Report: Lessons from Luton—how to overcome divisions

CommonGround went to Luton, one of the UK’s most diverse towns, to listen to the concerns of local people with Alex Mayer, MEP for the East of England, on 5 April.  We were hosted by the Luton Irish Forum.

The turnout was smaller and more homogenous than at previous dialogues, but this proved less of a barrier to illuminating discussion that we might have expected. We heard a range of national-level concerns which chimed with those we have found elsewhere.  We learned that Luton stands at a hinge point—caught between a run-down, deindustrialised past and the beginning of a positive regeneration. And we discovered that Luton as a community has used active dialogue and cultural engagement to overcome divisive activity and create common ground.

At the national level, “the big banner issue” for one participant, Trudi, was austerity and its impact on public services.  As a volunteer in a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen, she encountered “heart breaking stories”, week-in and week-out which she attributed to “the whole infrastructure breaking down”.  Other participants were concerned about the way we structure our education system; the continuing privatisation of public industries (with a loss of services and increased cost to the public purse); the need for more community building; and, with Brexit, diminished prospects for continued peace and a deterioration in food quality.

At the local level, Alex Mayer said that the issues being raised with her were knife crime; drug activity; and cuts to children’s services.  She recalled the many issues in Luton with the EDL around 2010/11 and how local groups had put a lot of work into countering these activities.  

Another participant, Gill, talked about Luton’s vibrant and cross-cultural arts scene. David said that it was very welcoming to people from other countries. Luton was often portrayed in a negative light but is actually “vibrant and economically quite strong.” There was general agreement that the reality was much more positive than the reputation.   

Tom described the way the Luton Irish Forum fosters cross-cultural work, welcoming others to the St Patrick’s Day celebrations and engaging in Carnival and Diwali.  Gill, a calligrapher, described the outreach efforts of the mosques and being invited to Islamic calligraphy classes. Javeria talked about the partnership of the Luton Mela with St Patrick’s Day. These shared cultural activities brought people together and good representation of BAME communities in the local council also helped.  As one participant noted: “The most important thing is that we are all proud Lutonians.”

Tom was positive about Luton’s regeneration. “We have cranes in Luton for the first time in years and people moving here,” he said. The airport had made a difference but all the flights were to Europe.  How would that be affected by Brexit? It would also be a great set back to the local economy if immigrants had to leave, or felt they had to.

Turning to the role of politics in finding solutions to the country’s problems, several participants were active Labour members and commented on the views they encounter while out canvassing.  “Confidence in politicians has never been lower,” one said, attributing this to people “watching the Brexit fiasco play out” and the dishonesty they perceived in both campaigns during the Referendum.  Many people were saying they weren’t intending to vote for anyone next time round. This sentiment seemed less driven by apathy than by despire of people thinking they wouldn’t be heard.

Were the problems facing the country about money?  Nobody disagreed that money was important but the solution wasn’t only about money. Values mattered too. Javeria felt the loss of activities for young people in Luton contributed directly to gang violence and knife crime, problems that could be countered through good youth provision.  She lived in Luton’s most deprived ward which fought for 20 years for a community centre and got it eventually thanks to the European Social Fund. Many local projects in Luton for young people were EU-funded.

Asked whether the problems identified would be easier to solve with or without Brexit, almost everyone (unsurprisingly in a group that had largely voted Remain) felt they would be more easily solved if the UK stayed in.  But one participant thought that, if there was a soft Brexit, it would not make much difference one way or the other. The problems would be present whether we were in Europe or out of it. Instead, what really mattered would be having the determination to solve them.  Another person worried that, even if we stayed in, we were now a fractured society with all our previous problems greatly exacerbated by the Brexit divisions.

With this discussion of a divided country our evening drew to a close. We came away with a sense of apprehension about the implications of Brexit for Luton but also with the impression of a town forging a positive, inclusive story for itself, not accidentally but thanks to the considerable effort and goodwill of many of its citizens and leaders. It felt like a parable for our times, and a worthwhile model of how we can overcome divisions.  

By Catherine Roe