Setting the record straight on diversity

This is the text of a speech I delivered at the Blue Labour Conference in Manchester on 26th November 2016

It’s a real privilege to be asked to speak at this event. When I was first asked I said that even though I had done my fair share of academic work, I’m not really an academic when it comes to my politics and that maybe discussing post-liberalism wasn’t really my thing. “I’m a story teller!” I said. “Story telling is fine” I was told. So, that’s okay. I shall tell stories and I hope these will inform the debate even if they don’t directly answer the exam question, as set.

What better way to explore Labour’s approach to post-liberalism than to consider the issue of diversity. In the wake of Donald Trump’s shock election victory, my social media stream is awash with metropolitan angst about the white working classes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been a “voice crying out in the wilderness” on this subject for a very long time so I have a deep sense of relief that others are finally waking up. But I do feel the need to set the record straight. Because, for me, this has never been about scrapping the diversity agenda. But broadening its scope.

Let me explain.

Some years ago, I was a school governor of St. Bridget’s School, Parton on the west coast of Cumbria. The school was a small primary school of about 70 children and the enrolment was 100% white working class. Parton is an isolated coastal community squeezed between a main road, a railway line and the coast, too small to register on any nationally recognized statistical measure of economic wellbeing.

Perhaps the most striking statistic is that 40% of the household in the village do not own a car. If you live in an isolated coastal village and you don’t own a car then you won’t travel very far. The train takes you very slowly to Carlisle in over an hour and it’s a further hour and a half on a different train to Newcastle. And it must be said that my train journey to this event from North Hertfordshire via London took roughly the same time as it would take somebody from Whitehaven to travel to this event by public transport.

So, many children growing up in Parton don’t get to see much of the country – let alone much of the world – and that has an obvious impact on their aspirations and their perspective on life.

My work situation was slightly unusual at the time. I worked for an international law firm that had a satellite office in West Cumbria which I staffed. And my firm wanted me to do some Corporate Social Responsibility, so I became a school governor of St Bridget’s School.

I had various discussions with my firm at London HQ about the kind of projects I could undertake. I suggested that the law firm could facilitate a twinning arrangement with a school in Tower Hamlets, but this was unsuccessful – and for very disappointing reasons.

The issue was that the school in Tower Hamlets could see how the Cumbrian children could learn from the relationship but they couldn’t see how children from Tower Hamlets could learn anything from being twinned with a school in Cumbria.

Right there is the first problem with the current diversity narrative. It lacks reciprocity. Diverse means African, Indian, Japanese, Middle Eastern. But it doesn’t mean Cumbrian. Participating in Bhangra dance is cultural, but not taking part in a Barn Dance at the village hall. Religious Education means visiting a mosque, a synagogue, a gurdwara – or even a cathedral. But it doesn’t normally involve visiting isolated rural chapels that are living legacies of the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist revivals. A child may learn about important community events such as Vaisakhi or Diwali – but never have the opportunity to participate in a village fete. Or learn about the central role that cricket plays in many rural communities or rugby league in our northern heartlands. And we end up in the absurd situation where kids from inner city London can apparently learn nothing from the landscape that inspired William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and Melvyn Bragg – along with countless artists and musicians.

The impact of this is not obvious. It is subliminal. People cherish deeply their community, their culture and their identity. It shapes who they are. If we don’t share in that, we give the impression of being detached, out-of-touch. We neither understand nor care about their lives. We may not say we hold them in contempt but it can sometimes seem that way. When unscrupulous UKIP politicians say we hate Britain, they are wrong and what they say is dangerous. But they can find an audience.

And there are more serious implications. By far the best antidote to all forms of extremism is relationships. Learning from a young age that “all people are people” is how we counter the narrative that the “other side” hates us. Well, no the other side don’t hate us because they showed us love, kindness, generosity and hospitality. They cooked us a wonderful meal, they taught us how to play rugby league or do bhangra dancing. We climbed mountains together.

We had a second issue at St Bridget’s School – and that was low aspirations. Here too, it was the narrowness of the diversity agenda that was the problem.

Working again with my London law firm, I arranged for years five and six to visit the City of London officers with activities organised by agencies who work to raise aspirations at schools in inner city London. It was combined with a trip to the National Portrait Gallery and a visit to their local MP, Jamie Reed in Parliament. I secured funding from my employer to ensure that the trip was completely free for every school child. The feedback was that it had a measurable impact on the children’s aspirations and horizons.

But what was striking was how rare it was for a school from outside London to participate in this sort of project.

When I worked at the London HQ, it was clear to me that many city firms had well developed programmes to serve children in the East End. There is no shortage of people of goodwill in the City of London wanting to offer young people opportunities. But it is clearly easier to offer those opportunities to children in London than children in Parton – or even Leicester, Nuneaton or Stevenage. It is important to stress the need for an Industrial Strategy to spread opportunities more evenly across the country. But that is the topic of a different speech.

I hadn’t appreciated the scale of the challenge until I attended a diversity event at this law firm. There was a panel of four speakers including admissions professors from both Oxford and Cambridge who discussed their strategies for widening access for ethnic minorities at their universities. The discussion was fairly uncontroversial until one of them said “We’ve talked a lot about widening access to ethnic minorities – and so we should – but did you know that only one student from Rochdale is currently studying at Oxford University?”

This anecdote has stayed with me as a powerful illustration of the failure of diversity policies to truly deliver diversity. But it is not an isolated incident. There are currently no students from the North East of England on free school meals currently studying at either Oxford or Cambridge.

In the wake of this diversity event, I made enquiries about whether the firm’s work experience programme aimed at A’Level students from Hackney and Tower Hamlets might be accessible to a student from Cumbria as I had someone in mind. It took 3 months of persuasion and lobbying to get them to bend the rules to allow this student to participate.

This Cumbrian lad was straight A* student from a school in special measures in an isolated and rural white working class community, described by OFSTED as being an area that was “considerably socially and economically disadvantaged” and who was the first in his family to attend university. For him, the programme was life transformative. He went onto win a First in Law at Lancaster University and subsequently secured a trainee solicitor post at one of the world’s most prestigious law firms. But it has to be remembered that he participated in a programme that he wasn’t supposed to, which wasn’t aimed at students like him.

Multiple deprivation takes many forms. The barriers to achievement and advancement are different for students from different communities and different backgrounds. For this lad, the barriers were living over 2 hours from Newcastle, 3 hours from Manchester and 400 miles away from London. This meant that almost all of the opportunities in his chosen profession of law were out of reach together with their corporate social responsibility and work experience programmes. He may have been an A* student but the school he attended had failed its OFSTED because of their poor exam results. He knew me but that was an accident of history. And both of us remain utterly committed to ensuring that future students don’t need to depend on “chance meetings” to fulfil their dreams.

I cannot stress enough that I am not interested in preventing ethnic minority young people from being afforded every opportunity that their talents deserve. Quite the opposite. But rather of ensuring all barriers to opportunity and advancement are broken down. Like the barriers facing a child in an isolated rural community from a family that doesn’t own a car. If Labour is to win in the post-liberal future, it needs to understand this.