Gloomy perspectives of national divisions over Brexit and racial inequality were contrasted against more hopeful experiences of neighbourly compassion in this week’s Talk/together discussions in London, writes Jake Puddle.
In the next step of our virtual, UK-wide series of public discussions, Talk/together held conversations across the capital, asking Londoners for their perspectives on what divides us, what brings us together and what policy changes are needed to build a more cohesive and socially connected society.
Worries about COVID’s impact on the economy were prominent in the discussions, as they were in Yorkshire last week. However, race relations and the re-emergence of Brexit divides were seen as more polarising issues by participants in London.
‘We’re as divided as we can possibly be. For every person who wants to Leave there’s another who wants to Remain. For me, that hasn’t changed since 2016.’ (Talk/together participant, London)
Britain’s exit from the EU featured heavily across the discussions, casting forward to the end of the transition period in January. Many expressed an ongoing sense of division that had yet to heal since the referendum, while others added that the conditions brought about by COVID-19 had made it harder for those on both sides of the argument to come together again. With the pandemic having reduced face-to-face discussion, there was a sense that conversations around the issue were being held in online spaces, where respectful dialogue was more likely to be shut down, or to spiral into aggression and name-calling.
We also heard different views about the anti-racism protests of this year. Most emphasised that issues of race are important, with several people speaking about their pride in London’s identity as a diverse city. Yet, while the participants could agree that racism should be tackled, views differed more over the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests. Some participants felt these protests had been important in bringing overdue attention to historically neglected issues of racism in Britain, while others had reservations about how protests had fostered a culture of identity politics that ‘demands to label everything’. The fear that this might fracture, rather than unite, communities was expressed.
These different perceptions were sometimes, but not always, generational. Some younger participants who spoke positively about the newfound sense of solidarity forged through the protests suggested the need for better dialogue with older generations about what the real message of the protests had been.
‘Communities have definitely come closer together. Everyone wants to support local businesses and local people – watching out for each other and the older people in the community.’ (Talk/together participant, London)
Despite a sense that the UK was divided, the London groups expressed a more local perception of community spirit amid the COVID-19 crisis. While research for the Community Life Survey had previously found that Londoners were less likely than those in Yorkshire and the Humber to chat with their neighbours at least once a month, Talk/together discussions in both locations heard many examples of streets and estates where people were continuing to look out for each other beyond the end of national lockdown. From small acts of kindness to more concerted volunteering and mutual aid initiatives, there was an appetite to harness the goodwill shown during coronavirus and maintain closer local ties.
But these feelings of togetherness varied across the city. People who lived in areas with a higher population of renters often talked about there being less community spirit and a lower turnout during the weekly Clap for Carers that ran over the summer.
A point made regularly by participants from these areas, though, was that it would ‘only take one or two to get out there and initiate something […] to knock on doors or put flyers out and say right, let’s do something.’ Far from a lack of desire for more residents in transient neighbourhoods to come together, these areas lacked the community connectors. They suggested the need for leaders with roots in the area who could start the momentum for initiatives and help to overcome people’s initial shyness.
The need for neighbourliness was also reflected in the groups’ priorities, when asked what they would change to heal divides and bring people together. A new initiative of community awards was suggested by one participant to recognise the efforts of those who had given back to their community. Others noted the long-term potential for the volunteering that had gone on in early days of lockdown to continue, for example by adapting mutual aid groups into community support groups. In a context of the current COVID uncertainty, and in a situation that often feels beyond our control, it would seem that a recurring theme was one of hope for locally-driven change. As one person put it: ‘you need to give people a positive action […] a chance to help and show that this community is yours.’
Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk