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.

7 factors to weigh when you cast your vote

It’s decision-time – almost!

Polling day for the UK general election is in just a week – on 7 May.

But that’s too late to start thinking about your vote. There’s simply too much information to digest and cogitate on a single day to make a meaningful judgement. Instead I see it as a decision that should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.

If you want to shortcut that, The Sun has offered some helpful advice…

Here are two different papers, with a clear divergence in their editorial line.

  • If you vote in England or Wales, The Sun says vote Conservative.
  • If you vote in Scotland, The Sun says vote SNP.

But there appears to be a strategic alignment. In England & Wales, it’s about buoying up the Conservatives; in Scotland, it’s about sinking Labour. Others say it simply about backing winners, but I see it as backing David Cameron in his bid for a second term as PM.

You could do what the Sun says, or the Mirror, or the New Statesman, or the Spectator. But this is your decision. By all means listen to their arguments (see a wide range here), but make the decision yourself.

So, unless you’ve already voted by post (I have), what factors should you weigh when you cast your vote?

1. Policies

All the main parties have published their manifestos – the pledges on which they propose to govern. They tend to be long. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto is 160 pages, totalling 33,000 words. My university dissertation (about the Good Friday Agreement, since you wondered) was about 12,000 words.

They are probably too long. Partly with regard to this, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wonders why they’re all “so rubbish”Rob Ashton even explains why, with his analysis of the writing style of seven manifestos. Labour, he writes, had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors.

Famously, Lord Pearson – the UKIP leader at the time of the 2010 General Election – was unable to answer questions about his party’s manifesto. His successor, Nigel Farage hadn’t read it and later described it as ‘drivel’. Perhaps it wasn’t the only one, then or now.

I won’t be reading the manifestos. It’s simply too much work, and I’d rather leave the analysis to key bloggers and political correspondents. Sometimes the parties do their own point-scoring analysis of their opponents’ manifestos. This can be surprisingly insightful, particularly where a key policy issue is fudged or omitted entirely.

For all their faults, manifestos do reveal a something about a party’s plans for governance. Those plans are vulnerable, of course, but they are not to be ignored. For all the backlash the Lib Dems felt for their U-turn on tuition fees, each one of their five priority pledges of 2010 was honoured in part or in full (at least in theory). Once again they have five priority pledges that we might suppose they would bring to the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.

I think the temptation for some people is to feel they can make their voting decision based almost solely on weighing up the manifesto proposals. That process is worth something, and it’s interesting to check out which party you seem to most align with using web tools like Vote Match.

Making your decision based on policies alone is a purist approach. Perhaps too pure, in my view. Here are a few other perspectives to consider.

2. Values

Typically, it’s the values that underpin the policies. What values are important to you, and what priorities flow from those values?

A party’s values should be fairly constant over time. But sometimes the values of a party leader or his/her lieutenants do drift from the core values of the party – sometimes genuinely, and sometimes for reasons of expedience.

3. Reputation

This particularly applies to the party of an outgoing government, but it’s also a factor to consider with a party of recent governments. How did these governments perform during their hour in the sun?

This is why I’ve suggested your “decision should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.” But how far back do we go? The reputational question becomes less and less relevant as the candidates of today are able to divorce themselves from the governments of yesteryear. Candidates who were ministers in previous governments need to be held to higher scrutiny than candidates who were not even born during the period in question. That may apply for some Conservative candidates with regard to the Thatcher years; it will certainly apply to many Labour candidates with regard to the Callaghan year, and it applies to every Liberal Democrat candidate with regard to the Gladstone years.

4. Prime Minister

Who do you want to see as your Prime Minister? Or whose breast pocket do you want them to govern from?

The leadership question is a blend of other factors in this list, along with judgement and character. The more controversial question of whether they ‘look the part’ is really a wider one about charisma and authority, and it still matters. It helped Winston Churchill win the war by inspiring his country, and it continues to matter on the world stage.

5. Wider Cabinet

The process of government is a team effort, so it makes sense to assess the members of the team, particularly if you have a particular policy interest. Who’s likely to be the minister overseeing that policy?

6. Your candidates

Who are the key candidates in your constituency? Is one of them a friend, or someone you hold in high regard? It might persuade you to cast your vote for an unfavourable party. I confess to having voted for a party way outside my comfort zone in a local council election several years ago, because I knew the candidate was a good egg. He later defected!

Someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote to her local candidates, which included a Cabinet Minister, to ask where they stood on life issues (ie abortion, euthanasia, etc). She posted the minister’s response, in which he confirmed such issues would be subject to a free vote if it came to it – a party answer, not the personal answer requested. It was such a shame he declined to give a meaningful response. As my Twitter contact said, even if the minister disagreed with her, “I’d at least respect his honesty in informing me.”

It’s important to understand our local candidates, and often local hustings help with this.

