Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Culture wars

We must stand up for migrants – the current conversation on integration works for nobody, argues Henna Shah

The term ‘culture wars’ invokes images of a bad reality television show. Perhaps an ITV3 affair: Z-list celebrities battle it out – hummus versus haggis, jambalaya versus jalfrezi, niqab versus Nike – to discover the best food, outfit, festival.

Facetious it may be, but the idea that cultures are deliberately pitted against each other in our political narrative is uncomfortably close to the truth. Immigration, more than any other conversation, is dominated by an othering of those from cultures unlike ours. Unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds create the impression that the core of our identity – our food, our festivals, our language – is slipping away from us to the advantage of some foreign invader.

As progressives, we have failed at confronting this impression. It is easier for those of us (especially we millennials) who have grown up around the sights and sounds of different cultures in prosperous cities like London to see the advantages of diversity – from the 24-hour bagel shop to the growing awareness of intersectional inequalities and the emergent movements challenging them.

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We have forgotten, however, that this is not everyone’s experience. The diverse utopia of curry-for-all that I describe is both bound up with serious issues about the gentrification of local communities and ignores the fact that, for many, immigration has caused alien customs, and alien people to take up space in our society.

Take a local pub in an industrial town. What was historically a meeting place for people working in a local plant or factory to have a pint after work, a place to connect and build community links, may no longer be able to sustain business because recent immigrant communities do not go in. A new set of Muslim families are far more likely to build those links at a mosque on a Friday than they are to step into the local boozer. This is not just metaphorical: in some cases, what was the pub is now in fact the mosque.

This is not a good or bad thing in itself. The conversations and connections that build communities are just as likely to happen (or, in my opinion, even more so) over some tea and samosas as they are over a pint of Guinness. Unfortunately, for these conversations to happen between these groups requires intentional community-building and having frank discussions about employment, language and public services. Yet unless they espouse the view that immigration brings only benefits, progressives seem to launch themselves into a ‘nothing has changed, nothing has changed’ narrative.

This means we have missed the opportunity to lead the conversation on immigration; to have frank discussions about the impact of unfamiliar cultures. Instead, we have chosen the coward’s way out – uncomfortable silence. This has not only led to the co-opting of immigration as an issue by the right, which has cloaked racism with reasonable concerns about the changing nature of our society, but also to reactionary positions from those within our own party. It appears we have now gone so far down the immigration rabbit hole that some members of parliament believe that the only way to placate their Brexit-voting constituents is to endorse the harshest form of border control, no matter the economic arguments to the contrary.

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All is not lost, however. Progressives have not lost the argument on immigration. Rather, we have not made one at all. The time has come for us to step up. This means highlighting the positives of immigration and diversity – the benefits to economy and industry as well as the benefits to society and culture, while having honest conversations with communities about the challenges they are facing and helping them to understand each other better. The fears and perceptions people have about immigrants, especially when the media favours the sensational over the nuanced, will only be overcome if we feel able to acknowledge reasonable concerns and admit that differences in values and lifestyles do exist.

This understanding must go hand-in-hand with a rejection of racism and other structural inequalities in all their forms. We are not only afraid of having conversations about immigration for fear of accusations of racism, but we are so conscious of the fact that we consider ourselves to be post-race (or indeed post-gender) that the idea that we continue to uphold racist structures and institutions is an embarrassing truth we are afraid to confront. This is not only the case with race – a significant factor in the environment that led up to the Brexit vote is the existence of a set of structural inequalities across region and class. As the Social Mobility Commission demonstrated, even the poorest children in London have notably better life chances than those from coastal towns.

This is no easy task. In an age of political extremes it requires the communication of nuance – of acknowledging the diversity of values and finding common ground. Yet it is a vital one. From the marginalisation of huge swathes of the white working class to the disgraceful treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood, it is clear that the current settlement works for nobody. If we believe it can, and we should, then it is our duty to make the case and show people how. 


Henna Shah is editorial assistant at Progress. She tweets @hennalikespie



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