Saturday, September 15, 2018


Time For Hard-Headed Realism On Immigration

Liberal Democrat members have attacked the proposed Migration paper A Fair Deal for Everyone for reasons ranging from fairness, to morality, to family, to economics. But for a political party, it has another fatal flaw. Its well-meaning, wishful-thinking naivety is just terrible politics. It’s time to get politically streetwise with a bit of hard-headed realism. Let’s ask the tough questions, get back to evidence-based policy and demand better.

Meaning Well and Wishing Are Not Enough

I’m sure the people who wrote the proposed paper for debate at Lib Dem Conference and its defenders mean well. I know and respect quite a few of them. And I can see how they got themselves into this mess. Two of the deepest Lib Dem instincts might be put simply as ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And most of the time those go hand in hand. But at times like these, when the country’s split, hate’s on the rise and things seem to be going horribly wrong, cracks can appear between the two. The proposed Migration paper feels upset at how nasty things have got – and I feel the hurt of that too – and wishes, really hard, that everyone would be nice to each other again. ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And so it compromises: a bit for immigrants; a bit for people who hate them and want them all gone. But in the real world, wishing doesn’t cut it, and there comes a time when you have to choose standing up to bullies instead of hoping they’ll turn nice if you only half-encourage them.

In thirty years of the Liberal Democrats, there can’t have been many more wince-inducing juxtapositions than one month ago. On August 14th, Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable said unequivocally that, hard as it might be, there was no room for racism in the Lib Dems. On August 15th, Lord William Wallace – a peer I have a lot of time for and usually agree with – gave an apologetic defence of the proposed Migration paper by saying that we have to pander a bit to racists otherwise they won’t vote for us (I paraphrase, but not unfairly).

The proposed Migration paper has the point of view that policy and the British polity should be kinder and gentler, wishing that people were nice, assuming everyone means well deep down and really agrees with us, and if they don’t yet then compromises in good faith will help them agree with us, and if nothing else maybe they’d vote for us after we tell them we agree with them, really, just a bit, and please, please, don’t hurt us. I can empathise. The problem is that the evidence supports none of it. I believe the Lib Dems backing these proposals mean well. But I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone else means well, and that wishing won’t make it so. The fight to make Britain better can be won. But it will take a fight, and if Liberals don’t put up a fight, who will? It won’t be won by acting as if we’re non-combatants who won’t take our own side in a quarrel, saying, ‘If you don’t want immigrants then you have a point’.

I don’t want to take this unduly personally, but when the proposed Migration paper puts forward a well-meaning compromise and I realise, ‘I’m the son of an immigrant and had this proposed Lib Dem policy been around when my parents met I’d never have been born’, it loses its appeal. That’s the trouble with compromising between haters and the people they hate; it always makes things worse for the ones who are already getting all the flak, but never goes far enough to satisfy those who want them gone. The proposed Migration paper proposes as a moderate compromise that I shouldn’t exist. What would I have left to give on the next compromise?

Stop wishing. Look at the evidence. Ask the difficult questions.

Look back ten, twenty, thirty years: the attitudes and policies and hostile environment against immigrants that are now ‘mainstream’ were confined to a few vicious hatemongers like the British National Party and then UKIP. How did we get here?

Has compromising bit by bit to defuse racists worked? Has mainstream politicians talking about ‘valid concerns’ increased harmony? Has fanning flames extinguished them? Has encouraging xenophobia quietened it? Has being too scared to confront lies made the truth more widely known?

I don’t blame people for thinking, once – maybe if we give a little we can avoid something worse. I do blame people who still stick to that hope when it has been tried over and over again and every time, the bigots have grown and strengthened as a result. Hostile immigration policy – hate crimes – Brexit – all these were unimaginable ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Compromising a little at a time has never stopped at a little. It didn’t work. That is the evidence. That is the unhappy fact. As the saying goes, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. The ‘wishing’ approach of the proposed Migration paper has been tested to destruction.

Pandering to racists only increases racism. Saying ‘I share your valid concerns’ doesn’t win hearts and minds – it just makes people in the middle say, ‘Well, if even the Liberals say immigrants are bad…’ while hardcore racists think we’re just mealy-mouthed politicians out to con them. And saying out loud – the shocking naivety! – that we have to pander to racists not because we actually agree with them but just to make them vote for us, so we’ll campaign on a promise that although we want to make things nicer for immigrants, because we recognise their ‘valid concerns’, we wouldn’t make things as nice as all that? That’s just treating voters as idiots.

Since the Brexit Referendum there’s been more hard polling evidence than ever before in British history on how social attitudes break around votes for parties. About 90% of the Lib Dem vote comes from people who also voted Remain. Voters who hate immigrants as their top issue? That’s UKIP’s big thing. That’s Theresa May’s big thing. That’s even Jeremy Corbyn’s big thing. Why on Earth would Lib Dems propose a Migration paper in the hope of appeasing appealing to such a crowded marketplace as what will only ever be the fourth choice of authoritarian racists? Let’s make an evidence-based call here: stop asking, ‘How do we get racists to vote for us?’ Because they won’t anyway.

