After winning Eastleigh, Lib Dem members want payback on secret courts

The activists who won the ground war in Eastleigh want their new MP - and all other Lib Dems - to vote against secret courts today.

Poor Mike Thornton. The newly elected MP for Eastleigh may well be experiencing one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ moments today. Because in his first proper day in the job, he has to decide which way to vote on the Justice and Security Bill this afternoon. And as a large number of activists are no doubt making clear in his inbox - it's payback time...

You don’t get (literally) thousands of activists delivering, phoning and stumping up dosh without them expecting, at the very least, that the new member will be voting in line with party policy on an issue of civil liberty. Such are the perils of people power. Mike’s a got a tough choice to make.

But of course, it’s not just Mike. Every Lib Dem MP must be crystal clear this morning that the secret weapon we have over Labour and the Tories is our ability to mobilise an effective ground war in areas where we are the incumbents – i.e. their own constituencies. And equally, they must be clear that the troops are expecting the generals to deliver what they believe in. If they’re not, there’s a letter in today’s Daily Mail – the most-read newspaper by Lib Dem members, don’t-you-know – reminding them of that fact. Of course, they’re welcome to engage with the membership in debate on the issue – but they’d better know their facts, or else they get mashed up and spat out by a better informed and rather angry set of activists, led by the inspirational Jo Shaw.

The received wisdom in the media was that Eastleigh had bought the Lib Dem leadership time, that the troops would be delirious post-victory and a happy and contented spring conference would follow. They are right that the members are delighted we won Eastleigh – but activists are equally clear that it was a victory for the proles, not the Westminster bourgeoisie and now it's payback time.

As Miranda Green put it last night…

We’re feeling pretty bold, Miranda. We’d like our MPs to vote for party policy today.

No to secret courts.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference

Liberal Democrat Eastleigh by-election candidate Mike Thornton celebrates his win with Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.