I agree with Nick

No, not Nick Clegg. Nick Cohen. The Lib Dems are finished.

It's not often that I agree with Nick Cohen. There was a time -- pre-9/11? -- that I was a fan of his columns and his arguments. But the Observer columnist has hit the nail on the head in his Spectator cover story this week ("The death of the Lib Dems"):

The Liberals have no right to be surprised. Conservative-minded readers may think that the British liberal-left is good for nothing but, trust me, we are world leaders when it comes to the vituperative art of denouncing sell-outs. The Liberals ought to have known it, because they more than anyone else revelled in deploying the wild language of betrayal against Tony Blair. He had taken Britain to an "illegal" war, they claimed, although no court ever said it was unlawful; he was a "liar" who had knowingly sent British troops to their deaths on a false premise. Now, from Islington to Didsbury, from the BBC to the Guardian, the cry of betrayal the Liberals once directed against Blair is directed against them. The only discernible difference is that it took a decade for Blair to go from being the fresh leader of 1994 to the BLiar of 2004. In the case of Clegg, it is as if someone has thrown compost accelerator over him, speeding up the process of degeneration from hope to has-been from ten years to ten months.

To triple the tuition fees he and every Liberal Democrat pledged to cap and on occasion abolish has destroyed his credibility to an extent I still do not think the Westminster village understands. It's not just that students are furious or that middle-class parents are wondering how their children will manage, but that voters with little time for violent demonstrators have even less time after the expenses scandal for politicians who are 'liars' -- if I may use Liberal Democrat language. He's finished.

I don't disagree. On the surface, the result in Oldham East and Saddleworth might feel to some Lib Dems "like a victory", to quote my colleague George Eaton, considering their share of the vote actually increased by 0.3 per cent since the general election, but the fact is that it wasn't. It was a defeat in a seat in which the Lib Dem candidate had forced the ejection of the sitting Labour MP via judicial means and rejoiced at the prospect of the resulting by-election -- a by-election that the Lib Dems, in their pre-coalition, "party of protest" days, would have won with ease.

Then there is tactical voting. That around one-third of the Lib Dem vote may have come from pro-coalition Tories is irrelevant; the key fact is that the support from the Tories wasn't enough to compensate for the number of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. Clegg may have declared last year that there is "no future" for the Liberal Democrats as a left-wing alternative to Labour but what's his alternative for his party? What "future" do the Lib Dems have inside the Tory-led cuts coalition? Answer: none. On the evidence of Oldham East and Saddleworth, there doesn't -- yet -- seem to be a new and dynamic coalition of Lib Dem voters.

Since the formation of the coalition last May, I've been asking Lib Dem activists and friends the same question that Jackie Ashley posed in her Guardian column on Monday -- why vote Lib Dem, rather than Labour or Conservative, in 2015?

As Ashley wrote:

If Watkins fails, it will be because people don't know why they should vote Lib Dem. You like what Cameron and Osborne are doing? Vote Tory. You hate it? Vote Labour. The Lib Dems are no longer a protest party or an opposition party; but not quite a party of government, either -- more hostage than partner.

Clegg visibly enjoys government. In his way, as much as Cameron, he has been moulded and educated for power. But unless he manages to give the voters a reason to vote Lib Dem in future, it may not be something he enjoys again.

 

** On a side note, I seem to have nodded in agreement with not just one but two pieces penned by Nick Cohen this week. In his Observer column, Cohen rightly condemned the abuse and misuse of so-called blasphemy laws inside the Muslim world and, in particular, in Pakistan:

It is the most pernicious of attacks on free speech because defendants can never know the nature of their offence. Who is meant to be their victim? Are they meant to have injured the feelings of believers, whose faith is so weak mockery and doubt can threaten it? Perhaps they stand accused of assaulting whatever god or gods the faithful follow. In which case, are the deities in question so feeble and thin-skinned they demand that criticism be punished with human sacrifices?

In November, Freedom House published a report on the abuses of power that follow the endorsement of such a nebulous offence. It documented how Islamic states and religious vigilantes use blasphemy laws to persecute Christians, Ahmadis and Muslims who believe that Muhammad was not the final prophet and, of course, ex-Muslims such as Rushdie who decide to change or renounce their faith, as free men and women should be entitled to do.

In Iran and Egypt, blasphemy is used to prosecute political opponents of the regime. And everywhere the malicious call on it to pursue petty vendettas, as poor Mrs Bibi learned to her cost. Blasphemy is not a protector of religious freedom, as the UN maintains, but its mortal enemy. If free speech is absent, citizens are not free to argue for and practise their beliefs without the fear of state or clerical intimidation.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.