‘Healing the wounds: bridging divides through a shared economy’

Posted on 26 November 2019

A speech from British Future Director Sunder Katwala to the Centre for Progressive Policy’s Inclusive Growth Conference 2019

Britain is a more anxious and fragmented society than any of us want.  Indeed, we are increasingly told that our divisions define us.

How can we change that? And what can today’s theme – inclusive growth – contribute to bridging our divides?

The premise – that growth needs to be fair, and felt to be fair – will resonate widely. But, in polarised times, policy must reconcile increasing competition between fairness claims – between different places and social classes, across the generations, closing gender and ethnic gaps, or managing transitions to a sustainable economy.

Inclusive Growth has become a big idea among the policy-makers – and its power will also depend in how to generate stronger public voice and ownership over what this means.

British Future is a non-partisan think-tank which has focused on issues of identity that can polarise and divide – especially exploring how people with different views can find common ground, to broaden confidence in a shared future. It’s great to have the opportunity to share a few insights from that work for your agenda today.

Insights from the National Conversation on Immigration

The most polarising issue, before 2016, was often immigration, rather than Europe.  The loss of public confidence in how governments handled immigration reflected a disconnect which has been described in several different ways:

“Facts versus Feelings”
“Somewheres versus Anywheres”
“Cities versus Towns”
And between national economic gains  and the pressures of population change at the local level.

If the challenge is to rebuild public confidence, its important to engage the public in how we do that. So British Future co-conducted the largest ever public engagement exercise on this topic. The National Conversation on Immigration sat down with citizens, representative of their local areas, in 60 towns and cities, from Penzance to the Shetlands and in every region and nation in between, to talk about what we do now.

People talked about immigration as a national issue – and also saw it through a very local lens. Pressures on wages and conditions featured much less than might have been anticipated, though it was a dominant theme in a handful of locations.

In those cases, it usually became quickly apparent that the reputation and practices of specific large employers had created a different micro-climate of debate in their towns – and not for the better. In Chesterfield, it was Sports Direct. In Northampton, it was Amazon. The impact went well beyond immigration. There was much less public trust in what business had to say about anything.

We also heard the opposite phenomenon too – where local reputation made the voice of business more influential.

We asked each citizens’ group to think about the single market – and whether that would influence their immigration choices. Mostly, it did not. The trade-off seemed too abstract, the forecasts too uncertain. 2% of GDP didn’t sound all that big a deal, we were told. The few exceptions had something in common. Trust in what local employers were saying. In Macclesfield, it was the importance of pharmaceuticals; in Knowsley on Merseyside, the car factory. In these few places, what business voices were saying nationally was also heard from trusted local champions – and so carried influence, even across the referendum divide. There was a strong sense that what was good for those businesses was good for the places in which they operated.

Getting it right locally
That local lens offers some important insights for inclusive growth – and why bridging our social divides is also the business of business. Engagement in local communities has often been seen largely through the lens of Corporate Social Responsibility – putting something back. Business’ experience over immigration and Brexit suggests it is also a core issue about legitimacy, influence and the licence to operate.

Beyond the local: thinking about where growth goes
Inclusive growth is not only about the local. Jim O’Neill argues powerfully for a bigger strategic dimension.

There is much talk about bridging divides between towns and cities – but we don’t always notice dynamics that widen the gaps. Universities drive growth – and local pride too. They put your town on the map. Yet most of the growth in student numbers has been into the ten biggest cities.  That doesn’t just reinforce economic imbalances: it also accelerates the demographic divergence, as cities get younger and more ethnically diverse, and towns get older and remain whiter. That may entrench cultural and political polarisation too.

When social mobility and educational cold-spots are mapped, the largest towns without a university feature heavily. Hence the local campaigns for universities – in Derry-Londonderry, in Peterborough and in Doncaster. Here, tailored new universities could make crucial connections with schools, further education and local growth.

Bridging the divides means a strategic vision about the tools that can influence where growth happens.

Bridging divides: beyond this election
There are few more important things than living in a democracy – though voters have never before been asked, in a period of just five years, to vote in three General Elections and a referendum.

We shall have to see how far December’s General Election proves either clarifying or cathartic. The truth is that democratic politics will continue to divide. Politicians will want to bring people together but also to win the next big argument – this election, or another referendum – first.

However big those political choices, we should reject the idea that these political divisions define the relationships in our society.  Beyond the election, there will be work to do outside politics to kick-start some of the action we need to heal the divides.