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If multiculturalism has failed, where next for diversity policy?

In his recent speech at the Munich security conference, Prime Minister David Cameron criticised multiculturalism for ‘encouraging different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream’, which he suggests has contributed to the emergence of extremist views.

Proclaiming the failure of multiculturalism, Cameron calls for a ‘shared sense of national identity’ and efforts to promote ‘that feeling of belonging in our communities that is key to achieving true cohesion’.

But new research published by CLES, entitled Where next for ethnic diversity policy-making at the local level?, argues that whilst shared values and interaction between communities play a role in the social and economic functioning of place, they are not cure-alls: tackling social and economic inequality is the foundation for truly successful communities.

Reflecting on findings from my research into the policy approaches of Manchester City Council and the City of Copenhagen, I am wary of the proposition that civil engagement and restoring a sense of community can ‘fix’ deprived neighbourhoods; whether couched in the policy rhetoric of cohesion, Big Society or, in the Danish context, aktivt medborgerskab (active citizenship).

An over-emphasis on shared values and common identity not only implies that these are deficient within certain minority or faith communities; it is also an unhelpful distraction from the social and economic inequalities that face many individuals. Residents are unlikely to feel a sense of attachment to a community or society in which they feel disadvantaged or discriminated.

Cameron’s emphasis on values and identity is clearly nothing new; both featured prominently in New Labour policy and rhetoric. What is new is the wider context of austerity and the threat to local public services.

There is a real risk that the coalition government’s programme of spending cuts will heighten the structural inequalities experienced by some communities, thus threatening the extent to which individuals feel ‘integrated’ in society. Moreover, the current assault on target setting and monitoring raises questions about who or what will be accountable for ensuring new models of service delivery are accessible and delivered along principles of equality and inclusion.

Debates will continue as to whether multiculturalism was a failure or not. What we now need to focus on is how to tackle the root causes of disengagement from society – namely social and economic inequality – by utilising the tools, mechanisms and resources we have available.

This means re-thinking how we approach ‘cohesion’ at local government level and, in particular, embedding principles of equality and inclusion across service areas. From CLES’ perspective, there is an inherent relationship between ‘cohesion’ and economic development. On the one hand, perception of place – and the extent to which an area is deemed ‘cohesive’ – can play an important role in promoting economic development.

But crucially we must recognise that this is a two-way relationship: effective local economic development strategies that tackle inequality will create the conditions for ‘integrated’ communities to develop organically.

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