In this year’s general election we saw age trump other demographic factors as the greatest predictor for how someone would vote. In large part this benefited our party, as young people turned out enthusiastically for Labour in ways they had not before. Do not get me wrong, more people voting Labour is always a good thing! However, the implications of this level of polarisation in our society could present other challenges.
In short, our society is becoming more polarised. Our diversity of backgrounds, outlooks and ideas is what makes the United Kingdom so special, but our levels of interaction with those from different backgrounds is not keeping pace with change. Research by the social integration charity The Challenge has found that Britons take up far fewer opportunities than are available to mix with people we consider different from ourselves – especially across ethnic and generational divides. This matters.
A lack of social integration – defined as the extent to which people come into contact with and trust others from different backgrounds – undermines the health and strength of our country and communities. Moreover, it has been suggested that a lack of integration, as people retreat into bubbles of ‘people like them’, leads to increasing political polarisation. This, in turn, results in a lack of empathy for differing political views. This risks damaging our democracy – feeding prejudice, breeding anxiety and creating the conditions for a politics of recrimination and blame.
Policies aimed at boosting social integration are the first defence against some of the challenges I outline above. It has been suggested that, as part of their response to Louise Casey’s review into integration and opportunity, the government plans to publish a National Integration Strategy. This is a positive step. For too long there has been little coordinated government action aimed at boosting levels of integration. However, this strategy must speak to all sections of society.
Theresa May and her ministers have demonstrated an inclination to conflate integration with counter-radicalisation and portray this as an issue primarily concerning certain minority groups. I would argue that this approach is counter-productive, as these groups may take a step back in response to the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Social integration must be a two-way street, and we must recognise that we could all benefit from greater levels of mixing. A joined-up national approach with this belief at its core is the right way forward. Central to this approach should be the creation of new institutions and movements that allow us to mix with those from different backgrounds to our own. One such emerging institution is the National Citizen Service.
NCS was designed specifically so as to bring people from different backgrounds together, and I would argue that we might draw on this success story in shaping future policies. Since it was established in 2011, over 400,000 young people – and many more in the communities in which they volunteer – have taken part in the programme.
Alongside an NCS that continues to go from strength to strength, new institutions which bring people together on an equal-footing, in positive environments must form part of our policy response to the challenges presented by demographic and social trends.
The all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which I chair will, through its next inquiry, investigate intergenerational divides and how policymakers might respond to this rising challenge.
As well as establishing new institutions, we might reform existing public services to more effectively foster social integration. People from all manner of backgrounds regularly engage with the NHS – it is the national institution of which Britons are most proud. For example, many GP surgeries act as community hubs, but this often happens in an ad hoc way. We must consider how we might make use of these spaces in a more targeted manner to bring people together in a positive, meaningful way.
In order to push back against the sense that there is more which divides us than that which binds us together, as a nation we must assume a proactive and strategic approach to social integration. This effort must begin with national intent and will only flourish with local leadership, but must ultimately involve all of us meeting, mixing and connecting with people from different backgrounds and walks of life. By working together to build a more cohesive, integrated and trusting nation we really do have far more in common than that which divides us.