Taking sides: the dividing lines of British politics

All parties love the easy, polarising rhetoric of “us” against “them” – but how distinct are their ideas? In a new weekly series, Rafael Behr finds out.

There is a reliable way to tell if David Cameron is rattled. When the Prime Minister is on shaky ground, he hurls the charge of being “left-wing” at Ed Miliband as if it were the foulest thing he could say within the bounds of parliamentary protocol. The “Red Ed” label has never been a plausible line of attack but it is a comforting fiction for senior Conservatives who deride the Labour leader’s agenda as a slide into unelectable socialism.

There is a matching obtuseness on the other side. Miliband accuses Cameron of Thatcherism and of “returning to the 1980s”, forgetting that this is not an insult in Tory circles. The idea that Cameron is picking up the ideological crusade where the last Conservative government left off is central to Labour’s image of the political landscape. Partly it is true, just as there is truth to the Tory view that Miliband hankers after more orthodox social-democratic politics.

The distinction between left and right in Britain looks starker now than at any time in the past 20 years. The polarisation inevitably follows the collapse of the economic consensus of the NewLabour years. Tony Blair embraced Britain’s role as a hub for ultra-liberal, globalised capitalism, which viewed intervention by the state in economic activity as reactionary in principle and ineffective in practice. Market forces and private business were deemed the likeliest mechanisms to improve public services. Labour’s historic impulse to direct social change had to be managed by quiet redistribution around the margins. The Blair and Brown administrations intervened all over the place but lacked the will in Blair’s case and the confidence in Gordon Brown’s to assert the government’s moral right to meddle. In opposition, the Tories argued against government policy but no Conservative leader substantially challenged the intellectual basis of the Blair-Brown model or offered a coherent alternative.

It is in the nature of a political consensus that those who are part of it define themselves as pragmatists and paint the dissenters as fanatics. Thus the New Labour position came to be defined as the “centre ground”, with its critics occupying the fringe. The financial crisis has disrupted that geometry. The clear bankruptcy of the existing way of doing things created a demand for more distinctly ideological prescriptions. By the 2010 general election, the left was sick of tagging along with Blairish compromise; the right was brimming with radical intent pent up from 13 years in opposition.

Both sides felt vindicated. The left focused on the role of banks and global markets in the crisis and saw a definitive refutation of rampant market capitalism. The right focused on the Budget deficit and national debt and saw in them proof that Britain had been ruined by the unchecked expansion of government. Everyone thought that the political pendulum was swinging back in their direction.

Within that intellectual rivalry, there is a cruder impulse to settle old scores. Trade union leaders depict the Chancellor’s austerity budgets as a cynical attack on the public sector with the strategic goal of dismantling the welfare state. Meanwhile, some ministers see resistance to the coalition’s reforms as a return to left-wing militancy and proof that the unions are enemies of progress. The muted echo of battle cries from the early 1980s rings around Westminster.

The Debt Collector by Ralph Steadman

The myth that politics can still be defined by competition between two mutually exclusive tribes, one red and one blue, suits Labour and the Tories. They want to cling to a parliamentary duopoly that, judging by voting patterns in the real world, has been in decline since the 1950s. Before 2010, it was the Liberal Democrats who were best placed to scoop up votes from those looking to register a protest with a “none-of-the-above” candidate. Nick Clegg forfeited that position when he went into coalition with the Tories – deliberately so, because he wanted the Lib Dems to graduate in the public’s imagination to the status of a serious party of government.

Clegg still hopes to carve out a niche for his party as the broker of compromise between what he presents as an unrepentant Labour Party and heartless Tories. Yet it is not obvious how his plan translates into distinctive policies. He is trapped as the salesman for technocratic machination at a time when the Westminster machine is mistrusted as the plaything of a self-serving elite.

The vacancy for a candidate who stands for rejection of the conventional parties is being filled by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, whose opinion-poll ratings routinely rival those of the Lib Dems. Though Ukip’s ultra-conservative, populist ideas overlap with the views of more reviled farright organisations, the party is elevated to respectability by the implicit endorsement of a few Conservative MPs who wish Cameron would strike more Faragist poses.

