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The British Left is out of ideas

The picture at two recent conferences was the same: despair, anger, and a lack of ideas. 

In the space of the last six weeks London has played host to two conferences aiming to stir up debate about the future of politics.  First, on 8 February, there was Change: How?, an event organised by the thinktank Compass that brought together around 100 speakers to speak about social change 100 days before the general election.  Then, on 14–15 March, we had FutureFest, an ideas festival organised by the social innovation charity Nesta, which invited speakers and artists to address six themes of the future. 

Both events came with wristbands, colourful pamphlets, and simultaneous sessions buzzing across multiple stages.  Both were housed in quirky, repurposed venues – Islington Metal Works, formerly a horses’ stables (in the case of Change: How?), and Vinopolis in London Bridge (for FutureFest).  And both revealed something about the state of the British Left today.

Change: How? and FutureFest were in some ways very different conferences.  FutureFest was shinier, with more technology, and more spectacle.  In the “Debate” room, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were part of a studio TV audience as miked-up host (and pop star) Pat Kane paced the stage, swivelling to face his audience on all sides.  Change: How? was a good deal grungier.  Attendees crammed into small rooms, knees often touching, and listened to speakers rushing to stick to their allocated fifteen-minute time slots.  FutureFest was also more ambitious in scope: across two days, it addressed the future of machines, money, and music (amongst other topics), and showcased artwork and various other installations.  In contrast, Change: How? concentrated on politics, especially progressive politics, and the upcoming election.

What both events had in common was a particular mood amongst participants: a lack of collective confidence about the contemporary Left, in particularly the parliamentary Left (though it should be noted that the Left was not wholly represented at these conferences).  This feeling manifested most visibly in participants’ frustrated venting at the elected politicians that were present.  When Labour MP Stella Creasy refused to support nationalising banks at Change: How?, the questioner shouted over her and despaired at her political moderation.  At FutureFest, Labour policy guru Jon Cruddas was interrupted by Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitte Jonsdottir, who demanded: “what’s your vision?” Owen Jones simply laughed at FutureFest when asked if the Labour Party might provide a coherent radical alternative to the status quo.  And the sense of exasperation with domestic politics was also clear from the noticeable lift in enthusiasm when speakers from Syriza and Podemos took the stage.

Even more troubling for those committed to the progressive political project, both events highlighted a lack of focus and direction in the Left at large.  The speakers at Change: How? offered a collection of inspiring individual stories – such as Stella Duffy’s work on ‘Fun Palaces’, an attempt to revitalise participation in local communities – but no speaker provided a narrative that wove these stories together.  Similarly, the presenters at FutureFest introduced audiences to trends and data and innovations, but did not provide a framework to invest that information with meaning (apart from one throwaway reference to Piketty).  Tensions between those advocating for decentralisation of power, and those (like Dave Boyle) arguing for the importance of State regulation were never properly resolved.  The frenzied format of each conference didn’t help.  Overall, it is clear that what the musician Matthew Herbert said at FutureFest about the state of modern music – that there is a “crisis of ideas” – applies to progressive politics generally.

There was also a sad absence of solidarity or warmth in interaction in between sessions at both events – something that is not the fault of the conference organisers, but a reflection of the norms of our time.  On the final afternoon of FutureFest, I walked into a room to find twenty or so tired attendees scattered on beanbags or on the floor, mostly preoccupied by their cell phones – an unfortunate sight in a conference where so much had been said about the ills of individualism.  This problem of isolation and disconnection amongst attendees is not unique to these conferences.  But it is a fact of modern life that progressives, committed to the idea of community, need to confront.

Owen Jones, in a characteristically powerful talk at FutureFest, emphasised the need for an intellectual counter-narrative to neoliberalism, as well as a broad-based movement to turn that counter-narrative into action.  

Only with more work done on that counter-narrative, and the broader movement, will progressives in this country start to recover the confidence, focus, and solidarity that sometimes felt missing at these events.  And we all have these well-organised events to thank for making clear the scale and nature of the task that lies in front of us. 

