A bold vision?

The talk at conference, a desire to hear a bold vision from Gordon Brown and Charles Clarke's curren

The New Statesman party is usually the first big event of Labour's annual conference and you can get quite a sense of how the week may pan out.

This time Charles Clarke was an early arrival keen to spread the word about his Sunday Times article in which he cheered on the idea of a leadership contest.

Clarke's not a popular figure in Manchester just now - neither with delegates nor senior party figures. Leave aside John Prescott's attack branding the former home secretary a "bitterite". One senior Labour figure told me that they could neither understand what had happened to Clarke - nor what he thought he was playing at.

"He's been there right at the centre of things for years and now look at him. What's he think he's doing?" they asked angrily.

I've been going to these conferences for nearly a decade and this is an odd one. Especially if you think back just a year. Then the atmosphere at the NS bash was feverish as we all speculated about a snap election.

It was virtually the only conversation. How things change and the talk now is whether Gordon Brown can survive.

Curiously it may be that fears over the economy are his best allies just now. It would be rash to trust either David Cameron or George Osborne with such a challenging situation. This needs more than a background in PR or the enthusiastic efforts of a former chorister - actually I don't know that about George but it just seems to fit.

After the NS party I went back into the security zone. Alistair Darling was having a drink with Neil Kinnock in one of the hotel bars and the Unite union bash was in full swing.

Some people at least seemed to be trying to have a good time and most seemed agreed that the prime minister is liable to come out of conference stronger than he went in. After that it will depend on what sort of direction he can give his party - and his government.

If nothing else it's time to shine the light on the Tories and their superficial transformation.

David Miliband does that writing on our conference blog. The foreign secretary pours scorn on Lexus Dave's progressive pretentions and insists Labour can win the next election. But it needs to set out a bold vision.

"The Tories now claim to agree with our goals. But David Cameron says that “progressive ends will best be met through conservative means.” And that is the new con, in Cameron’s conservatives. You cannot deliver progressive ends by Tory isolationism from Europe and Tory anti-statism."

In the meantime everyone is looking to see just what Brown's bold vision is.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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