Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour needs an answer on integration

Addressing integration would allow Labour to diffuse Britain’s polarised culture war, writes Sunder Katwala

Labour is becoming more confident it can talk about immigration. Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott believe in welcoming refugees. The party has become more pro-European in response to Brexit: most party members still hope for another referendum – and so would have to defend free movement as part of the European Union package.

Yet the party has had much less to say about integration. Maybe it is because this has been so much an age of identity politics that the left is wary. Labour has seen immigration, Scottish independence and Brexit divide the coalitions of voters that it hopes might be united by appeals to fairness and equality. Identity often seems to be a discombulating distraction – if only the left could change the subject back to jobs, housing and public services.

But that ambition to build broad coalitions for social change depends on a sense of solidarity strong enough to take on the vocal grievance challenge of the politics of ‘them and us’. There are many common refrains. ‘There are too many of them’ – with regards to numbers. ‘They are taking our resources’ – when it comes to jobs and housing. ‘They aren’t like us and they don’t want to be’ — say those concerned with belonging and integration.

‘We aren’t even allowed to talk about it — or they will call us racist’.

Social democratic parties shrink from these debates, or tend to try to offer answers – about our long history of migration, about net fiscal contributions to the exchequer, about the benefits of diversity for food and culture – which, though all part of the truth, offer a ‘they are good for us’ counter-argument.

However benignly intended, that is still a ‘them and us’ case. Integration means digging deeper – to an account of the ‘new us’ that can link fairness for incomers who join our society with empathy for the communities they join.

Though the party may not often think of itself in this way, an alternative reading of Labour’s history would show it has been as a party of integration in profoundly important ways.

Indeed, Labour’s founding mission was an integration project: to give political voice to organised labour. In succeeding, it shaped Britain’s 20th century, enabling British democracy to adapt to universal suffrage and the voice of the working-classes; uniting the country against the existential threat of Hitler and reshaping post-war citizenship, with the NHS and the welfare settlement.

In the last half century, Labour helped Commonwealth citizens stake their claim to citizenship, passing pioneering anti-discrimination legislation in the 1960s and 1970s against Enoch Powell’s challenge. Those race equality laws were passed by all-white parliaments, yet Labour’s role as a vehicle for ethnic minority participation in public life in the 1980s and 1990s helped ethnic diversity to become a new cross-party norm in British politics, to an extent unmatched anywhere else in Europe.

Yet, if the modern left understood that identity mattered to minorities, it struggled to grasp how it would matter to majorities too. Despite its slogan as a party of ‘the many, not the few’, Labour worries about how to reconcile its commitments to tackling class disadvantage, and discrimination by gender, race and sexuality in this era of cultural polarisation.

So what would it mean for Labour to now become a party of integration in this era too? British politics may follow Donald Trump’s United States down the path of ever-increasing polarisation. The EU referendum illuminated many pre-existing divides – by region, class and especially levels of education – while the 2017 general election showed a greater political divide across the generations than ever before.

A party of integration would not seek to fight a ‘culture war’ but to defuse one. Parties which want to govern a fragmented society need to show how they can bridge the towns and cities, majority and minority interests, the politics of class equality and equalities.

An argument about integration would help to strengthen an authentic and practical Labour response to immigration policy too. A pro-integration party would be actively pro-citizenship in immigration policy, conducting a review of the fees and routes to citizenship. It would be sceptical about proposals to increase temporary migration – such as the idea that youth mobility schemes would be the main migration route to low-skilled work – which will increase churn and the pace of change. It would require large employers to play a role in local integration impacts, and to take their part in a national mission to ensure universal fluency in English. It would proactively promote social contact across many areas of public policy, from encouraging a new norm of school twinning to championing the potential of community sponsorship to involve more people in refugee integration.

When people do talk about the benefits of immigration, they usually mean the benefits of integration. In any city or country where people feel that integration is going well, consent for future migration is much more likely. When too many people see the glass as half-empty at best, paying greater attention to integration has a crucial role to play in restoring public confidence in the contribution that immigration and integration can make to Britain.


Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future


Photo: Wikimedia Commons / PaulNUK

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Sunder Katwala

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