Policymaking in the coalition is caught in a three-way haggle. The Lib Dems try to assert their identity by foiling Tory radicalism; backbench Conservative MPs view Cameron’s accommodations with Clegg as proof that his conservative impulses are inadequate and the Prime Minister, lacking a recognisable creed, seems driven mostly by tactical improvisations – witness the current contortions over a referendum on membership of the EU – and the patrician self-belief of a man groomed for power by high birth and an expensive education.

Cameron once defined his governing purpose as creating the “big society”. When the inadequacy of that idea for wooing sceptical voters (including Tories) became clear, he changed tack. He now says his premiership is about readying Britain for the “global race”, a rubric just as vague but more amenable to the deregulating, pro-commerce sentiment that animates his party. There is no sign yet that it resonates with the public.

The Labour Party is not much further advanced. Miliband does not have anything resembling an agenda for government. His allies contend that this is a natural state of affairs for the opposition a mere two years after a crushing defeat and a full two years away from polling day. Instead, Miliband has a theme – one nation. It is an offer to reweave the social fabric that, in the Labour analysis, is being unpicked by the government’s Budget savagery. It is also supposed to be the answer to the question of what comes after New Labour if it is not, as the Tories imagine, a drift back to Old Labour. What that means in manifesto terms is unclear.

Miliband’s dilemma is that his core vote is galvanised by attacking austerity, while a realistic appraisal of what he might achieve as prime minister requires admitting that a Labour government would also inflict Budget pain. An honest account of how state largesse would be rationed risks igniting the civil war in Labour that many predicted would be a necessary feature of its time in opposition. Party opinion is divided as to whether Mili - band’s avoidance of internecine strife reflects strategic nous or deferral of mature choices.

Politics, therefore, looks ill-equipped to respond to a crisis that is much more profound than a mere imbalance in the public finances. Many of the problems were in gestation long before the financial bubble burst in 2007- 2008. Wages for most workers have been stagnant since 2003, raising the cost of living in real terms for most households. An ageing population promises a relentless increase in the burden on the NHS and social care services. It is questionable whether British schools are equipping young people with the skills that will guarantee them work in a globalised labour market. There is a huge housing shortage. Rising inequality, stalled social mobility and resentment of mass migration are increasing a sense of dislocation and eroding our sense of communal purpose, making it hard for any party to assemble a coalition of voters capable of delivering a parliamentary majority, let alone a confident mandate for change.

The good news is that, behind the childish frenzy of daily political combat, there are people in all parties striving to come to terms with these challenges. Sometimes they work within predetermined ideological parameters; sometimes they follow the evidence regardless of where that may lead. There are think tanks and non-governmental organisations looking at policy solutions beyond the myopic perspective of the electoral cycle. There are MPs who listen.

Over coming weeks, I will look at some of the problems facing Britain and try to decode what the different sides might have to offer by the next election. Sometimes the divergence is stark; often there is more agreement than anyone likes to admit.

Westminster is obsessed with the delineation of dividing lines – the tactical approach to an issue that seeks to define it in crude, binary terms, with the enemy caricatured as holding a view inimical to mainstream opinion. “They” destroy public services; “we” invest. “They” want to spend your money on feckless scroungers; “we” reward hard-working strivers. It is the very substance of modern politics, and the rhetorical dishonesty, that make politics dangerously insubstantial. It makes Westminster look like a game between teams that differ only in the colour of the strip they wear. The evidence from rising levels of voter abstention and defection to fringe parties suggests it does not make a great spectator sport, still less invite participation.

The most corrosive force in democracy is the assumption that none of the mainstream candidates deserves endorsement because “they are all the same”. In the weeks to come, we will consider whether that lament is justified in Britain today. Given the scale of the challenge, we must hope it is not.

