Satbir Singh: Now is not the time to abandon our values

The chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants explains why the charity sector must resist divisive rhetoric

Satbir Singh
Satbir Singh

I’ve done my best over the past week to refrain from offering any unsolicited "hot takes" on the general election, but something in Third Sector caught my eye yesterday.

I respect the decision to publish Craig Dearden-Phillips's opinion piece, entitled "The sector needs to reconnect with the white working class", and I know that we can’t shy away from difficult conversations. But I do think that they must be conversations. So, in the spirit of dialogue, I respectfully offer up here a few of my own thoughts on the author’s prognosis.

From the premise that an openly xenophobic, populist government with a tendency towards the autocratic has been re-elected with a commanding majority and broken ground in traditional Labour heartlands, the author concludes that our "sector" does not adequately understand the communities we serve.

Offering himself up as an interpreter for the rest of us out-of-touch charity bods (there’s a fascinating if unsubstantiated claim in the piece that "probably 90 per cent" of us are remainers), the author declares that "it’s almost impossible to be openly Tory in the sector" and advises us to rethink "diversity".

He says we should create more space in our movements and boards for people with a "socially conservative or nationalist worldview", and to stop the "liberal box-ticking" that excludes those "who can’t write fancy essays about their lived experiences". In a nutshell, we’re all too "woke" and we just don’t get it.

In the wake of the 2016 referendum, I was surprised by many people’s sudden realisation that all was not well in our society and their belated awareness that some people had for decades been left behind. Very quickly, these newly anointed apostles wanted to tell us all about this apparently homogeneous group called the white working class, and about how our big-city-armchair-liberal-middle-class-multicultural values had alienated them.

It’s a fascinating bit of revisionism. Leave aside the fact that ethnic minorities, women and big cities exhibit high levels of poverty and low levels of access to remedy, and therefore could equally claim to be "left behind". Leave aside also the fact that there have been black, brown and LGBT men and women in the mines, on the ward, in the trenches and on the picket lines for centuries.

What really alarms me about this kind of reductionism is the patronising assumption that if you are poor, or not college educated, you must be incapable of loving your neighbours, regardless of where they come from, how they love or how they pray; and that these values are somehow alien to the white working class, the same working class that shuttered their cotton mills to punish slave owners in America, to protest apartheid and to support the Indian independence movement.

It’s the assumption that one third of Britain is incapable of solidarity, despite all that history tells us about their limitless compassion. Funnily enough, it’s almost never a working-class person providing this bleak indictment.

This artificial pitting of the white working class against everybody else serves only to replicate the same narratives of divide and rule, which have allowed decades of economic neglect and underinvestment to go unnoticed.

Communities have been asked by governments of both parties to look away from privatisation, de-unionisation, austerity and underinvestment and instead blame their ills on the slow march towards gender equality, on the arrival of families from beyond the sea and on the liberation of our LGBT siblings. It is genuinely troubling how often the scapegoating and demonisation of people based on their identity is accepted as par for the course, while efforts to stand up for and with those people, and to build bonds of solidarity that go beyond any one group, are casually dismissed as "identity politics". 

Even on a more mundane, operational level, the author’s analysis of "diversity" and lived experience represents a complete misunderstanding of these hard-fought and hard-won ideas.

Our organisations exist to address real problems in society. Homelessness. Hunger. Discrimination. Violence. Diversity policies exist not simply so that we can print our annual reviews in colour, but so that those who are most likely to be affected by injustice are given the opportunity to lead, to profit from and be part of the solution; so that our work is grounded in (and therefore responsive to) the needs of the communities we serve; so that we create capacity and power within communities and a more equal relationship with our beneficiaries instead of the dependence and imbalance that so often characterises our organisations’ work. Diversity and lived experience matter in our organisations and in our movements, and if you feel this is simply a "box-ticking" exercise, you probably aren’t doing it properly.

As for the charge that "it’s almost impossible to be openly Tory in the sector", I’d point the author to the many Conservative MPs who serve as patrons or on the boards of charitable organisations. And I’d add that, through no fault of our own, many of our organisations’ causes will remain antithetical to the values espoused by some parts of our society.

I run an organisation that challenges hostility towards migrants, supports victims of the hostile environment and tries to change our conversations about race and migration. Our goal is a world in which people are not marginalised, denied rights or left destitute simply because they were born somewhere else. We believe that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and we work closely with other movements, including those led and animated by the working classes.

We work towards this goal strategically, we are pragmatic and we compromise where flexibility generates impact. But though I am willing to compromise on the journey and the speed with which we move, I will not compromise on the destination. If the author can find me somebody with a nationalist worldview who is willing to champion these values, we have a vacancy on our board next year.

Finally, it’s worth adding that I do agree with the author about the need for us all to reflect on and accept the new political reality we face. But in place of unsolicited advice, I offer my colleagues and peers an observation about how change happens and the choices we must make. We can do what is easy and say what is popular, or we can do what is necessary and make popular what needs to be said.

We can think that some people are incapable of compassion or we can believe that most people are basically good. We can abandon our values in order to survive or we can stay true to them in ways that are strategic, pragmatic and sustainable. And we can push each other down in order to get a seat at the table or we can carry others with us. We must all reflect, regroup and rethink. But then we must get up, step up and stand up for our values and the better society we all believe is possible.

Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants

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