Why such a public malaise on migration?

It’s little wonder we in the UK seem to feel so much concern over immigration. It’s not – generally – the migrants themselves who trouble such a tolerant nation, but the state’s inability to grow infrastructure to keep up with population growth.

“No one told the supermarkets,” writes Fraser Nelson, “that there would be 4 million more mouths to feed since the turn of the century, but we haven’t run out of food.” But ministers “have struggled to provide the school places and the doctors clinics for all those who arrived.”

“It’s time to stop treating high immigration as a constantly-surprising blip.”

We need to better understand why immigration troubles people – typically (but not only) working class people of the left and right. It’s very often not xenophobia. People don’t blame migrants for immigration any more than we blame the water for an incoming tide. But when the state (at national or local level) fails to meet the infrastructure needs of the nation we shouldn’t be surprised so many voters want to turn off the population tap. Clearly that impacts our attitude to immigration and by extension our attitude to the EU, and (quite separately) the refugee crisis.

There is a public malaise on migration. Successive governments should reflect upon why they might be largely responsible for that.

Update: We’ve just learned that Rochdale’s Gillian Duffy has left the Labour Party and plans to vote Brexit in the forthcoming referendum.

Mrs Duffy rose to fame during the 2010 general election. Gordon Brown infamously described her as “just a sort of bigoted woman” after chatting to her on the campaign trail about (amongst other things) immigration from eastern Europe. I had her in mind as I wrote this blog post.

Laws on the ropes?

David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)

I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.

Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.

He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”

How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.

Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.  Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.

Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.

If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.

The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.

Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

Where are they flocking from?

Gillian Duffy was a lifelong Labour voter who told Gordon Brown she was now “absolutely ashamed of saying I’m Labour.”

Mrs Duffy raised a number of issues with the PM: crime; tax on pensions; national debt; immigration and student tuition fees. She spoke forcefully and he responded persuasively in a four minute exchange. Afterwards he dismissed her as a “bigoted woman” in a private conversation.

Why?

You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a… But all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?
(Gillian Duffy, Rochdale, 28 April 2010)

One assumes they may be “flocking” from eastern Europe!… Mr Brown thought the encounter was a “disaster” and the idea of talking to her “ridiculous”. But really the encounter was fine. It was a heated discussion, probably uncomfortable for him, but not particularly harmful. And after the conversation, Mrs Duffy told the BBC she would probably still vote Labour, though perhaps that is now in doubt.

The infamous exchange (from BBC News)

A deception?

My only complaint with Mr Brown’s handling of the conversation was on the issue of debt.

How are you going to get us out of all this debt, Gordon?
(Mrs Duffy)

We’ve got a deficit reduction plan to cut the debt by half over the next four years.
(Mr Brown)

If only that were true… At the end of March, the public sector net debt was £771.6 billion (excluding financial interventions). That is a lot. In the year ahead, our interest payments alone are projected to be £43bn.

£43 billion.

That is more than the government proposes to spend on defence. It is twice the budget for transport or half the budget for education.

It is more than the government expects to raise in corporation tax. It is over half the VAT take.

It’s not as if we can afford to spend so much on interest. Last year alone, the government deficit was £163 billion. It spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. This is not just a number; it is an obscene amount to borrow.

Alistair Darling’s plan is to cut the deficit by half over four years. If he is successful, in four years time we will borrow just £82bn. The deficit will be half what it is now, but the national debt will not be. It will have risen by hundreds of billions of pounds. Any budding chancellor should read my blog on debt: good, bad or ugly?

Gordon Brown told Mrs Duffy he would cut the debt by half over four years. Obviously, he meant the deficit. A slip of the tongue. The difference is profound, but the language is deceptively subtle. Cutting the deficit by half may sound great, but the burgeoning debt draws us ever closer to economic doom.

“A sort of bigoted woman”

I must digress no more. What Gordon Brown said after leaving Mrs Duffy was more damaging for him.

She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour.
(Gordon Brown, oblivious of his personal microphone)

Perhaps he was right? Mrs Duffy selected eastern Europeans to illustrate her immigration concerns. Perhaps she is a bigot?

She seemed to acknowledge the issue could get her into hot water: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a…” It’s impossible to know what she almost said, but I’ll hazard a guess: she was concerned about being labelled a racist. However, she persisted and made the point, somewhat ineloquently, that immigration is too high.

I don’t believe her primary concern is eastern Europeans. I believe it is immigration. For her, recent immigration is characterised by eastern Europeans. It’s a reasonable perception. A million eastern Europeans have registered to work in the UK since the jobs market was opened to them in 2004. I believe she would have been equally concerned about immigration to Rochdale from Spain, China, Australia, Birmingham or, God forbid, Northern Ireland.

