ICOCO At Ease With Each Other - Brave new world or a step back to the past?

ICOCO’s ‘At Ease With Each Other’ conference on community cohesion which took place Monday 23rd April in central London was, I believe, a step forward on the road to plain speaking and at looking at all sides of the race and immigration debate.

The events keynote speech was given by the Secretary of State For Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles, which was in some ways a damp squib with not much content relying mainly on sound bites.  At one point he told the audience it was “all faiths and no faiths that needed to contribute to society” but gave no insights on how this should happen other than for us all to attend street parties for the Queens Jubilee, clearly by supporting the Royal Family we will keep Britain great and unite our nation.

From this the conference took a different turn as the speakers talked about issues that took the delegates out of their comfort zone.  We heard that the Coalition wants to see Scouts and Guilds develop in none traditional Scouting areas ( this meant areas with large ethnic minority communities) and by doing so we would be automatically placing 400 ‘leaders’ in these communities. 

David Goodhart Director of the think tank DEMOS really added to the discomfort factor of the day by telling the audience he believed that Government had done nothing to help people integrate but had instead put large numbers of uneducated immigrants into already struggling, deprived mill towns creating social  issues that mere education would never alone be able to solve. 

The groans and tuts of discomfiture could be heard, and felt, from the 100 plus attendees as the comments either went against the grain of usual thinking or that an honest opinion was being heard outside of the realms of political correctness.

What was interesting was that even though the speakers had raised points that the mainly liberal minded audience had not expected there were hardly any challenges from the floor during question time. Why was this? Simple, we expect a conference on community cohesion to provide a safe platform that all involved can expect to hear comforting like minded views that allow people to feel happy about being part of the solution whilst confirming their political correctness. The points raised by the floor at past conferences would mainly have told ministers that they weren’t adding enough money to the millions already ploughed into race issues and short term integration projects. This time no one bothered, perhaps there was a feeling of it being pointless to ask.

What did we learn? That immigration is an area of discussion that everyone is too scared to really address to any depth for fear of being called racist. It’s clear that people are no longer sure when common sense and plain speaking becomes racism so best say nothing. From my observations it was clear that the race debates now need to happen in an honest and open manner as the race and cohesion agenda has been left with no direction from Ministers within the Coalition. Is life in a Northern town happy or a perfect storm waiting to happen? Has the past Labour Government left behind a legacy of silence that drove underground logical debate for fear of the politically correct brigade labeling them? Have far too many decisions been made from Whitehall, leaving people to suffer on all sides as a result of their blinkered naivety? Eric Pickles certainly hid behind the old retoric of I’m not racist because I have a black friend, and in a world of no certainty and uncertainty of what is the correct thing to say all reminded quiet.

I praise ICOCO for starting this debate but the conference hall was not the safe place to have the discussions that needed to follow and that was clear from a lack of challenges to speakers. So what next? Lets have the debates in smaller groups where people can feel safe to ask what is next and how can we put this important agenda back on the table. Lets get MPs engaged in those conversations so they become aware of the issues, fears and concerns and how they can get all members of the community to vote, but not by being divisive and using race as a tool to win elections and divide the nation even more. Something we are starting to see as an election strategy.

It’s in all our interests to be ‘At Ease With Each Other’ and as with any negative feelings and doubts we have with people in life, you need to clear the air to become friends. Only then can we all celebrate the things we all have in common rather than blaming everyone else for the uncomfortable things we don't like and are too scared to say.

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Comment by Kate Gordon on April 27, 2012 at 9:09

Glad others have commented because, after reading Maxine’s account, I found myself wondering who the other speakers were, who was in the audience, and – at the risk of exposing myself as the class dunce- what the problem was. I was left unclear as to whether people were saying there isn’t a problem with community cohesion except problems created by politicians playing the race card, or there IS a problem but it isn’t addressed because they think the problem is immigration and they don’t want to be the first to say it or they don’t want to say it at all in case they’re labelled racist?
Anyway, Amanda’s response suggests they were worrying about the wrong thing anyway. I can’t help wondering if people sometimes overthink things, and possibly try to intellectualise things that are quite simple, to disguise the fact they haven’t got a clue.

This story featured on the BBC website earlier this week. 