A detail from "The Debt Collector" by Ralph Steadman. (Full size below)

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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How a devolved immigration policy could work in Brexit Britain

London and Scotland could keep free movement, or something close to it. 

Just a few short months after the vote to Leave, Britain and the European Union appear to be hurtling towards confrontation – and mutual self-harm. At the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), we believe that what we need is not “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit” but “smart Brexit”.

At the moment, too much of the debate is characterised by clinging on to obsessively ideological positions, or attempting to relitigate the referendum because you didn’t like the result. There is far too little serious policy thinking taking place.  

Firstly, we should demand that politicians think again on immigration policy. Recent polling has shown that the country is split on whether to prioritise the economy or immigration control in the negotiations. Given this, it would be reasonable to expect politicians to attempt to accomplish both. Yet politicians on both left and right have marched off to the extremes.

Theresa May has indicated that we are heading towards a one-size-fits-all closed borders system; Jeremy Corbyn has made an absolute commitment to freedom of movement, defining immigration as a problem of austerity economics. Both positions are overly simplistic, unoriginal, and show little regard for our democracy or national interest. We should begin by disentangling the different strands of the immigration debate. 

The referendum exposed three broad contours to the immigration question. The first is that different parts of the country have different interests; the benefits and costs of immigration are not evenly distributed, particularly with regard to jobs. Second, there is an important cultural dimension about consent – expressed as "nobody asked us" – and the pace of change in specific communities. It was striking that the areas with the highest levels of immigration strongly voted Remain; but those with the fastest pace of change voted strongly Leave. Third, that there are public concerns about the impact of immigration on public services and housing.

A devolved immigration system would allow different parts of the country to act according to their (divergent) interests. It could work by using certificates of sponsorship to require employers to specify the place of work and residence of the employees they sponsor; and by setting region-specific quotas for these certificates by sector (and possibly pay level).

Such an approach would better secure our national interest by recognising our regional differences, boost democratic decision-making and so address consent, and go some way to address the impact on public services and housing. It would work for both EU and non-EU migrants. There are international precedents, such as Canada. 

A regional solution

Under this option, different regions would determine their interests and then either set quotas for specific sectors or determine that some or all sectors should have no restrictions, differentiated by EU and non-EU migrants. In sectors which required work permits, employers would need to draw down against agreed quotas. Employers would be required to register a place of work for migrant employees, and ensure that their home address was in a commutable distance from their place of work. For those sectors without restrictions, registration would take place but would not be subject to quotas. It would mean some additional rigidity in the labour force - migrants workers would not be able to be redeployed from one part of the country to another without affecting each region’s quotas. 

The key to such an approach is London. The capital is a huge draw for people from overseas - it would have to decide to sustain free movement for a devolved system to have any chance of being effective. There would simply be too much risk of backdoor entry to London if it were to set quotas. Londoners, like the rest of the country, are split on immigration. Nonetheless, they elected a Mayor who openly supports free movement, London’s globally-orientated services sector benefits strongly from immigration, and voted strongly for Remain. There is every reason to believe that London would decide to continue free movement for EU citizens. 

The crucial step for such an approach to have legitimacy would be to have democratic control of setting work permit quotas. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London, the devolved democratic structures are already in place to make decisions on immigration. Not only did Scotland vote strongly to Remain, when Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her first major post-Brexit speech at IPPR in July, she described the importance of free movement for Scotland. The Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies are clearly well-placed to make decisions for their parts of the Union. 

Democratic solutions for other parts of the country would need to be bespoke. One approach might be to form “Grand Committees” of existing elected representatives in different regions. These would bring together elected council leaders, the newly-elected Metro Mayors, and Members of Parliament, with voting in an electoral college, determined by population size. They would then consult with the public and employers, examine the evidence, and make the decisions for which the public could hold them to account.   

Goodbye, net migration target

Elected politicians would need to be able to make informed decisions, based on analysis of the skills base and the workforce requirements for sectors in each region. It would be vital to have proper consultation processes with employers and with citizens and communities. 

