London calling the shots

London Labour has been buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago.

So, the one definite thing in what happens next is that Gordon Brown won't be a part of Labour's future.

The other certainty is the release of the grip that Scottish politicos have had over the Labour Party -- and British politics by default.

Power fills a vacuum, and that hole has already been filled by Labour London, which has created a formidable fighting machine and is buoyed by election results thought impossible a year ago. It is the kingmaker that will decide if David Miliband will take over.

The political map of the capital now has a solid core of red. It controls eight more Labour councils, having gained more than 180 councillors. Westminster seats were secured despite Ashcroft cash; the party held Hammersmith -- home of the Conservative easyCouncil project -- plus Westminster North and Tooting. And it won the marginals of Harrow North and Enfield.

The BNP and Respect were seen off by what Tessa Jowell called "highly targeted campaigns", run by disciplined and focused teams which get the job done with little fuss.

And now the area organisers are looking for both blood and payback. Labour central had already been told that Brown was no longer an asset. "This makes it easier to put the knives in," was the reaction by one activist to the PM's statement.

What is not generally known is that a team within London Labour -- including senior MPs from the capital -- had quietly opened negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over power-sharing months ahead of the election to lay the groundwork for a deal.

Ed Balls is out of favour (too close to Brown), but David Miliband cannot take support as a given: London members long ago tired of being taken advantage of.

The local party's intense focus is now on the city's mayoral race, which it believes is for the taking with a decent "non-Ken" candidate.

"Oona [King] is a possible, but she's got a life outside politics and needs some convincing," said one Hackney activist.

London Labour is confident it can turn a possible bid by Boris Johnson for David Cameron's job into a chicken run -- and the Tories are seriously worried by the Labour turnout.

One Tower Hamlets member reflected on Winston Churchill's wartime coalition as its 60th anniversary fell this week: "This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. We're just getting started; it's time one or two in the party sat up and took notice."

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent. A specialist on UK government at all levels, he has written for the Guardian, the Times, Sunday Times, the Channel 4 News election FactCheck, Auto Express, HSJ and ePolitix.com.

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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.