Deride Miliband for anything you like, but not his looks

The shabby treatment of the Labour leader opens the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage

Is Ed Miliband too ugly to be prime minister? Or leader of the opposition? It's a question that has been captivating entirely no-one since John Humphrys, clearly the world's most handsome and desirable man, suggested the younger Miliband was as rough as a robber's dog. And yet, it pops up again. The Sunday Times commissioned a poll to ask the Great British Public what they thought.

Astoundingly, the majority did not reply with "I don't care either way - why are you asking me this? Is this really all you've got, at a time when our economies are circling the drain? Pointless tittle-tattle about the attractiveness or otherwise of leaders of the opposition? I remember when the Sunday Times stood for something, some stray fragment of journalistic integrity, a concept that long seems to have passed you by." Or at least, if they did, their barbed retorts have not been recorded by the psephologists in great detail on this occasion.

Is this what it's come to? Can we only judge our politicians based on whether they are as startlingly delicious as John Humphrys - unarguably the world's most gorgeously enticing man - or fall short of his high standards? Well, apparently it has. Forget Ed Miliband's policies; forget his presentation; forget anything he might say, or do. Is he pretty enough to be PM?

My reaction to this is the kind of thing that makes political correspondents, were they ever to chance upon this page while chortling away about a terrifically clever pun one of their sources told them over an enormous subsidised lunch, shake their heads. Oh but this is the cut and thrust, they would say, were they ever accidentally to happen upon these words. This is all part of the knockabout fun that is the world of politics.

I'm all for making fun of people, whether it's deserved or not. Some of the world's most brilliant and successful political leaders have been disgustingly, repulsively unattractive. You'd hardly want a kiss on the lips from FDR, or Churchill's baby-like face looming over and gurning at you during a moment of passion. Must we want to have sex with people, or consider them attractive, in order to believe in what they say?

Of course, it could get even worse in the near future. Imagine what could happen if Labour's Yvette Cooper, or any other bright and intelligent female politician, managed to become leader of their party. What then? It could all become a pungent mess of whether we could consider them as PILFs - politicians we'd like to fuck - rather than people with progressive policies.

In one sense, then, the shabby treatment of Ed Miliband over this pointless piffling issue opens up the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage in the future. You can see with the fuss made over Louise Mensch's looks that this kind of thing is just waiting to be unleashed - and it will probably be a lot worse for whichever unlucky female takes over at the top of a political party in the future than it is now for Ed.

Not that that's any consolation. Deride Ed for anything you like - his use of the word 'atmos', for example, which made me cry blood into a bucket last week - but not for how pretty he is naturally. Despite all the attempts to make it so, this isn't a bloody playground. Not yet. Even the stunningly beautiful John Humphrys cannot convince me of that.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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The 4 questions to ask any politician waffling on about immigration

Like - if you're really worried about overcrowding, why don't you ban Brits from moving to London? 

As the general election campaigns kick off, Theresa May signalled that she intends to recommit herself to the Conservatives’ target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.” It is a target that many – including some of her own colleagues - view as unattainable, undesirable or both. It is no substitute for a policy. And, in contrast to previous elections, where politicians made sweeping pledges, but in practice implemented fairly modest changes to the existing system, Brexit means that radical reform of the UK immigration system is not just possible but inevitable.

The government has refused to say more than it is “looking at a range of options”. Meanwhile, the Labour Party appears hopelessly divided. So here are four key questions for all the parties:

1. What's the point of a migration target?

Essentially scribbled on the back of an envelope, with no serious analysis of either its feasibility or desirability, this target has distorted UK immigration policy since 2010. From either an economic or social point of view, it is almost impossible to justify. If the concern is overall population levels or pressure on public services, then why not target population growth, including births and deaths? (after all, it is children and old people who account for most spending on public services and benefits, not migrant workers). In any case, given the positive fiscal impact of migration, these pressures are mostly a local phenomenon – Scotland is not overcrowded and there is no shortage of school places in Durham. Banning people from moving to London would be much better targeted.

And if the concern is social or cultural – the pace of change – it is bizarre to look at net migration, to include British citizens in the target, and indeed to choose a measure that makes it more attractive to substitute short-term, transient and temporary migrants for permanent ones who are more likely to settle and integrate. Beyond this, there are the practical issues, like the inclusion of students, and the difficulty of managing a target where many of the drivers are not directly under government control. Perhaps most importantly, actually hitting the target would have a substantial economic cost. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates imply that hitting the target by 2021 – towards the end of the next Parliament – would cost about £6bn a year, compared to its current forecasts.

So the first question is, whether the target stays? If so, what are the specific policy measures that will ensure that, in contrast to the past, it is met? And what taxes will be increased, or what public services cut to fill the fiscal gap?

2. How and when will you end free movement? 

The government has made clear that Brexit means an end to free movement. Its white paper states:

“We will design our immigration system to ensure that we are able to control the numbers of people who come here from the EU. In future, therefore, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law.”

But it hasn’t said when this will happen – and it has also stated there is likely to be an “implementation period” for the UK’s future economic and trading relationship with the remaining EU. The EU’s position on this is not hard to guess – if we want to avoid a damaging “cliff edge Brexit”, the easiest and simplest option would be for the UK to adopt, de facto or de jure, some version of the “Norway model”, or membership of the European Economic Area. But that would involve keeping free movement more or less as now (including, for example, the payment of in-work benefits to EU citizens here, since of course David Cameron’s renegotiation is now irrelevant).

So the second question is this – are you committed to ending free movement immediately after Brexit? Or do you accept that it might well be in the UK’s economic interest for it to continue for much or all of the next Parliament?

3. Will we still have a system that gives priority to other Europeans?

During the referendum campaign, Vote Leave argued for a “non-discriminatory” system, under which non-UK nationals seeking to migrate to the UK would be treated the same, regardless of their country of origin (with a few relatively minor exceptions, non-EEA/Swiss nationals all currently face the same rules). And if we are indeed going to leave the single market, the broader economic and political rationale for very different immigration arrangements for EU and non-EU migrants to the UK (and UK migrants to the rest of the EU) will in part disappear. But the Immigration Minister recently said “I hope that the negotiations will result in a bespoke system between ourselves and the European Union.”

So the third question is whether, post-Brexit, our immigration system could and should give preferential access to EU citizens? If so, why?

4. What do you actually mean by reducing "low-skilled" migration? 

One issue on which the polling evidence appears clear is that the British public approves of skilled migration – indeed, wants more of it- but not of migration for unskilled jobs. However, as I point out here, most migrants – like most Brits – are neither in high or low skilled jobs. So politicians should not be allowed to get away with saying that they want to reduce low-skilled migration while still attracting the “best and the brightest”.

Do we still want nurses? Teachers? Care workers? Butchers? Plumbers and skilled construction workers? Technicians? If so, do you accept that this means continuing high levels of economic migration? If not, do you accept the negative consequences for business and public services? 

Politicians and commentators have been saying for years "you can't talk about immigration" and "we need an honest debate." Now is the time for all the parties to stop waffling and give us some straight answers; and for the public to actually have a choice over what sort of immigration policy – and by implication, what sort of economy and society – we really want.

 

 

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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