It was only one of several stories on the subject of London councils trying to transport their unwanted social tenants out of their boroughs up to the Midlands. I can tell you that, were this neighbouring Sandwell where I live, people would be irate if they thought Brummies were being shipped in across the border; giving precious social housing to Londoners would probably bring down the Labour council who have ruled Sandwell since forever! Sudden, large influxes of outsiders definitely affects “community cohesion” (whatever that is), but this is not necessarily to do with the race, colour or religion of the incomers; it is their lack of local connection. Mix that with shortages of decent quality housing and high unemployment, and you obviously have the makings of social unrest, with the wrong people being blamed. I thought the Tory party ate Local for breakfast, lunch and kitchen supper, so should understand the importance of local connection, and the risk of planting bunches of outsiders in the middle of settled communities. Well, of course politicians know and understand what makes for community unrest, and make it their business to cause as much of it as possible. Anyway, who cares about community cohesion as defined by governments and academics who don’t live in the real world anyway – ‘the percentage of people who doff their caps and wave cheerily at their neighbours is up‘– yippy doo.

A past event sprang to mind – around ’96, Birmingham city council and ‘partners’ tried to re-create the race equality council which had collapsed due to ‘political’ reasons in ‘91/’92. It was a big event held on a Saturday in Handsworth (naturally). The usual suspects were there: the 5 Big Boys who were always called to the table first plus the obligatory Black ‘community leaders’. We were split off into 3 groups and instructed to consider the possible structure of the new REC: four mini-RECs, hub + spokes, central committee + locally controlled branches … the discussion had just started to warm up when someone declared “I don’t care what the thing looks like as long as it has Kashmiri Muslims on it”, upon which another person said “I agree, as long as Sikhs are on the committee”, followed by “Of course the Hindus must be on the council”, and so it went on, and on.. ‘Life of Brian’, anyone? So, I was wondering if it was possible the wrong people were at the icoco conference, or not enough of the right sort – the ones who aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade, in other words, rather than intellectuals and people who ‘do’ community cohesion or whatever for a living.

Amanda chose to move to a northern town for reasons she has given. No disrespect to Amanda, but she had the freedom to choose. A National Trust spokesperson was on the radio this morning, saying how marvellous it is that families are joining the NT, but they’re joining because they’re concerned about sustainable housing issues [can just picture the breakfast table conversation..]. Have you ever noticed how you don’t see black people traipsing (sorry, rambling) across the British countryside, waving NT membership cards? Why do you think that is? It’s because they don’t feel welcome in the countryside. This is strange when you consider that most migrants from South Asia and the Caribbean came from rural areas and had farming backgrounds, so would have felt more at home in the countryside than the cities. However, they settled in the larger towns and cities at the invitation of the British Government who needed the country to be rebuilt. Now suddenly, they’re an immigration problem.

Actually, I think icoco delegates need to scratch below the surface a bit, and look at the cultural practices of some of the communities that are illegal (female genital mutilation, ‘honour killing’) – prosecute those who practise or promote those things. The European Union works on the principle of harmonisation upwards, and that’s how it should be within this country. If BME communities do things in ways that are different but do no harm, what’s the problem? Apart from FGM and honour killings, I can’t think of anything else black communities do that white communities don’t, and therefore it is cultural practices that are the problem, not immigration. How hard is that, and why is it difficult to say?

Not sure whether I've overthought or underthought the 'issue'; I’ve edited and re-edited, taking into account other people’s comments, but now I’m just going to post this - what the heck! Have a nice day :-)

Comment by Nick Beddow on April 27, 2012 at 8:01

the swearing was excellent - we need to swear more

And just realised that Pickles claimed to have a friend. Pickles?

Comment by Kate Gordon on April 26, 2012 at 21:30

I've beem struggling to understand exactly what the issue was, and have been penning a comment; however, in the meantime, I came across this which I thought I'd post as it's quite pithy. http://jezebel.com/5905291/a-complete-guide-to-hipster-racism

In the meantime, I'll continue digesting, cogitating and generally trying to understand why I don't understand what people's problem is.    I should warn you, the linked article does contain one or two swear words - altho if you're shocked by them, you probably should get out more - and rest assured, no 'n' word.

Comment by joe taylor on April 26, 2012 at 20:15
This is a selected cut and paste from Daniel Dorling's book 'Injustice' on the topic of racism.

Racism is the belief in the superiority of a particular race.  A race is seen as a major division of humanity, a group of people connected by common decent.

What we think of racism changes over time. It has only been since the 1930’s that we have began to widely recognise racism as it is currently thought of, and only since the 1960’s that the word ‘racism’ has appeared in dictionaries.

As racism among many affluent people has evolved from it’s crude 1970’s form to a more general detesting of the poor as inferior, so the nature of those who enact the changing racism, the treating of people as racially inferior, has changed.

Now the wider racism is much more enacted in boardrooms by businesspeople who consider their target groups of customers – as groups – as inferior, the kind of people (they say) you need to know in order to exploit, but you wouldn’t want to live near or mix with.
People are now trying to run businesses knowing they are increasingly despised for how they act, how they pollute, how they hire and fire at will, how they profit from misery

More and more of the general public are becoming aware that bankers are not often compassionate well-meaning people, but few realise that corporate law requires businesses to act in ways psychiatrists would diagnose as psychopathic in an individual.

