How the pundits are becoming more influential than the politicians

As Owen Jones and Evan Harris show, you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road.

"I think Owen Jones has more influence on politics nowadays than any other Labour frontbencher. He’s everywhere".

So tweeted Iain Dale the other day in a conspicuously non-partisan piece of commentary. Now, Iain was referring to the ubiquity of Owen and his ability to pop up anywhere, anytime. But I was reminded of this tweet when I was reading Bagehot in the Economist this week, who opines on the inability of a typical backbench MP (let alone frontbench spokesperson) to have any affect on policy, or indeed on government. Bagehot cited the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston as a fairly typical example of the issue.

"In an effort to mollify Dr Wollaston, party bosses offered her a junior, unpaid job in the government, which she huffily rebuffed. In an institution that prizes loyalty above usefulness, this was a serious blot. When she then criticized the government’s complicated NHS reforms and rebelled in a vote on Europe, the stain became ineradicable. Three years into her political career, she finds herself more or less written off by her bosses. She will never be allowed anywhere near health policy. 'Maybe I was naïve', she laments. 'But I thought the whole point of being an MP was to scrutinise legislation and improve it'.”

And so it seems to have come to pass that if you really want to be out there, agenda setting and driving policy, you’d be better off campaigning on issues and popping up in the media at every conceivable opportunity, rather than being an elected representative of the people. In the Lib Dems, for example, Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) has been consistently fighting for and voting for Lib Dem policy  on justice and security (on which he is an acknowledged expert), tuition fees and NHS reform. Yet Julian has been on the losing side on every one of those issues. Contrast that with another unelected Lib Dem who finds himself at the heart of policy making, not just in our own party or even in the coalition government, but even plonked in the leader of the opposition's office dictating legislation. Step forward Hacked Off’s Evan Harris.

Of course there are exceptions to the influence wielded by backbenchers – witness the much tweeted- piece on welfare reform by Labour MP Simon Danczuk, or the select committee work of Andrew Tyrie or Margaret Hodge. But the former seems very much the exception – and the latter about marking others homework more than anything else.

Now, I don’t decry Owen Jones and Evan Harris for furthering their beliefs from outside parliament – far from it, I take my hat off to them as they force parties to adapt to their tune, rather than vice versa.

But when elected politicians are seen as having little or no influence on policy – and you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road – it’s little wonder that folk outside the bubble may still be interested in politics, but have little time for Westminster.

Owen Jones: coming soon to a TV screen near you.

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.