Look at Labour’s record. Gordon Brown in 2010 trying to recover from “I agree with Nick” in the first debate by monstering him over immigration in the second and third (the third Leaders’ Debate was the one in which an audience member said “We’re not allowed to talk about immigration,” despite it being the only issue bar the economy featured in every debate, because hardcore racists are impossible to satisfy or to shake from their lies). Yvette Cooper attacked the Coalition from the right for not being tough enough on immigrants. Ed Miliband put immigrant-bashing on a mug. Brexit-backer Jeremy Corbyn tells lies about foreign workers stealing British jobs. Do Labour get ‘credit’ for being tough on immigration? No. Racist voters still think they’re too soft. Because there are always other parties that will go harder right to compete.

When I campaign, I try for every vote. If someone disagrees with us on immigration, they might still respect us locally for getting their potholes fixed. But if the economic and moral and principled case for a powerfully Liberal migration policy doesn’t persuade you, here’s the naked political calculation. We’re on 11% in the polls (at best). We’re not chasing an immediate 500-seat landslide. So to build up our vote, does it make more sense to make policy that’s weaselly and indistinct in the vain hope that’ll attract the people who are least likely to vote for us, when they can get red meat from several other parties? Or should we put our effort into attracting people who already agree with our values into voting for us?

It’s worth reading Andrew Hickey’s The Howard Rule – in which he proposes testing Lib Dem policy against Michael Howard’s once-infamous authoritarianism as Home Secretary – not just as a statement of principle, but as a reminder of just how far right all political parties have shifted in the last quarter-century. In the 1990s, he was appalling. Present his immigration regime today and it would scare the horses with its liberal openness.

Taking A Stand

We must do better than the proposed Migration paper. We can do better by demanding better of ourselves again.

One of my defining early political experiences was Paddy Ashdown leading the newly formed Liberal Democrats alone in standing up for the rights of Hong Kong British citizens. You might think struggling on a good day to hit 11% in the polls puts our party in the doldrums now, but back in 1989 a good day was hitting half that and the sheer relief of getting beyond the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls. Standing up for a liberal immigration policy then let us hold our heads up. Margaret Thatcher’s Government steered the familiar Tory course of nationalism tempered by greed: standing by Britain’s promises to only the richest, offering citizenship by bribery. Norman Tebbit led a Tory rebellion against Mrs Thatcher to stop anyone with the wrong colour skin entering Britain, and the Labour Party piously opposed the idea of citizenship for the rich – then voted with Mr Tebbit’s Tory far right to stop anyone being let in at all. Mr Corbyn takes the same faux-ethical stance of economic populism as cover for immigrant-bashing today.

In April 2000, during a hard-fought by-election campaign where the Liberal Democrats were striving to take ultra-Tory Romsey, Charles Kennedy took on the immigrant-bashing Conservative campaign head-on. The Lib Dem campaign could have played down our Liberalism, played it safe, stuck to ‘popular’ issues and only challenged the Tories where they were perceived as electorally ‘weak’. Instead, the Lib Dem Leader took the huge risk of facing down the Conservatives’ asylum policy, in a speech in Romsey, where conventional wisdom was that saying the right thing would lose us the seat. We didn’t cower. We won. Charles said afterwards:
“The voters of Romsey were not beguiled by William Hague’s personal brand of politics – those based on fear and division… By concentrating on the negative, and pandering to the small-minded, he insulted the electorate.”
Standing up for our principles heartens, rallies and recruits the people that none of the anti-immigrant parties can reach. And making the case instead of letting it go by default changes minds. We can persuade by telling it as it is – not by pretending and pre-compromising. How do we make racism less bad? Not by saying it’s right. Why can’t we all get along? Because some people don’t want to. Someone has to confront hate, say why it’s wrong, and don’t say they have a point when they don’t. But it’s not just about standing up to hate: it’s appealing to the better instincts of people for whom it’s complicated. Whose fears have been stoked by the Daily Hate, but who like their neighbours and were appalled by Theresa May over Windrush.

Liberal Democrats must make the case for immigration and for immigrants – because it’s right, because it’s the only way to turn back the poison, and because no-one else will. Immigration is good for the economy. But it’s not all about the money. Immigrants are the lifeblood of the NHS. But it’s not all about the work we get from them. Families should be able to be together because love is more important than money. Tabloids screaming lies about “open door” immigration, when it’s way tougher than anyone believes, has led to families being torn apart, but still most people think if you marry an immigrant they can stay. That would be a Liberal immigration policy. That’s the sort of appeal Lib Dems should make – not the proposed Migration paper keeping a price on family life.

Demand Better

Remember – these are only proposals to be debated and decided at Conference. It is not A Fair Deal. For Liberal Democrats, it is not a done deal.

Be politically streetwise. Look at the evidence. Tell the truth. Don’t pander to racism and don’t settle for wishful thinking that has been proven year after year only makes things worse. Vote to send the proposed Migration paper back so the Liberal Democrats can offer – can demand – something better.

This is a slightly longer version of my article published on Liberal Democrat Voice earlier today. I recommend going there to read Caron Lindsay’s The paper on migration, even amended, is not good enough. Her piece is brilliant, speaks from the heart on how to persuade people, and scathingly dissects the paper in detail.

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