Migration myths, really radical voting reforms and enforced jollity

David Cameron says he wants a calm, rational debate about immigration, but he is a long way from getting it. On BBC1's Question Time, the Tories' Michael Howard and Labour's Peter Hain got into an unilluminating argument about whether immigration was rising or falling and how much of it came from the EU. In fact, the figures vary dramatically depending, for example, on whether or not you include short-term immigration and whether you talk about immigration or net inward migration, with the latter up nearly 40 per cent since 2008 because of sharp falls in emigration. Both Howard and Hain must know this, but neither made the slightest attempt to explain.

Nor does any politician admit that, whatever caps, visas, language requirements or other devices governments adopt, immigration is largely beyond their control. This is not just because of the EU but also because Britain is an international hub for trade, finance, airline travel and education. There is too much movement of people for any government to keep reliable track of what is happening, let alone control it.

East Germany, which wasn't an international hub for anything, built fortifications (not just the Berlin Wall) to keep its citizens in, but four million still managed to escape. The US has electrified fences on its southern border to stop people entering. It also has the Arizona Desert, threatening death by dehydration to anybody trying to cross. Yet the US has at least 11 million illegal immigrants (20 million, according to some estimates), about three-quarters of them from Latin America.

When migrants are looking for work and employers for cheap labour, one will find its way to the other as surely as desperate men find their way to prostitutes. Illegal American immigration has fallen, not because of border controls but because of rising US unemployment allied to improved economic conditions in much of Latin America. Perhaps Cameron, like King Canute, is trying to convince his courtiers (in this case, Tory backbenchers) that it is impossible to control natural forces. But while doing so, he is generating dangerous quantities of heat, ill-feeling and misleading statistics.

Vote-splitting headache
The problem with the British constitution is that it requires us to cast a single vote that simultaneously elects a government and a representative assembly to keep it in check. First-past-the-post is best for choosing governments - because we can hold them to account for their promises, and decisively chuck them out if they foul up - but some variant of proportional representation is best for an assembly.

So we need an alternative vote of some kind, but not the Alternative Vote on offer. Nevertheless, I shall vote "yes". It will, writes the
Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, create "a skull-splitting migraine for David Cameron". That's all that matters.

Street party pooping
“I'm the Prime Minister," says David Cameron, "and I'm telling you, if you want a street party, you go ahead and have one." So, on the royal wedding day, we can set up trestle tables in the middle of the road and, if a police officer protests that we are obstructing the highway or an articulated lorry tries to pass, we can stand our ground and declare that the PM said it was OK. I wonder if it would work on London's North Circular where, Cameron may be unaware, several thousand people live.

I shall not risk it myself nor shall I join "anti-royal" street parties, which merely support the medieval notion that a royal marriage is an occasion for enforced communal jollity. The best response is to stay indoors reading Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, having done one's best to sabotage celebrations. The night before the 1977 jubilee, I took the men in our road to a local pub to "plan" the logistics of children's races and similar manly subjects. With the help of extended opening hours, I ensured they all returned home very late, and incapable of performing their duties of holding finishing tapes, etc, the following day. Several royalists in the road never forgave me.

Gender politics
As this is the season for crackpot ideas about changing the voting system - as well as AV, we have Hungary's right-wing ruling party, Fidesz, proposing to give parents extra votes to cast on their children's behalf - I shall share with you "the coupled vote", as proposed by George Bernard Shaw. He pointed out that the enfranchisement of women didn't lead to a more balanced parliament. The solution, he argued, was to give everybody two votes - one to be cast for a man, the other for a woman.

We would then have gender equality in representation without any need for quotas or women-only shortlists. Whether or not you think this a crackpot idea, it would surely stimulate a more engaging debate than the one over AV.

Obits and pieces
If Paine isn't to hand, I shall continue browsing the latest Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, which has just arrived. I most enjoy the obituaries, which have uniquely elegiac and sometimes poignant qualities. This year, I particularly liked Stewart Pether, an Oxford University bowler who, during the Second World War, "had a miraculous escape when a bullet hit a brandy flask in his breast pocket" and Gerald Plumbly, a cricketing vet who once rescued a Soho stripper from a boa constrictor. But my favourite is Clive Fairbairn of Victoria who tore a rib muscle in his first over in first-class cricket, "struggled on for nine wicketless overs" before leaving the field and "was never recalled to the side". What went through the poor man's mind during those nine fruitless overs?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special