A reconstruction of the Lib Dem clearout (maybe). Photo: Guiseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: the Liberal Democrat clear-out sale

Money raised goes into a “fightback” fund – although the flattened Lib Dems will need more than the odd jumble sale to rise, Lazarus-like, from the dead.

A sign of things to come, perhaps? Conservatives queued up to slap Frank Field on the back after Maggie Thatcher’s favourite Labour MP was elected as the chair of the work and pensions committee on 18 June.

The Tory salutes were led, according to my snout, by Matthew Hancock, a ministerial member of Team Osborne so oily that his parliamentary comrade Philip Davies once remarked, “Anyone tempted to lick George Osborne’s backside should be careful . . . if you go too far, you’ll find the soles of Matt Hancock’s shoes in the way.” The cooing Tories interpreted Field’s first public statement as qualified support for Osborne’s and David Cameron’s welfare programme.

The industrial and political wings of the labour movement continue to diverge. The talk among Unite, Unison and GMB members is of endorsing none of the four candidates for Labour leader. If the unions decide to withhold patronage it would be a blow to Andy Burnham, who is seeking their support but not their money (in order to avoid the accusation that he is in their pocket).

One informant whispered that there is a groundswell in Unite to back Jeremy Corbyn, who shared a platform with the union’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, at an anti-austerity march in London on 20 June. Islington’s Dave Spart is already the pick of the train drivers’ union, Aslef, with Tom Watson its choice as deputy. A Corbyn victory remains improbable but not impossible, if the union bandwagon rolls. Ed Miliband’s 2014 reforms were intended to marginalise union influence. The result is that an affiliated member’s or £3 supporter’s ballot paper is worth as much as an MP’s.

The indignities of defeat included an “office clear-out sale” for the Liberal Democrat John Leech. “There’s ten years’ worth of electricals, Risos, printers, folders, tablets, monitors, phones, chairs, desks, tables, cabinets, noticeboards, whiteboards, stationery, campaign materials and other bits and pieces,” advertised the ex-MP for Manchester Withington.

Money raised goes into a “fightback” fund – although the flattened Lib Dems will need more than the odd jumble sale to rise, Lazarus-like, from the dead. I trust that none of the items above was purchased with public money.

The metal turnstile newly installed at the peers’ entrance to parliament will send shivers down the spines of dishonourable members. Expenses cheats, arsonists, perjurers and other assorted ex-cons will be reminded of the prison gates they walked through before shuffling back into the House of Cronies.

Bananas were banned from the recent Unison conference, as one of the 1,200 delegates was allergic to the fruit. No wonder David Miliband the banana-waver never secured the union’s support.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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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.