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Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland needs its own immigration policy – here's how it would work

Sub-state immigration policies and autonomy work perfectly well in countries such as Canada and Australia.

Theresa May’s relentless obsession with the net migration target – prioritised over economic, educational, or even human rights concerns – is all the more surprising given the fact that it is such nonsense. For a number picked out of thin air prior to 2010, it is both remarkable and worrying that it became almost a sacred cow of British politics.

The net migration target (NMT) can be unpicked in many, many ways but it has been welcome to see a growing focus on the fact that a “one-size-fits-all” target for all nations and regions is just not appropriate. Clearly if the only migratory movements in the UK next year were that 900,001 people left Wales to head abroad and 1,000,000 migrants arrived looking to live in Maidenhead, this would not be good for Wales or the Prime Minister’s constituency – yet it would be the first time in eight years of trying that she had met her pet ambition.

We need to be much more sophisticated. Different parts of the UK have very different demographic and economic needs in terms of migration.

Since 2007, the Scottish National Party government at Holyrood has pursued a different population target – aiming for Scotland to match average population growth of other EU15 nations over the decade to 2017. The fact it is on course to succeed has been considerably aided by May regularly and spectacularly missing her own.

But what if May finally reduced net migration to the tens of thousands?

In 2014 the Office for National Statistics produced population projections for Scotland and the UK based on different migration scenarios. One “low net migration” scenario was 105,000 – so just outside the NMT. Even that narrow miss would see Scotland’s population almost stagnate over 25 years, barely mustering a overall population increase of 3,500 – 0.07 per cent – per year. So there is a real danger that May actually hitting or "exceeding" her target means population stagnation or even decline for Scotland. This is potentially disastrous when the population is ageing.

More generally, having migration policies in place so different geographical areas are able to attract human capital and the right labour to match skills shortages is surely in the interests of all. The UK system isn’t working well for too many parts of the UK. A very bureaucratic Tier 2 system is navigable for large companies with armies of immigration lawyers – and international firms can always rely on intra-company transfer rules. But for many small and medium-sized enterprises – a more significant part of Scotland’s economy – these are often expensive and unrealistic options, and it is no surprise that Scotland is home to fewer Tier 2 sponsors than its population size would suggest. 

There is strong support for a new system, including both the Scottish Chamber of Commerce and Scottish Trade Unions Council. In the House of Commons the Scottish affairs committee, as well as the All Party Group on Social Inclusion, chaired by Chuka Umunna, have advocated bespoke immigration policies. And this week even in the House of Lords, two committees concluded there should be “maximum flexibility” for nations and regions and that there was “merit” in a specific system for Scotland (and London). Academics like Professor Jonathan Portes and think tanks such as the IPPR are supportive of the idea. But how could it be done? 

With a little imagination, there are a bucket load of ways – many very helpfully set out in a recent paper by Professor Christina Boswell of the University of Edinburgh. Whether it’s applying different points thresholds for jobs in Scotland, a bespoke post-study work scheme, allowing Scotland a separate quota under the Tier 2 scheme, or a more flexible shortage occupation list, options are there which need not complicate administration or enforcement. Indeed, if there was political will at the UK level, there is no reason Scotland could not continue to allow free movement of EU nationals, which is what my party and I will continue to advocate for.

It’s worth remembering that sub-state immigration policies and autonomy work perfectly well in countries such as Canada and Australia. And the UK itself previously experimented with a post-study work visa applicable to graduates from Scottish universities (but curiously, not limited to Scottish employers) and currently there is a (very slightly) different list of shortage occupations for Scotland.

An immigration policy for Scotland is an idea whose time has come – and failure to listen could have serious consequences for Scotland’s population.

Stuart McDonald is the MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and the SNP's immigration spokesman