsnight: It was like Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the Newsnight studio last night, says Owen Jones. But I was stunned by his comments.

Where to begin with David Starkey? Having spoken to friends and seen the response on Twitter, it's clear that many were left speechless at his racially inflammatory tirade on Newsnight. I can more than empathise: it was one of those moments when what is said so extreme, it is initially difficult to compute.

Let's be clear: what David Starkey said was not just offensive, it was downright dangerous. His initial suggestion that Enoch Powell had been vindicated -- "The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent, they wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham" - would, in isolation, be outrageous enough.

Powell predicted that mass immigration would bring turmoil to Britain's streets. It was a prophecy that proved unfounded. We are far less racist a society than we were in the 1950s, when a large majority objected to interracial relationships. But Starkey knew there would be a newly receptive audience in the post-riot aftermath.

 

His championing of Powell was eclipsed by his subsequent comments. In offering an explanation for last week's violence, Starkey claimed that "the problem is that the whites have become black". His theory was that white kids had become infected by black culture, and this had led them to violence and disorder. A prominent black politician like David Lammy, on the other hand, sounded "white". For Starkey, being white meant being "respectable"; being black meant "violence".

There is strong competition for the lowest point of Starkey's rant -- but when he embarked on an impression of a "patwa" accent, I could barely believe what I was watching. It was Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge.

Some would argue that it's not worth even engaging with such apparent bigotry, but -- uncomfortable as it may make many of us -- his arguments will have resonated with many. We have to take them on.

His point that hip-hop culture transforms white kids into gangsters was an assertion grounded in prejudice, not fact (indeed, I challenged him -- as a historian -- to justify his sweeping assertions with evidence). I grew up sharing a room with a brother who was obsessed with hip-hop. I hope he doesn't mind me saying it, but he's about as far from "gangster" as it's possible to be.

Anti-social behaviour is real, and should never be dismissed by the left. It is far more common in poorer communities. When I went to Ashington -- once the biggest mining village in the world, since devastated by the closure of the pits -- I heard a number of stories about teenage anti-social behaviour.

But the point made eloquently to me by residents was that young people, who had grown up with all the frustrations and boredom of poverty, felt they had little future to look forward to. That's a reality in communities across the country - and, though no excuse, no wonder a small number respond by making other people's lives a misery.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation completed an extensive study into gangs: I doubt Starkey has read it. It found that there was a strong link between "territorial behaviour" and poorer communities. Gangs could provide some young people with fun, excitement and support they otherwise lacked. It "appeared for some to be a product of deprivation, a lack of opportunities and attractive activities, limited aspirations and an expression of identity", as well as a "coping mechanism" for those living in poverty.

It's nothing to do with ethnicity, in other words. It's to do with poverty.

As for riots -- well, Starkey has found an all-too-convenient way of blaming black people for riots that involved people from a whole range of ethnic backgrounds. Even if the looters weren't black, they had somehow "become" black.

Now, I'm intrigued that Starkey has such a unique in-depth knowledge of the cultural interests of those who took part in the violence. But let's deal with the facts that have emerged.

Of those who have appeared in court, the vast majority are men, aged under 24, and out of work. The riots took place in some of the poorest communities in Britain -- like Hackney and Tottenham. This was a tiny slither of Britain's burgeoning young, jobless poor: indeed, one in five young people are out of work. That isn't to justify their behaviour, any more than to state that a lack of affordable housing and good jobs has fuelled the rise of the BNP is to justify Nick Griffin's racist cabal. But, if a tiny proportion of those who feel they have no future to risk respond by rioting and looting, that is enough to bring chaos to Britain's streets.

Other commentators have looked to other explanations: Britain's hyper-consumerism, where our status has so much to do with what we possess; and a profound inequality in British society, not least in London where the richest 10 per cent are 273 times better off than the bottom 10 per cent.

Now that peace has returned to our communities, we have time to think through these explanations. But my fear is that -- with an understandable backlash underway -- Starkey's comments could prove to be a disastrous turning point. He has put race at the top of the agenda when millions are scared and angry. As some took to the streets in support of Enoch Powell's "river of blood", there will be whispers across the country "that Starkey has a point".

I did my best to challenge David Starkey in the studio -- difficult though that was. At a time of backlash and economic insecurity, we all need to be taking these arguments on in our communities. If we fail, last week's riots could be a dark foreshadow of far worse to come.

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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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.