7. Tactical voting

Ideally we make a simple decision on our preferred candidate and cast our vote accordingly. For many of us, that’s all there is to it:

  • In a two-way marginal (eg Conservative vs Labour), if you already wanted to vote Tory it’s a no-brainer. There is no tactical benefit to voting for another party.
  • If you are party loyal, or loyal to a friend who’s standing, you may decide to sacrifice tactical concerns to add to your preferred candidate’s vote tally – even if they are guaranteed to lose.
  • If you take a purist approach, the tactical benefits of voting outside your party loyalty are neither here nor there.

But there are many places where tactical considerations lead to some awkward choices. A few examples:

  • In Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg is under threat from Labour. Conservatives might vote for Clegg to prevent Labour winning another seat. Some of them might also feel that Mr Clegg would be a more favourable Lib Dem negotiating partner for the Conservatives than some of his colleagues.
  • In Brighton Pavillion, some Labour supporters might vote for the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. It was a three-way marginal in 2010. While Labour could still win the seat, some voters might feel Mrs Lucas has a better chance of locking out the Conservatives’ Clarence Mitchell.
  • In Conservative marginals, some UKIP supporters might consider voting Tory to lock out their more Europhile opponents.
  • In Scotland, some Conservatives might vote Labour to keep the SNP out, or Labour supporters might vote Lib Dem for the same end.

I suspect tactical voting will be a big deal at this election.

So there we have it. Seven factors to weigh when you cast your vote next week.

Weigh them carefully!

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 triumph of tradition over truth?

The front-bench MPs have been sworn into Parliament. Others will follow. All but one member of the Cabinet took the religious form of the oath:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true alliegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (a professed atheist) took the secular oath:

I do solemnly, sincerely and most and affirm I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.

Many Labour front-benchers followed Mr Clegg’s example. David Miliband, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Bob Ainsworth and John Denham all affirmed their allegiance to the Queen.

So are we to conclude the Government is Godly and Her Majesty’s Opposition is mainly Godless? I would be surprised, in this secular age, if every Cabinet member swearing the relgious oath really believed in the God by whom they swore.

It is, perhaps, a triumph of tradition over truth.

But many cabinet ministers certainly do profess a believe in God. David Cameron is a regular church-goer. William Hague has called himself a “committed Christian”. Caroline Spelman is a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith are Catholics. Baroness Warsi is a Muslim. No doubt there are others.

But are they any more right to swear the oath than the others?

Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
(Matthew 5v34-37)

Surely a conundrum for some believing MPs. I found it interesting to observe that Simon Hughes, a professed Christian, chose to take the secular oath. There may have been others.

A night to forget?

My General Election prediction was wide of the mark. The result is far more complicated and very unsatisfactory for any party seeking a workable coalition.

For many, this was a night to forget

It was no great surprise, but Gordon Brown has lost the election. He will not survive as Prime Minister for very long.

David Cameron has fallen too far short of an overall majority to seize the reins of power by default.

Nick Clegg has not enjoyed the breakthrough he might have expected. His negotiating strength will be limited.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has lost the seat he held for 31 years.

The SNP hoped for 20 seats. It has repeated its 2005 haul of just six seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest until less than a decade ago, has failed to win a single seat. A disappointment for both the UUP and David Cameron.

It was a very bad night for Nick Griffin (BNP), George Galloway (Respect) and Nigel Farage (UKIP), the latter of whom must reflect on his performance from his hospital bed. They each fell short of victory, and must settle for bronze.

There were just a few successes

Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavillion for the Green Party. Its first ever seat and a major breakthrough.

The NI Alliance Party won East Belfast; Naomi Long took the seat at Peter Robinson’s expense (or due to Mr Robinson’s expenses?) Another first; another major breakthrough.

Plaid Cymru gained one seat.

With such wide variations from the average national swing, many new MPs will be proud of their own individual successes.

And the voters?

Many voters were unable to vote and are very angry. But the rest of us have got the government we deserve. Or at least we might get it, eventually.

For many, this was a night to forget. But it will be remembered for a very long time.

This time next week, anyone could be our Prime Minister. Let the negotiations begin.

My prediction…

…published ahead of the exit polls.

The turnout will be high, about 72%. That’s higher than 2005 (61.3%), but lower than 1992 (77.7%). The warm weather will have helped, but apathy pins many people to their sofas.

The Conservatives will win 323 seats. The Ulster Unionists will win two seats. They are already in a formal coalition, so that grants David Cameron the support of 325 MPs, exactly half of the total. Truly a ‘balanced parliament’.

Labour will win 222 seats and the Liberal Democracts will win 74.

Sinn Fein will win five constituencies, but they do not take their seats. The Speaker of the House is John Bercow and he will retain his Buckingham seat by a small margin. For his main opponent, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it will be the second blow in 24 hours. Mr Speaker does not vote. In effect, this enables Mr Cameron to govern with a practical majority of six.

But it is always the nominal overall majority that is quoted, and so my prediction is zero. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992 which dwindled to precisely zero by the end of his term. He found it hard to govern throughout.

If David Cameron wins outright, it will be by a tiny margin. Frequently, he will need to count on the support of every one of his MPs, and maybe others. It will be tough.

For whatever government emerges over the next few days, tough years lie ahead.

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