Ed Davey: this is a pro-European coalition

Lib Dem Energy Secretary claims the government is more pro-European than Labour was.

For those Tories convinced that David Cameron has sold out to the europhile Lib Dems, Ed Davey's interview with Rafael Behr [which appears in this week's New Statesman] is powerful evidence. The Energy Secretary declares that the coalition may come to be seen as "more constructive, more engaged and indeed more pro-European than its Labour predecessor".

He mischievously adds:

It's not just Liberal Democrat ministers but Conservative ministers who are really engaged with their European counterparts.

Some of the relationships that he [Cameron] is building are very important. What the coalition government is showing time and again is that by engaging with Europe you actually look after Britain’s national interest more effectively.

His comments are tailor-made to provoke a eurosceptic backlash against Cameron - many Tory MPs are still furious that the Prime Minister hasn't delivered on his promise to "repatriate powers" from Brussels.

Elsewhere, Davey insists that Britain could still join the euro in the future [if not before 2020]:

You’d be an unwise person to ever rule something out totally.

You just don’t know what’s going to happen and given the uncertainties in our economy, I think it would be reckless to rule any of your options out.

It's notable that the Lib Dems are now the only one of the three main parties not to rule out euro membership. For Labour, Ed Balls has declared that "there's no possibility anytime in my lifetime of a British government joining the euro", while the Tories have long ruled out membership of the single currency. 

But Davey is far from the only political figure to suggest we could still give up the pound. Here's a list of some of the most notable.

Tony Blair, 13 November 2011

"I think we will join the euro. I think the chances are the euro will survive because the determination, particularly of the French and the Germans, is to maintain the coherence that they've created in Europe."

Michael Heseltine, 20 November 2011

"So should Britain join the euro now? Of course not. But we should not exclude the possibility. This is what separates us from the eurosceptics. We still say that if it becomes in Britain's interest to join we should. They say that even if it were in Britain's interest to join we shouldn't.This could -- sooner than we think -- become much more than just an academic question."

Paddy Ashdown, 21 November 2011 (£)

"If and when the economic circumstances were right and to Britain's advantage, we should certainly consider doing so [joining the euro]."

Peter Mandelson, 14 November 2011

"He [David Cameron] should say that while it was right for Britain not to join the single currency as it was previously constructed, if Germany were to act responsibly, Britain would peg sterling to a reformed euro and in the long run even consider joining the regime."

Ken Clarke, 25 July 2011

"Certainly nothing is going to happen in the next decade but I find never say never in politics is a very good rule".

Energy Secretary Ed Davey said it would be "reckless" to rule out euro membership.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.