A Liberal Democrat poster promoting the debate.
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UKIP have taken more votes from the Lib Dems than most think

Clegg's party has lost more than 500,000 voters to Farage since 2010.

Ahead of the first debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage tomorrow, many have predicted that both men will win. This is because, as the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan writes in his column today, "the two parties are not competing for voters – they draw support from different ends of the spectrum." In the case of tomorrow's head-to-head over EU membership, this is undoubtedly true; Clegg is bidding for the "inners" (a group larger than the Lib Dems' current base), with Farage bidding for the "outers". 

But it's worth noting the degree of crossover between current UKIP supporters and former Lib Dems. A recent study by Peter Kellner, for instance, found that more than 500,000 2010 Lib Dem voters have defected to Farage's party, a figure greater than the number who voted Labour (c. 400,000), who voted UKIP (c. 400,000), or who didn't turn out (c. 400,000). Today's YouGov poll shows that 12 per cent of 2010 Lib Dem voters (excluding don't knows and wouldn't votes) currently support UKIP, a share that matches the number of Tory defectors (12 per cent) and exceeds the number of Labour ones (2 per cent). 

That these voters have swung from the most pro-European party to the most anti-European party is less surprising than many think. People in general pay far less attention to policy than most assume and this is especially true of the EU, which does not even make it into the top ten of voters' concerns (it is currently ranked 18th). What explains the swing is UKIP's supplantation of the Lib Dems as the "none of the above" party: the party voters support when they want to kick the Westminster establishment. 

With Clegg now framing the Lib Dems as "a serious party of government", he is largely resigned to loss of most of this group. But the Lib Dem to UKIP defectors show that Clegg and Farage will be competing for some of the same voters tomorrow. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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