By David Barclay, faith in public life officer at the Contextual Theology Centre
It’s almost a cliché now to suggest that Labour needs to put flesh on the bones of its ‘One Nation’ agenda.
And yet as the aftermath of the Woolwich attack reveals the deep tensions still present in our diverse society, there is gap in the political landscape for a ‘One Nation’ multiculturalism which can help people build meaningful relationships.
My new Theos report, Making Multiculturalism Work, suggests a few ways forward for Labour to turn rhetoric into reality on the issue of integration.
Harvard scholar Danielle Allen – one of Ed Miliband’s favourite ‘gurus’ – has described grass-roots ‘political friendships’ as the key to making diversity a source of strength, rather than a flashpoint for extremist agitation.
My research has focussed on investigating projects which are already generating these relationships across difference, particularly community organising and the government funded Near Neighbours programme.
So how are politically friendships actually built?
First, people need to work together in practical ways. ‘Dialogue’ is all very well, but if there is no tangible common action then it will be hard to create any sense of shared destiny. Near Neighbours is a good example of how governments can help – giving small grants with the sole criteria that projects bring people together from different faiths or ethnicities.
This allows people to engage in the ways that make sense to them, with nobody telling them what they should be doing or how.
Second, if people are going to get beyond surface level co-operation, they need to be free to share their deepest motivations.
Community organising group Citizens UK has been quick to recognise this, giving its participants chances to share ‘testimony’ in public meetings. This often involves very personal stories, where themes that aren’t always permitted in the public like family and faith are particularly in evidence.
The result is that campaigners can trust each other to stick together when challenges arise because they know exactly what their collective efforts represent to each person involved.
A real commitment to One Nation multiculturalism is likely to involve ruffling a few feathers. Labour has often been too puritanical about who is counted ‘acceptable’ to work alongside, with those that don’t pass the ‘progressive test’ barred from serious engagement.
But the reality is that refusing to work with people is hardly likely to result in the softening of extreme views, and the result will not be One Nation but communities that stay fragmented. Pioneering a different approach requires the use of ‘relational tests’ instead – picking partners on whether they can work with others rather than whether they tick the right ideological boxes.
In the same way, a renewed openness to core motivations would challenge the shrill secularists who claim that any discussion of religion in public can only lead to division and discord. Of course the truth is that there are countless people in the UK who are motivated by their faith to make positive change in their community (including many Labour activists and MPs), but that deep well-spring of public spirit can easily be quenched in an attempt to find an elusive ‘neutrality’.
What we need instead is an openness to many different kinds of motivation, alongside clear mechanisms for dealing with irreconcilable differences when they inevitably do come up.
Labour is the British political party most able to pursue this radical approach and challenge the orthodoxies which are holding us back from a more practical multiculturalism. Historically, the party has often succeeded in being what GDH Cole called “a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog”.
Self-help and co-operation were the key watchwords for the Trade Unions and Socialist societies that founded the ILP, and people of faith were absolutely instrumental to that, from Keir Hardie to George Lansbury to R.H Tawney. They understood that ordinary relationships between citizens were key to building a better society and that you didn’t have to agree on every issue to make common cause.
If Labour can recover just a little of that same spirit in promoting 21st century political friendships, it could be well on its way to creating a ‘One Nation’ multiculturalism that can truly make Britain’s diversity its strength.