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

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The 8 bits of good news about integration buried in the Casey Review

It's not all Trojan Horses.

The government-commissioned Casey Review on integration tackles serious subjects, from honour crimes to discrimination and hate crime.

It outlines how deprivation, discrimination, segregated schools and unenlightened traditions can drag certain British-Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities into isolation. 

It shines a light on nepotistic local politics, which only entrench religious and gender segregation. It also charts the hurdles faced by ethnic minorities from school, to university and the workplace. There is no doubt it makes uncomfortable reading. 

But at a time when the negative consequences of immigration are dominating headlines, it’s easy to miss some of the more optimistic trends the Casey Report uncovered:

1. You can always have more friends

For all the talk of segregation, 82 per cent of us socialise at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background, according to the Citizenship Survey 2010-11.

More than half of first generation migrants had friends of a different ethnicity. As for their children, nearly three quarters were friends with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Younger people with higher levels of education and better wages are most likely to have close inter-ethnic friendships. 

Brits from Black African and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are the most sociable it seems, as they are most likely to have friends from outside their neighbourhood. White British and Irish ethnic groups, on the other hand, are least likely to have ethnically-mixed social networks. 

Moving away from home seemed to be a key factor in diversifying your friendship group –18 to 34s were the most ethnically integrated age group. 

2. Integrated schools help

The Casey Review tells the story of how schools can distort a community’s view of the world, such as the mostly Asian high school where pupils thought 90 per cent of Brits were Asian (the actual figure is 7 per cent), and the Trojan Horse affair, where hardline Muslims were accused of dominating the curriculum of a state school (the exact facts have never come to light). 

But on the other hand, schools that are integrated, can change a whole community’s perspective. A study in Oldham found that when two schools were merged to create a more balanced pupil population between White Brits and British Asians, the level of anxiety both groups felt diminished. 

3. And kids are doing better at school

The Casey Report notes: “In recent years there has been a general improvement in educational attainment in schools, with a narrowing in the gap between White pupils and pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African/Caribbean/Black ethnic backgrounds.”

A number of ethnic minority groups, including pupils of Chinese, Indian, Irish and Bangladeshi ethnicity, outperformed White British pupils (but not White Gypsy and Roma pupils, who had the lowest attainment levels of all). 

4. Most people feel part of a community

Despite the talk of a divided society, in 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, according to the Community Life Survey, and agreed their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This feeling of cohesiveness is actually higher than in 2003, at the height of New Labour multiculturalism, when the figure stood at 80 per cent. 

5. Muslims are sticklers for the law

Much of the Casey Report dealt with the divisions between British Muslims and other communities, on matters of culture, religious extremism and equality. It also looked at the Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the UK. 

However, while the cultural and ideological clashes may be real, a ComRes/BBC poll in 2015 found that 95 per cent of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain and 93 per cent believed Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. 

6. Employment prospects are improving

The Casey Review rightly notes the discrimination faced by jobseekers, such as study which found CVs with white-sounding names had a better rate of reply. Brits from Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to be unemployed than Whites. 

However, the employment gap between ethnic minorities and White Brits has narrowed over the last decade, from 15.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.8 per cent in 2015. 

In October 2015, public and private sector employers responsible for employing 1.8m people signed a pledge to operate recruitment on a “name blind” basis. 

7. Pretty much everyone understand this

According to the 2011 census, 91.6 per cent of adults in England and Wales had English as their main language. And 98.2 per cent of them could speak English. 

Since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to meet English requirements as part of the immigration process. 

8. Oh, and there’s a British Muslim Mayor ready to tackle integration head on

The Casey Review criticised British Asian community leaders in northern towns for preventing proper discussion of equality and in some cases preventing women from launching rival bids for a council seat.

But it also quoted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and a British Muslim. Khan criticised religious families that force children to adopt a certain lifestyle, and he concluded:

"There is no other city in the world where I would want to raise my daughters than London.

"They have rights, they have protection, the right to wear what they like, think what they like, to meet who they like, to study what they like, more than they would in any other country.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.