Such an approach would also require the devolution of the education and skills systems. If employers cannot seek skilled labour from overseas, they will need to be able to secure skilled workers at home. The entity responsible for immigration policy would need to make skills policy, too. 

National immigration policy would be reserved for those areas that are properly national, such as refugee resettlement and asylum policy for those fleeing persecution. By focusing national political choices on matters of principle, it would enable us to have a more moral conversation about our obligations in the world. It would stop us from conflating the people fleeing the terrible destruction in Syria with those looking for a boost to their pay from higher wages in Britain than in Eastern Europe. It might just enable us to begin to act like responsible members of the international community again. We should also embrace what could be termed “cultural free movement”: allowing all EU citizens to visit and to study across the UK visa-free. This would tap into the nobler – and popular – aspects of the European project, and might be used to secured our continuing participation in pan-European scientific research and the Erasmus programme. Immigration controls on the citizens of European countries should be reserved for employment, through work permits.    

It would also require the net migration target to be abandoned, as it is completely inconsistent to have a national net target with devolved controls. This would be a good thing: it would provide political cover to abandon a particularly stupid piece of policy. As IPPR has argued for many years, it makes absolutely no sense to lump together American bankers, Polish builders, and Syrian refugees and count them all as the same. Furthermore, a recent IPPR report concluded that the numbers are probably shoddy anyhow. They simply don't stand up to serious scrutiny. If you believe the official figures, tens of thousands of people get university degrees and then disappear into black economy jobs earning cash-in-hand every year. It’s just not plausible.

So, how can a devolved immigration system help?

Professors and fruitpickers

A devolved immigration system would recognise that different parts of the country have different interests. Strong majorities in London and Scotland have voted for political leaders that openly support free movement of people. In other parts of the country, there appears to be a stronger consensus that free movement is not in their interests. 

The East of England, for example, might conclude that it needed migrants to work in the fields of the fens and to work in research laboratories in Cambridge’s world leading institutions, and place no restrictions on fruit pickers and professors. But it might also decide to set quotas for skilled jobs in light manufacturing, and to direct the skills system to train local workers for those roles instead of opening those opportunities up to migrants. This would mean that the immigration system could be optimised to the interests of different parts of the UK. 

Moreover, a devolved approach would humanise the debate on immigration. It would require practical choices determined by regional needs. It would remind us that migrants are people who do essential jobs like work in our hospitals (I imagine every part of the UK will want to keep the NHS functioning). It would demand that local employers make the case to local politicians. It might just take us away from high level statistics and low level instincts. It would take us from the politics of the gut being fought in the gutter to a more responsible discussion. 

Critics will say that this will end up with free movement in a complex and bureaucratic way. Even if this was the case – it is not clear that it would be – it would mean that people would have decided for themselves that migration was beneficial. Some degree of messiness is inherent in any compromise solution; and the incremental complexities of a devolved rather than national system are marginal. If Britain found its way to free movement by democratic consent rather than by Whitehall diktat, that would surely be preferable. Then, the question, “what have the immigrants ever done for us?” might well receive a Monty Pythonesque response. 

Tackling the pressures

Proper management of immigration means addressing its consequences. In a world where public sector budgets are being cut, services have struggled to cope with demand. Most studies have demonstrated that migrants, in the aggregate, are net contributors to the public purse but that does not take away from the pressures felt locally. Politicians on the left and right have alighted on some common ground in their approach - all major parties support a migration impact fund. Yet a migration impact fund, whilst necessary and useful, is ultimately marginal.  

The real solution must be to address the underlying allocation formulae that create these distributional problems. In addition to his pointless, destructive, and unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS, Andrew Lansley also tampered with the allocation formula that distributes NHS budgets across the country. It was reweighted to increase the significance of age, meaning that areas with more older people received disproportionately more money, while resources were moved away from younger, poorer areas. 

