We're all a little bit addicted to pointless outrage these days. If there's one thing that always gets me spitting feathers, it's the sight of well-paid journalists desperately clinging onto their jobs and ever-declining readerships by inciting a bit of racial hatred. Shocking though it might be that there are millions of people who still get up every single morning and decide there's nothing else they'd like to spend 30p on than a grey and red newspaper filled with lazy press release rewrites and rabid opinion, it is a habit that even on its current trend will take many years to dissipate.
This week the government handed the media a nice little story about how immigrants are to blame for the poor's feelings of discontent. I don't know if that was the spin the government chose to put on it, but it gave enough scope for reports about how the voiceless poor are feeling overwhelmed by the waves of immigrants and are too strangled by political correctness to say anything about it.
Where do I start? Well, I'll skip over the voicelessness bit because regular White Llama readers will have seen it all before, but I will pick up on the ghost of political correctness. Everyone knows someone who has seen it, but that doesn't mean there's any strong evidence that it actually exists. Political correctness is just another weapon in the armoury of politicians, bishops and journalists who can drag it out of the cupboard whenever they have a point to prove. Its manifestations are merely signs of unhealthy management and leadership. Policies that are being wielded like weapons when they are supposed to be upholding equality deserve to be challenged - anybody who tells you that you can't have a Christmas tree on your desk deserves a slap, not the honour of a bitter story in your local newspaper. People self-censor because they feel they should around people they don't know and especially around people with clipboards. Therefore instead of telling researchers what they really think, they will tell them what they think they want to hear.
None of this means that immigration is the problem, despite what our friendly national media might tell us. The Jews weren't the problem in the German recession of the 1920s, but that didn't stop them becoming a target. The fact that we have immigration simply means that there is opportunity here for people from other countries, just as there is the opportunity of sunshine in Spain for Brits. Global migration is something that isn't likely to change and neither would it be in anybody's interest to change it, especially not the British to whom the doors to virtually every country in the world are open. The fact that there are opportunities for foreigners means that there are opportunities for us too, niches that can be filled. If people felt as strongly about immigration as the media suggest, the market for take-aways and corner shops would soon dry up.
So what is the problem? Voicelessness and powerless, as well as poverty, is at its core. In that the survey has perhaps bought something important to the government's attention (again). Disconnection from opportunity, even very basic opportunities like a house, causes resentment. The house price rises of our 'booming' economy over the last fifteen years means it only takes a very basic grasp of maths to know that the housing ladder is out of reach to anybody on a low income, therefore the council house queue grows. It's never nice being in a queue and it never takes much to start a fight. Nice as it is of the Express to give credibility to local rumours, unfairness most likely runs a lot deeper than houses being given to some Poles. There is a wider unfairness in the fact of hundreds of thousands of empty properties, of cash buyers being able to jump in and profit from the current downturn instead of first time buyers who are being denied mortgages for amounts that would have been considered a pittance a few months ago. There is unfairness in the banks being bailed out with billions but failing to pass on that generosity to businesses, who are now going bust leaving thousands more jobless, and borrowers from whom they have done very nicely during the good times. It is unfair that banks deny thousands of people banking services, pushing them out of the mainstream economy.
And what could the government do about it? I see one of the causes of resentment as being increasing decentralising of government (local and national) services. Communities are built and maintained through conversations and it is much more difficult to have conversations with someone on the other side of a glass window in a huge processing centre. In many disconnected communities, the only remaining businesses are betting chains. On a better note, I've been impressed to notice that the Cooperative have been quietly investing in numerous food shops and pharmacies in Stoke over the last few months. As well as the services here and the fact that as a member organisations they won't take out excessive profits, most of the stores have cash machines. The absence of cash machines in poor areas has an obvious link to the lack of money being spent there - if people have to go to another town to get money, or to the supermarket that takes cards, they will do their shopping there too. This applies to the people who have bank accounts at all and there is another bright spot on the horizon with the imminent opening of the Staffordshire Credit Union. Stoke is the worst place for access to financial services, so far from just being a place for people to borrow money from, this could introduce thousands of people to mainstream banking for the first time. This has knock-on effects that don't even occur to most people who live comfortably on a salary: with a bank account you can get on to a payroll and after saving for a few weeks (once the Union has built up its reserves) members will be able to borrow small, short term loans with interest rates far below those charged by loan sharks and the high street lenders that would have said yes to these groups before.
The government could go to every street that has a Coral or a Coop and invest in small centres that will provide training, services and computers. They can hire local people to run them, constantly developing their staff to open up new opportunities for them and so draw in new people as others go on to other places. They can host other organisations, social enterprises and projects, charging rents appropriate to the local economy. They can make sure there is at least one person in the centre who is well connected to all the other projects and services and can provide a signposting service that genuinely responds to what people wants rather than any targets (which, within an atmosphere of trust, would stand a much better chance of being met for the other projects). With the community relationships that will build up after around 18 months of operation (6 if you're lucky), the government will have an immediate barometer of feeling in communities that they currently lack any meaningful connections with. This will bridge the disconnection that is at the heart of community anger. The business plan is on a 'spend to save' model with the return on invesment coming from greater income tax receipts and less benefit expenditure.
This approach is simple enough to not need any strategy papers at all to be written and it gives the government to put their money where their mouth is and invest in communities at a time when it is likely many others will pull out. It would be nice to think they could cooperate with local councils, who have the same problem of having lost touch with the people in most need of safety nets.
Deal with the real, underlying problems and the fears over immigration will pass, as they have so many times before.