Why the Lib Dems will struggle to win any credit for the recovery

This recovery runs to a traditional Conservative narrative - harsh medicine applied by a single-minded Chancellor.

" 'Without the Liberal Democrats, there wouldn't be a recovery.' That's Clegg's election line there", tweeted the very astute editor of this blog during Nick’s stint at Prime Minister's Questions this week and there’s every indication that he’s right to say that’s what we’ll be hanging our hat on in 2015. The same line was tweeted moments later by the Lib Dem Press Office and Danny Alexander has written to members with a similar message after the Autumn Statement

“This recovery would not have been possible without us, and neither would the vast majority of the positive measures in today’s Autumn Statement. In fact, setting the Tory Marriage Tax break to one side, the Autumn Statement is packed full of Liberal Democrat ideas.”

And of course, it also happens to be true (though I don’t suppose that fact will feature much in the comments section of The Staggers), not least because by going into coalition in the first place we provided a more stable government than any other option allowed at a time of great economic uncertainty.

And yet it’s hard to escape the notion that this will be painted as anything other than a Tory victory. This recovery runs to a traditional Conservative narrative -  harsh medicine applied to a patient suffering from a potentially fatal illness, ignoring the cries and the pleas for mercy, because they know what’s good for you. Of course, it’s not precisely true – as Stephen Tall has pointed out, Plan A got abandoned (or at least diluted) some time ago. But that’s how the story is playing out.  And it suits the Tories that it does so, because it means they can own it.

Hence the willingness to dump the "green crap", the huskies, and any notions of hugging a hoodie. Because it’s the nasty party that owns the economic narrative. And let’s not forget, after three years of austerity, recession and economic malaise, that nasty party is only 3 or 4% worse off in the polls than when it was running against the most unpopular Labour government for a generation or more (this morning’s YouGov poll notwithstanding).

I fear the Tories think the nasty party narrative suddenly has traction and electoral credibility. And it’s that single-mindedness that will make it so hard for the Lib Dems to claim any credit for the economic recovery. Not helped by the fact that the 'differentiation strategy' dictates that, for the second half of the parliament, we are meant to distance ourselves from the Tories at every turn.

Sure, Lib Dems will be awarded the odd battle in the court of public opinion – raising the tax threshold, free school meals, pension reform. But the narrative of the Autumn Statement is triumph for Osborne, disaster for Balls. The battle for the Lib Dems will be to get nary a mention at all.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. 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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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.