That is my perception, and I may be wrong. But Mrs Duffy seemed to recognise the danger of talking about immigration. Even the Prime Minister hears the word ‘immigration’ and thinks ‘bigot’. Mrs Duffy was evidently upset when learned what he’d called her.  He later visited her to apologise.

Gordon Brown hears his error on The Jeremy Vine Show (from BBC News)

Immigration is an important issue. We must be allowed to discuss it. There are many arguments in favour of immigration. There are strong arguments against it too. But even if debate was clear cut, if immigration was acknowledged to be A Good Thing, there will be many who remain concerned. Those concerns should be addressed, not ignored or dismissed as bigotry. That approach has given succour to the BNP, and that is – in my view – A Bad Thing.

Click here to compare the main parties’ immigration policies.

Gordon Brown should have learned from John Major’s error in 1994. He probably has ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet too, but all politicians know that a microphone has only one job, and that is to listen. He must be careful what he says when a microphone is listening.

A reprieve for cider drinkers

After the Budget, I wondered: who do cider drinkers vote for? Along with some other measures, the proposed big tax rise on cider has been shelved.

The general election is on 6th May and Parliament will be dissolved in a few days. So soon after the budget, the Government has had to cut deals to pass legislation (including the finance bill) and the higher cider tax is one of the victims. The winners, of course, are the cider drinkers and manufacturers of the West Country (and elsewhere!)

The Government has a healthy working majority in Parliament. But it cannot do all it pleases. It is not all-powerful. In this case its ambitions were thwarted by MPs fighting for their constituents (particularly for cider makers, not just the drinkers). These MPs may have been acting in concert with others fighting for different causes.

Sometimes – working together – the ‘powerless’ carry enough strength to deliver. Perhaps the Great Ignored could collaborate to influence the election and the next Government.

Cider drinkers probably won’t swing the election, and the Government knows this. If Labour stays in office after 6th May, the tax rise will be reinstated.

But it doesn’t concern me; just stay away from my Guinness!

Expenses – the new system

There is a new system for MPs’ expenses. Like many of us, I took some interest in the expenses scandal when it first broke and suggested some of my own ideas for how the new rules should look. I also recognised how I might have fallen foul of the rules at the time.

The changes are sensible and worthwhile. See here how the new rules stack up against the old ones.

It’s good to see the maximum accomodation allowance cut from £2,000 per month to £1,450. I suggested £1,200 would be enough for a decent one bedroom flat in central London, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) is more generous.

MPs won’t be able to use their allowance to pay for mortgage interest, so it excludes property investment from taxpayer-funded expenses. It wasn’t among my suggestions, but it’s an appropriate response to the public outrage.

In November, Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations included a ban on MPs employing relatives. Derek Conway was the primary abuser of this tradition, but I didn’t agree with a ban. An MP’s work is so demanding, in terms of both time and geography, it seems reasonable that spouses (spice?) should be allowed to work alongside them. Eve Burt is one MP’s wife who felt this very strongly, campaigning vigorously to keep her job! IPSA has wisely conceded that MPs may continue to employ one family member.

It is good to see that MPs must now submit receipts for all claims. As I argued last year, MPs should only be reimbursed for expenses actually incurred. if they consider it too onerous to supply a receipt for any claim, then it’s probably too small to bother reclaiming.

Who do cider drinkers vote for?

I was impressed by Alistair Darling’s budget on Wednesday. Politically, it was hard to fault. Economically, he played it safe and didn’t upset the markets.

Evidently the Budget deficit needs to be tackled. Otherwise the credit ratings agencies will become tetchy and credit will be harder to come by. The big question is: how soon should the deficit be reduced? Are savage cuts the way forward? Or do we simply need to make a start? The main parties are divided on the issue and so are economists. But the political gap has closed a bit. Nick Clegg is no longer calling for savage cuts and the Conservatives’ tone was much more hawkish several months ago.

The government plans to halve the deficit in four years, despite European Commission encouragement to act quicker. Their argument is that to cut quicker would harm the economy still further.

There were no great economic revelations in the Budget. The big decisions, the painful ones especially, will come later. That political judgement was straightforward. But aside from that, Mr Darling played a dextrous hand.

Among his cards, the decision to grant a two year stamp duty holiday to first-time buyers of homes up to £250,000 (neglecting a nod of courtesy to the opposite benches for the idea). It’s paid for by an increase in stamp duty on £1m homes. Not for two years, but permanently. I can’t imagine this will cost Labour too many votes.

And this one’s inspirational: a tiny increase on a pint of beer (2%) alongside a much larger increase in cider (10% above inflation). Beer drinkers will feel they got off lightly. Who do beer drinkers vote for? Probably any and every party (though traditionally Labour!) Meanwhile, who do cider drinkers vote for? Here’s a clue:

Cider duty up - costly for Labour?

Cider duty up - costly for Labour?