What Salmond could learn from Miliband

The Labour leader has displayed a willingness to confront "vested interests" generally lacking in the Scottish First Minister.

Ed Miliband's conference speech may or may not turn out to be the game-changer his supporters hope, but there's little doubting the scale of the Labour leader's ambition. By reaffirming the right of the state to intervene in the market, Miliband is kicking against the constraints Labour imposed on itself during the Blair era and, in the process, attempting to fashion a new post-crash consensus. From a Scottish perspective, it's interesting to contrast Miliband's increasing stridency with Alex Salmond's tepid response to the crisis of neo-liberalism.

When Miliband challenged Rupert Murdoch's reactionary influence over British media and political life, Salmond remained strangely loyal to the News Corporation chairman. When Miliband attacked corporate tax avoidance, Salmond handed Amazon £10m worth of Scottish government money and encouraged the company to establish distribution centres in Scotland. Where Miliband has pledged to rein in monopolistic energy companies, Salmond opposed George Osborne's windfall tax on North Sea oil profits. Since becoming leader, Miliband has displayed a willingness to confront "vested interests" generally lacking in the Scottish First Minister.

In other respects, however, Salmond continues to outflank Labour on the left. The SNP's defence of universal benefits, resistance to public-private partnerships and opposition to nuclear weapons have undermined Labour's claim to speak for progressive opinion in Scotland. Moreover, when it comes to the issue of defence, Labour swings sharply to the right. Last week Jim Murphy, Labour's shadow defence secretary, ridiculed SNP plans to reduce Scottish defence expenditure by £800m - a policy any truly social democratic party would welcome.

Of course, Miliband and Salmond operate in different political contexts. Miliband is trying to seize the opportunity presented by the financial crisis to move the terms and conditions of British debate in a more radical direction. He faces determined opposition not just from the Conservative Party but from the right-wing press and large sections of the English electorate as well. In Scotland, the right has been weak for years and shows little sign of renewal. Hostility to the Conservatives is entrenched. As much as their supporters might deny it, the ideological divide between Labour and the SNP at Holyrood is far less pronounced than that between Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster.

But here's the problem: competition is a good thing in politics. It forces politicians to be innovative. The absence in Scotland of any meaningful challenge from the right has allowed Scottish politics - and with it Scotland's so-called "social democratic consensus"- to grow stale. In line with its Labour-Lib Dem predecessor, the SNP government has taken steps to preserve what remains of Britain's post-war welfare settlement, not radically extend or improve it. Fourteen years on from the founding of the Scottish Parliament, there remains a paucity of Scottish think-tanks and policy units. With the exception of the chronically under-funded Jimmy Reid Foundation, the Scottish left has no equivalent of the IPPR or the New Economics Foundation.

The suspended state of Scottish social democracy is also a reflection of Holyrood's limited remit. The Scottish Parliament can, to some extent at least, mitigate the effects of Tory austerity but it is powerless to pursue an alternative economic strategy. Perhaps independence would enhance the quality of Scottish political debate by testing the strength of the main parties' social democratic convictions - with full control over welfare and economy policy, an independent Scottish government would have no excuses for failing to tackle Scotland's poor social record and lagging growth rates.

That's not to say Holyrood is simply an infant version of Westminster. Since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has passed various pieces of legislation - including on climate change, homelessness and land reform - which, in terms of their radical ambition, far outstrip anything Westminster has produced in recent years. Yet, increasingly, Scottish political discourse feels like one long rhetorical appeal to some ill-defined idea of "social justice". With the independence debate now well underway, Salmond has a unique opportunity to change that. He might benefit from a dose of Miliband's political courage.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond addresses a rally of pro-independence campaigners on September 21 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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.