Why the Tories have more in common with the Romanians than they think

It's a sweet irony that Margaret Thatcher is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so.

In the summer of 1992, after two months teaching English at Bucharest University, I asked my students which lesson they had enjoyed the most. In unison, they said: "the one about Margaret Thatcher".

Bucharest was a bit of a mess then, and it was Ceaușescu’s fault. His plans for 'systematizing' Romania’s capital around his grey Palace of the People, the heaviest building in the world, were half complete. He had managed to destroy much of the city's historic centre but not yet replace it with all the blocks of flats he wanted to squeeze people into.

Bucharest was also a mess because of the revolution of Christmas 1989 that finally brought Ceaușescu’s rule to an end. Important buildings, like Bucharest University's library, were destroyed or pockmarked with bullet holes. Temporary wooden crosses marked where people had been injured or killed in the 'Mineriads' of 1990/91, when miners came to Bucharest to attack those protesting at the ex-communists who had seized power.

The west was intruding but in odds ways to begin with. The most visible signs were chewing gum everywhere and a graffiti battle between the local fans of Depeche Mode and Metallica. Seeing a huge mass of men clamouring for sight of something, I joined them to see what the fuss was about. In the middle was a little table with some American pornographic magazines on.

Romania has long been famous for two things: Dracula and the Roma (gypsies). Given that Dracula is fictional (albeit based on Vlad the Impaler) and the Roma live all over the world – with apparently more in the United States than in Romania – that is an inaccurate picture.

In fact, Romania has a bit of everything. Anyone who has criticised the country in recent days without having been there should book a vacation without delay. They'll find skiing holidays, beach holidays and lots of sites of historic interest. Visit Bucharest and you’ll discover why it is still known as the 'Paris of the east'. 

Having lived under such a brutal communist regime for so long, Romanians cherish their freedom just as much as we Britons do. It's not because I taught the lesson on Margaret Thatcher well that they liked it so much. (I didn't.) It was because they genuinely thought she had bought them freedom by challenging communism head on and never giving an inch.

I tried to give my students a fair assessment of Thatcherism (despite being a paid-up Tory). I spoke about the gap between rich and poor, north and south and even played the Morrissey song 'Margaret on the Guillotine'. But they didn't buy it. Whatever I said about the shortcomings paled to insignificance against her anti-communist stance.

It's a sweet irony that the Iron Lady is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so. Yet back in 2007, when Romania joined the EU, both groups also supported the concept of a wider Europe. It is those seeds we are now reaping.

Some of the opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian newcomers arises from the changes they will bring. As the parent of a child starting school in 2014, I understand that. Looking around our local primary schools, I have been astonished by the expansionary pressures they face – even before any new influx. It is the duty of politicians to respond to such problems and absurd to claim they must not be discussed.

But the debate goes wrong when people treat Romanians as an alien species. After all, they understand the fear of change as much as we do. William Blacker's book 'Along the Enchanted Way', published in 2010, shows just how immense the pressures of the new world have been on Romanian villages and gypsy communities. But read it alongside Carmen Bugan's harrowing recent memoir 'Burying the Typewriter' on the treatment of her dissident father under communism to remind you how necessary it was for change to happen.

Life has improved for many but those Romanians coming to the UK will have the same motives as those who voluntarily chose to attend our English lessons soon after the revolution – they want to better themselves. Of course that's not true of all – just as not all British people moving abroad do so for honourable ends – and those camping on Park Lane do pose a challenge for the authorities.

Yet the current furore has missed a key point: Britain is actually less appealing to most Romanians than it was to those Poles who arrived during the 2000s because there are fewer historic links between our two countries. Romanian is a Romance language that has more in common with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese than it does with English. Such things matter as much as benefit rules in deciding where to settle.

As we now start to assimilate those who do arrive, we should spare a thought for the captivating country they come from because every time a skilled person leaves for the UK, their skills shortage gets a little worse and ours gets a little better.

Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

A protester who climbed on a police vehicle waves a Romanian flag on December 21, 2013 during a march commemorating the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to David Willetts 

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.