In this guest post, following the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election which was triggered by the court case against former MP Phil Woolas, Nick Johnson argues that the Labour party needs to reflect on why it has struggled with issues of identity and diversity, and to work out how it can effectively advocate an agenda for integration and greater equality.
The origins of the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election should perhaps have more long-term significance for Labour than the result.
Without getting into the rights and wrongs of every piece of Phil Woolas’ campaign literature, his tone and approach clearly overstepped the mark in a way which was highly symptomatic of a political left that has been in retreat on issues of race and diversity. Assailed by the press, under pressure locally from the BNP and looking at polling data that showed white working-class communities deserting the Party, Labour risks becoming paralysed over these issues.
This is not unique to Britain. Internationally, one of the major crises facing parties of the left is how to reconcile the case for diversity with the need for common bonds of solidarity. One response has been to despair. To read the research of Robert Putnam or the arguments of David Goodhart, it is easy to conclude that the more diverse a society is, the harder it is to generate solidarity and the less support for collective action such as a strong welfare state. The evidence is, however, partial and should not lead us to think this an impossible task.
Meanwhile, some others have stuck to a rigid defence of a traditional multiculturalism without acknowledging the insecurity that some communities feel about the pace of change they are experiencing.
Globalisation has profoundly changed the nature of our society and this impacts upon communities in different ways, often negatively. We should also acknowledge that this insecurity has an inevitable impact upon solidarity. This is not just about diversity although, for many, immigration and rising minority populations are a very visible way in which their community is changing.
However, the problem is not diversity itself but that way in which we respond to it. As I write in the Fabian pamphlet, Separate and Unequal, I believe that a new definition of integration is necessary for the left to respond in a way that can win public support. It could also outline a philosophical framework by which Labour can develop policy.
Because the left is primarily motivated by the value of equality and fairness, issues of integration and identity are often viewed as being a distraction from what really matters. But there is an important political problem here. It is not possible to build the broad coalitions needed to address social inequalities if issues of identity are dismissed as second order. Indeed, integration relies upon the one to drive the other and states quite simply that life chances will not be equal unless there is full interaction and social solidarity.
Integration offers a progressive approach to the social challenges of the twenty first century. It rejects a narrow conservatism that erodes diversity into a monolithic whole. However, it is also a move beyond the identity politics that has been sustained by many on the left. Identity politics was a legitimate challenge to a conservatism that did not want society or institutions to change and demanded conformity from new immigrants or other groups in society. At its extreme, this conservatism turns into xenophobia, racism and overt prejudice.
The left’s response was and is correct - rightly asserting that different views, lifestyles and cultures are equally legitimate. However, in rejecting an assimilationist approach that privileged the status quo and was resistant to change, too great an adherence to identity politics also implicitly rejected notions of a shared identity and experience. What made us different became more important than what we had in common.
I am not looking to replace difference with uniformity but arguing that we need some mutual identity alongside our own individual identities. That mutual identity is also constantly evolving, shaped by our diversity and by social change. Indeed, it is the process of change and the negotiation, tolerance and understanding involved that may well be the most important aspects.
Integration offers Labour a clear distinction between its own values, rooted in community and solidarity and the liberal individualism of the Coalition. It means the Party needs to abandon some of the obsession with consumerism and individual choice and return to its collective roots. By adopting a communitarian outlook, focussed upon equality for all and interaction between all, we can move towards a society that achieves those goals. Our relationships with each other are as important as our individual opportunities. Furthermore, our neighbour’s opportunities should be as important as our own.
Integration goes beyond ideas of identity; it drives forward the cause of a more equal society. In recent years, debates over equality have become too focussed upon individual life chances and paid too little attention to the state of the society we share. Solidarity and strong community ties are essential to breaking down inequality but they are impossible to achieve while inequality persists. An individual’s wellbeing is directly related to the society around them and their actions, behaviour and attitudes should be seen in relation to the communities they live in.
The inability to address this fundamental point was one of the reasons why there was civil unrest in Oldham ten years ago. Things have changed at a local level since then but it was a lesson that Labour in Government did not learn. Long after the by-election leaflets have been recycled, how the left responds to increasing pluralism should be a source of strength not weakness. For that to happen though, Labour needs to rethink its vision of the good society and make it an integrated one.
* Nick Johnson is the author of 'Separate and Unequal: how integration can deliver the good society', published by the Fabian Society and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.