This week the government published a new set of statistics on how ethnic minorities fare in Britain. Predictably, this will lead to a series of Twitter spats, and polemicists on all sides will weigh in, to say this proves what they have been arguing all along. But the value of these statistics lies far beyond what ideological debate they trigger in the commentariat.
The publication of this new information on racial disparity is a positive step for several reasons. Crucially, transparent data is the best way to hold the powerful to account. The prime minister put this argument at the forefront: ‘if these disparities cannot be explained, they must be changed’. No-one sensible would disagree with that.
Another benefit is that it gives a far more detailed insight into Britain today. We live in the era of “fake news”, so objective statistics are more valuable than ever. We are far more diverse than we have ever been, with different ethnicities in different parts of the country achieving vastly differential outcomes. There have been arguments for years that some ethnic minorities were doing much better than others; that the white working class (especially boys) were struggling in some places; and that achievements in education for some BAME groups were not translating into success in the workplace. Now we have concrete, objective evidence. This level of data was badly needed.
But steel yourself. It is inevitable that any development on integration sparks a national debate about the kind of country we have become. Some will use this data to argue that Britain is riven with institutional racism. Others will say this proves that the white working class are losing out. Another tiresome debate on whether we are a nation of Anywheres and Somewheres will likely follow. This is all fine: we should use the new evidence to interrogate the arguments that have been prosecuted. New evidence will help us triage between hobby-horses and real analysis – a useful function, given that in the debate on integration too often those who shout loudest have had most traction.
But it would be a waste to leave it there. This new information can do far more than allow some polemicists to boost their book sales. Because the real potential of this data lies in being translated into practical policy action. And the way to do that is by listening to the groups who are losing out, and hearing what they think of the obstacles they face. This data will not tell us who is right; it will tell us who to listen to.
Recent IPPR research has tried to bring new voices into the integration debate, with socially-excluded Asian Muslim women. They did not tell us that efforts to promote Britishness (the felt perfectly British), or oaths of loyalty (as proposed by Louise Casey) had made any difference to their outcomes or experience. But they said that what worked was policies to overcome their chronic lack of self-confidence, low income levels and the suspicion among their family that any engagement beyond the household would lead to wholesale Westernisation. Help us overcome issues like that, they told us, and we would find integration far easier.
The only way integration will make any substantive headway is if we dial down the wild rhetoric and listen to what excluded groups actually tell us they need. The Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, seems to understand this. He has pledged to use the data to engage with different organisations and representative groups. This is promising: a debate on the Comment pages of the broadsheets is a far less meaningful legacy of the statistics than effective government engagement with the groups who have been affected by racial disparity.
The statistics will bring a much-needed injection of evidence and transparency to the debate. Doubtless they will also be used to support the ideological arguments on integration. But do not overlook their real value: they should lead to action on the ground.
Chris Murray works in the migration, integration and communities team at IPPR