by Dan McCurry
Today, Ed Miliband promised that in 2013 we will see some concrete policies that define what being a one nation party means. Good. We need them. There are many areas the detail is necessary, not least on integration.
Before Christmas, Ed made a good speech on the subject. He struck the right notes in a measured manner, acknowledging the benefits migrant communities have brought to Britain while stressing the importance of the basics such as everyone speaking English. So far, so good.
Now we need to explain what this means in practice. For those that can’t speak English, what will we do?
A practical example. In my experience, if I can’t understand my Bangladeshi client, when I’m filling out the legal aid form, then I just pass them the pen and ask them to fill in their own details. In the box marked “place of birth”, quite often, they will write, “London hospital, Whitechapel”.
Born in this country, but with language skills so bad that they cannot be understood when speaking their own name and address, the issue is lack of exposure to the English language, during the early years, before the age of three. Without good English, their life outcome will suffer considerably, yet this someone who was born in this country.
Thankfully, these days it is less and less frequent for younger Bangladeshis to suffer from this problem. They are so surrounded by English speaking aunts and uncles that the issue no longer arises.
However, it is tragic for the Bangladeshi community that it wasn’t until the third generation, that the majority of the community could speak the language of the nation of their birth fluently. And it remains a major issue for many in the first and second generations of the community.
Ed Miliband says that Labour made mistakes by believing that these things will sort themselves out. People used to say that integration will happen naturally with the generation born here. But that was wishful thinking. Many who were born here, were held back before the age of three, by the problem that they were expected to solve by virtue of being born here.
Miliband has argued that those working in the public sector must be able to speak the English language sufficiently well. I agree, in principle. I first wrote about this theme in an internal Labour document in Tower Hamlets. The argument I made was that Labour party selections of Bangladeshi candidates in the council elections, should recruit candidates that can move with equal comfort through both communities.
Dual culture candidates, as it were. So a Bangladeshi candidate could be comfortable speaking with white working class stall holders in the market, but fit-in equally well at the mosque, in a different language and culture.
My point being that some councillors can only relate to their own community, whereas others are regarded as modern integrated types by the white Labour executive, but cannot speak Bangladeshi sufficiently to engage in a political debate in their own language.
What we need is Bangla politicians who can move with equal ease through both communities.
John Denham read it and responded well, but with a cautionary note that I should take care to treat all communities equally. These were wise words, as I discovered after the document spread around Tower Hamlets Labour party.
There were a couple of Bangla members, with a history of hard work and commitment to the party, but who had very bad English skills, who were worried about my proposals, and their prospects for becoming councillors. Should the rules be changed on them, after all the work they’ve done so far? It would seem very unfair.
When we look at Ed Miliband’s recent speech on integration, I wonder if he considered that many thousands of people in the care industry are working on very low pay, doing a really good job, but must be deeply worried about this speech? Are they right to fear that their jobs are on the line by a future Labour government?
I have in front of me a book of courses from Tower Hamlets council. There are lots of evening classes for French and Italian. There are classes for ESOL (English as a second language). There are a range of courses for learning to speak Bangladeshi, including one for the family to attend together, (I’ll have a word with my mum).
However, there are no courses for elocution. Other than very expensive private courses (£1,000 in Camden), there is no opportunity for Bangladeshi people with strong accents to make themselves more employable, and more acceptable to the new standards, as laid down by Mr Miliband.
We need to recognise the mistakes of the past in order that they don’t afflict future immigrants, and we have to look at the actionable ways in which we can counter the damage done by those mistakes of the past.
It’s good that the Labour party is looking for a correctly balanced relationship between the indigenous and the migrant communities, but policy shouldn’t be just a bunch of words. It does need to be actionable.
In the coming year we need to see concrete measures that target the problems of the country in a practical manner. In the case of integration, it means going beyond the high level vision, necessary as that is, and even beyond the basic policy prescription of “English classes,” down to the heart of the problem: elocution.
This is the type of detail that will turn one nation into a clear prospectus for action from Labour. I look forward to Ed delivering on the promises he made in today’s New Year’s message.
Dan McCurry is a Labour activist who blogs here