Last night, I led a discussion on racism, multiculturalism and community relations in Britain today.
Croydon is one of the most diverse parts of the country, at least in part due to the significant UK Border Agency presence in the town, so it's little wonder that issues connected with race like discrimination and migration are a big part of the casework I deal with.
Because these issues are sensitive and most of us are polite and don't want to cause offence, we often refrain from talking about them. My starting point last night was that this is a mistake - if we are going to make our diverse society a success, we have to be able to raise concerns with one another, understand each other's point of view and agree a way forward. In any case, in my experience opinions aren't as polarised as many people assume (if you ignore the odd extremist). And if mainstream politicians don't address these issues, we leave the field open to those extremists.
I started by looking at the issue of racism and how people from different backgrounds get along. First, the good news: there is less overt racism in society than when I was growing up - in the most recent survey 77% of respondents felt that in Croydon people from different backgrounds get on well together, higher than in most parts of London. But that's not to say racism has gone away: nationally, if you have an African or Asian sounding surname, you have to apply for twice as many jobs before you get an interview to give just one example. And we can think of recent examples of racist behaviour locally too - the people abused on a tram as foreigners because of the colour of their skin or the girl assaulted on North End and referred to as "white trash".
Previous governments have rightly legislated to outlaw racial discrimination but laws can only take you so far. You can make racism illegal but that just makes it covert; if you want to put a stop to it, you have to change people's attitudes and the law can't do that. Prejudice stems from a hostility to anyone who appears different, which seems innate to all of us and which we must struggle to overcome, and ignorance - the hostility can only be sustained if you believe the other person is different; once you get to know them and find out that they're really very similar to you it breaks down. If you have Muslim friends, you are not going to believe the email someone sends you claiming that all Muslims are plotting to make us adopt Sharia law; if you know genuine refugees and what they have been through, you are not going to believe that all asylum seekers have come here to milk the system. It follows that if we want to defeat racism, we need to break down barriers, to encourage people to mix with their neighbours, to rebuild a sense of community, to support inter-faith dialogue etc.
But the lack of racial equality in our society is not just the result of discrimination, it is also about relative opportunity. If we want to make Britain a more equal society, the key is to address this eg by improving the standards of our urban schools, which educate the majority of children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
We also talked about immigration. Labour activist Chris Wilcox, who was in the audience, had the honesty to admit that the last Labour Government allowed too many people into the country and that the Coalition Government is right to reduce net migration back to the levels we saw in the early 1990s. But it is important that in getting migration back to sensible levels, we don't lose sight of the benefits it can bring. Many of my friends, neighbours, the people who helped to get me elected and the people I meet when I visit businesses, public services and voluntary organisations in the constituency are immigrants or their descendants and Croydon would be a poorer place without them. Indeed, as we become increasingly dependent on our ability to trade with other parts of the world to be economically successful, diaspora communities are a huge asset that we should make greater use of. And we should also keep in mind that migration is not just a question of numbers - virtually every constituent I meet has no problem with highly-skilled people coming here who are going to contribute to our economy and create jobs for others; they are concerned about us admitting people with low skills who will either take jobs that our unemployed might otherwise have taken or end up claiming benefits. In other words, it is as much who as how many.
Finally we talked about multiculturalism. This is a particularly sensitive subject because the word means different things to different people - to some people, it means the previous Government's policy (which, to be fair, even it came to recognise was a mistake) of dividing up society into its different ethnic groups and focusing on our differences; to others, it means anti-racism. That's why when the Prime Minister attacked multiculturalism in a speech in Munich last year (take the time to read it - the paragraph on multiculturalism apart, it is excellent), it met with such a varied reaction (he was using the word in the first sense but many people didn't take it that way).
In the literal sense, the UK - a union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - is by definition multi-cultural. And the building of a British identity on top of the individual national identities that took place over time following the Act of Union provides a good case-study for what we need to do now. We shouldn't ask people to choose between being proud of their roots and being British - that was what was so wrong about Norman Tebbit's infamous cricket test. Identity is complex, not binary. In the same way that you can be English and British, people should be able to be British and proud of their Indian/Jamaican/Australian etc roots.
As the Prime Minister said in his Munich speech, we need to build a "clear sense of national identity that is open to everyone". You don't have to have roots in this country to be British but we should expect people to integrate eg by learning English, we should be welcoming to encourage integration and Government should focus on promoting what binds us together, not what seperates us. The Government has recently published a strategy setting out how it intends to do that, which you can read here.
After I had spoken, there were plenty of contributions from the floor covering a wide spectrum of views but they were all expressed in reasonable language so from my perspective the evening was a big success and I intend to hold other such meetings in the future.