Just as with poverty, exclusion and elitism, racism has not always been with us as it appears now, and, as with poverty, only recently have very large numbers of people become committed to its eradication.  The currently propagated mass prejudice, that the poor are somehow inferior, will come to pass too.

Those with less are not a race ‘apart’ that you should fear living near, mixing with, or you children marrying.  It’s as simple (and for some reason as hard to understand) as that.
Comment by Nick Beddow on April 26, 2012 at 19:16

and talking of Brave New worlds - I'd recommend a NatCAN get-together in the fresh air on June 23rd and 24th, at the free festival for African music in Sefton Park, Liverpool


Incredibly, all sections of Liverpool's communities seem to co-exist very nicely there (and they're not middle-class - blimey :) )

Comment by Nick Beddow on April 26, 2012 at 18:56

I agree that we need an open debate, and it won’t be possible for it to happen in a bull-ring conference situation. It does need small encounters (see the recent Bradford documentaries). It needs facilitation by people from all sections of the communities, or we fall into an Us and Them scenario. David Goodhart has been promoting National Identity since 2004, when his pamphlet “Too Diverse?” created a hoo-hah (and brought great attention to Mr G.) “Progressives, especially in England, have an anachronistic hostility to national feeling. It is no longer about militarist jingoism, it is the last vehicle for meaningful collectivism.”

As Paul Gilroy said so many years ago, “There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack”. So how meaningful can collectivism be when it excludes people under the label of “immigrant”? When white British people emigrated it was as colonial dominators of the countries. That history makes it very hard to swallow ‘progressive nationalism” as a concept in the UK – bloody hypocrisy, given how we have suppressed other nation’s ‘meaningful collectivism’.

Goodhart was very clear in the past about the impact of immigration in poorer areas of the country: “If the government wants to win political legitimacy for even moderate levels of immigration it must do more to ensure that it benefits poorer citizens too. That means being much more sceptical about low-skill migration and doing much more to get existing citizens into unfilled vacancies.” So there is an economic basis for white non-working-class backlash against new arrivals, as many of us have encountered. But that is not caused by immigrants; it is caused by the withdrawal of Capitalists from investing in our communities (so much for patriotism in that strata). We need to stand together against fascists who seek to exploit that situation and the low level of understanding about the roots of decline.  Racist jokes seem to have become sanitised again. Along with sexist crap and homophobic crap. It isn’t being PC to resist that; it’s being brave enough to stand up to bullies and bigots.

I don’t know if any form of cohesion is possible within any communities who are now facing hopeless economic futures; it’s going to be a dog-eat-dog environment unless people with the desire to connect can prevail over people who want to grab what they can and growl at perceived competitors. No wonder it feels unsafe to  open a debate.

Comment by Amanda Bickerton on April 25, 2012 at 23:39

I agree Maxine. The debate on equalities has been equated almost exclusively with race. The fact of the matter is that every person has many identities: gender, sexual orientation, social class, geographical belonging, faith, culture, race, age, disability, health, family background, job, football team - all of those things and more form a person's identity. The position taken by the self-appointed experts has been that anyone who challenges their position is a racist, a Little-Englander, a bigot and so on.

The reality of life in a Northern town is not understood by people who look through the lens of their own belief system at the situation. Having lived in Oldham until just over a year ago, I can say that the tension is palpable between communities. The statutory and voluntary sectors are often not helpful - for example, a refusal to mention Christmas in a winter newsletter to avoid offence to minorities and other faiths, without troubling to enquire of the minority communities and other faiths what their point of view might be... The result is a resentment of those communities from the indigenous community for a perceived bias against their cultural and religious traditions, when in fact it is nothing to do with minority communities and other faiths.

I will probably be told off for generalising here, but the earnest, liberal, right-on (and usually middle class) white people who take this position are at best unhelpful, and at worst are contributing to racial and cultural tension. And as a member of the white working class I believe that there is prejudice underlying the position of the people who are the guardians of multi-culturalism. That prejudice will be vehemently denied - but I would point out that actions speak louder than words, and if a reasonable person would be justified in identifying bias and discrimination then it is safe to say it is an institutionalised bias - call people chavs, sneer at their lives and views and accuse them of being racist and you can absolve yourself of blame can't you?

I like living in a diverse and vibrant community where people get along as neighbours, friends and colleagues without their entire relationships being forced through the filter of racial identity alone. Oldham has not had that - it is why I moved. If you want to see the failure of a system try living in a Northern mill town and trying to avoid being spat at and sworn at for having friends of a different race or faith by the white community and being spat at and sworn at for being in the wrong area by members of the Asian community.


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