This was an act of grotesque political cynicism. It had the effect of redistributing from poorer typically Labour-voting areas to older, wealthier Tory-voting areas. But the other affect was to shift resources away from places with high immigration, since migrants are typically young themselves and have higher fertility rates. It was a far more significant – and cynical – decision than the abolition of the pitiful migrant impact fund. And so reinventing the migrant impact fund is merely tinkering at the edges.  

Similarly, blaming immigration for the housing crisis is easy but wrong. A large number of new arrivals certainly adds to the pressure. But it pales in significance when compared to our abject failure to build enough houses. Britain has roughly double the population of Canada and yet builds just one-third of the new homes every year. The solution to the lack of affordable housing is to build more homes. No immigration policy is going to solve the housing crisis. 

What are the drawbacks?

A devolved immigration system certainly has some drawbacks, both in substance and implementation. As with any sector-based approach to immigration, there is a risk of getting the numbers wrong resulting in skills shortages for employers, or putting firms off from investment by creating uncertainty about the labour supply. Those areas that had decided to introduce particularly draconian controls might find that employers decided to move elsewhere. This is no more true than at a national level, as reports from international firms reconsidering their investments illustrate.  

Operationally, it could become complex and bureaucratic. The foolish dismantling of the Government Digital Service has seriously eroded central government’s capacity and capability to do things in an efficient, modern way. As with all immigration systems, people will be tempted to abuse it, and it would need to be robustly policed. Moreover, this system would place greater responsibilities on employers - they would have to face stiffer penalties if they abused – or permitted abuse to take place – the system. Part of the price would be the inevitable steady drumbeat of stories in the xenophobic parts of the press finding people working where they were not registered. But these drawbacks – whilst important – are massively outweighed by the benefits. 

Immigration and the Brexit deal

The international response to the government’s strident signals about immigration control has been fiercely negative. The hostility of tone – verging on xenophobia – was regarded with shock and disgust in many European capitals. The political dynamic between British politicians and their European counterparts has quickly become toxic. We are heading down the path of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD). 

For the most part, European leaders see the EU as an inextricable part of their national interests, which is precisely why its preservation is top of their agenda. Right now, their judgement seems to be that Britain must be seen to be worse off because of Brexit in order to prevent the Exit contagion catching, just as they were determined to punish Greece so that the debt crisis would not spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. After all, as Nigel Farage himself pointed out, there are somethings that are more important that GDP, and most European leaders believe preservation of the EU falls into that category. 

Speaking privately, one European cabinet minister recently told me that his country would be pushing for the “worst possible deal” for the UK because “a good deal for you would cause chaos for us, and even if you were seen to be treated fairly, that would push us towards the exit door”. At present, the mindset is that Britain must be seen to pay a price, and there is a very real risk that the EU forces us to choose between our car industry and our financial services sector. This is yet another reason that we need to be seeking common ground, not pursuing a divisive approach in the country or internationally.  

A devolved immigration system might enable EU leaders to say that free movement had been secured because it would continue in London and Scotland (and possibly in other regions too) along with nationwide “cultural free movement”. Given their fidelity to the principle of free movement, it would still require them to make quite a departure from their existing position. But in a devolved immigration system, we might just find our common ground. That, perhaps combined with paying a hefty fee, might be just about enough to secure our access to the single market and participation in some of its key institutions – vital if we are to be regulation makers rather than takers – or at the very least tariff-free trade for tradable goods and passporting for the City of London. It would certainly be a more attractive offer than us pulling up the drawbridge or being "pro having our cake and pro eating it".

Finally, there is a wider issue at stake here. As we enter into the negotiations, we will need much more smart thinking about nuanced solutions. At the present, our political leaders – on left and right – appear to be spending more time posturing and swaggering than thinking. Our Conservative Prime Minister and recently re-elected opposition leader are sacrificing the national interest on the altar of party management, the perpetual problem in British politics. We should demand Smart Brexit, and we should demand more creative thinking from our government, its leaders, advisers and officials. In this period of turmoil, the British people deserve nothing less.    

Tom Kibasi is the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.