Saturday 23 March 2013

Nick Clegg and the politics of immigration

Yesterday, Nick Clegg made a speech about immigration. Since it has been the subject of much misinterpretation and anger, it is advisable to read the actual whole speech before going any further.

At first, the speech seems quite reasonable. In the face of extremism, Clegg wants to move the debate onto “practical and sensible ground”, talks about wanting to maintain “an open and tolerant Britain”, and promises “the Liberal Democrats will never seek to outflank our opponents because we think that’s what people want to hear”.

Yet the more you study the speech, the more it reveals fundamental flaws in not only Clegg’s thinking but also his whole strategic approach. Taken together with the recent dispute about secret courts, both the speech and the reactions from within the party suggest that the party is falling out of love with its leader and that the feeling is mutual.

So far as the question of immigration itself is concerned, others have already criticised the speech in detail. On Liberal Democrat Voice, Caron Lindsay tried to be even-handed in a post titled ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ but concluded there was more bad and ugly than good. Her LDV colleagues Stephen Tall and Nick Thornsby had no inhibitions, making the case against Clegg in no uncertain terms. They were joined in a thorough demolition job by Lester Holloway.

It was a fortunate coincidence that Liberal Democrat Voice conducted a poll of party members on this very topic a few days before the speech. It showed that these hostile reactions to Clegg’s speech were not the views of an unrepresentative minority but that the membership’s view of immigration remains highly liberal.

Rather than repeat what others have said about the issue of immigration per se, I want to look at the politics of this speech and what it tells us about the party leadership.

The first problem with Clegg’s speech is that, although it purported to show leadership, it did the opposite. Clegg was ostensibly critical of the anti-immigration agenda but, by debating the issue on anti-immigration terms, he effectively validated that agenda. He made little attempt to tackle the popular myths about immigration, let alone enthuse about the positive things immigration brings to society. This approach makes anti-immigration sentiments more respectable and shifts the debate from morality (“right or wrong”) to management (“how much?”).

Most mainstream politicians are in a flat panic about popular opinion on immigration (recall the fiasco during the 2010 general election when Gordon Brown encountered the “bigoted woman”). Hostility to immigration is not a new problem nor is it unique to Britain. What has made the problem more acute is the recession (resentment of outsiders always grows in hard times) and the rise of UKIP.

As Nick Thornsby argued in the Independent, it is at times like these that we look for true leadership, even when the liberal position risks unpopularity. Unfortunately, we live in an era when politicians tend to be driven by opinion polls and focus groups. If politicians had thought like that during the 1960s, we would never have had the abolition of capital punishment or the legalisation of homosexuality.

This brings us on to the second problem, which is the concept of the ‘centre ground’. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin recently criticised this idea:
Politicians often talk about “the centre ground” of British politics, as though there is some big bell curve of voters in the middle where we have to be in order to get elected. The three main parties are crowded there in the facile belief that being anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-business, tax cuts and tough on crime is “right wing”; while more spending, concern about the poor, pro-EU, pro-human rights and CND is “left wing”, and therefore sensible moderate people weigh up these “extremes” and finish up somewhere in between. And, of course, most people are sensible.
The Clinton/Blair people called it “triangulation”. The architects of Conservative modernisation copied it and made David Cameron in this respect the “heir to Blair”, but the result is that all the parties are now losing to “extremes”. Eastleigh showed there is no such thing as the centre ground – a great pile of voters in the middle waiting to be harvested by politicians’ cynical positioning. Nor is there a magic bullet labelled “immigration” or “Europe” either.
Clegg frequently bangs on about the ‘centre ground’ (indeed, he would have you believe that he is a non-ideological pragmatist) and this latest speech merely underlines the fact that he sees the voters in terms of Jenkin’s ‘bell curve’. His speech can therefore be seen as an attempt at triangulation. But as Jenkin pointed out, this won’t make him more popular or respected. You can only do that by standing up for what you believe in and accepting that this risks making as many enemies as friends.

Anti-immigrant sentiment cannot be ignored, of course. Many voters say they are against immigration, although on closer inspection it is hard to disentangle whether they are concerned more about new immigrants or the ethnic minorities already settled here, and whether immigration directly affects them or is merely something they’ve read about in the papers.

There is a valid non-racist argument that immigration must be managed, but management does not seem to be a major source of popular concern. The one occasion in recent years when the volume of immigration threatened to overwhelm local services was the large influx of Poles following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, yet Polish people have rarely been the target of racist sentiment. If you want to tout for racist votes, you would be more successful calling for the repatriation of black and Asian people than Poles. I am sure Nick Clegg would baulk at that, even if the polls and focus groups said it would be popular.

The third problem is Clegg’s attitude to the party and its policy-making process. His speech follows on closely from the notorious vote in favour of secret courts in the Commons earlier this month. Party members are starting to see a pattern of top-down policy-making that contradicts their wishes.

Strictly speaking, Clegg’s speech has not changed party policy. Policy is developed by the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and approved, democratically, by the party’s Federal Conference. In terms of the party constitution, Clegg was doing no more than kite-flying and, to be fair, he actually only called for existing policy to be “reviewed”. Try explaining that to the media. The Guardian talked of Clegg “abandoning” existing party policy on an amnesty, the Telegraph of him “dropping” it, the Mail of him “ditching” it. So far as the outside world is concerned, an ex cathedra statement by the leader is enough to change party policy – and Clegg and his media advisers must have known it.

Worse, Clegg’s new policy to replace an amnesty is half-baked. His big idea is that visa applicants from ‘high risk’ countries should pay a ‘security bond’ in the form of a cash deposit (Clegg mentioned no specific amount in his speech although the sum of £1,000 is being bandied about), which would be repaid when they leave the UK. This obviously hasn’t been thought through, as various knowledgeable people in the party could have told him if he had bothered to consult anyone beforehand. It’s not as if Clegg lacked the time or the opportunity; the speech was originally due to have been delivered in mid-February but was postponed (presumably because of the Eastleigh by-election), so a draft of the speech has been sitting around on his desk for over a month.

The lack of consultation is particularly inept, since the FPC recently appointed a policy working group on immigration, asylum, and identity, chaired by Andrew Stunell MP. This working group has so far met twice and is due to report to the spring 2014 party conference. Clegg’s speech was not presented to the working group at all, while the Federal Policy Committee was made aware of the speech’s existence but not its contents. Which is all a bit odd when you consider that Clegg, expressing his dissatisfaction with the current party policy on an amnesty, said in his speech, “I have asked Andrew Stunell, the former Integration Minister, to lead a review of this and our other immigration policies in the run up to 2015”. It is unclear whether Clegg was announcing the setting up of a working group that already exists or announcing the appointment of Stunell to conduct a separate review in parallel with the working group.

Of course, the reason for Clegg’s failure to consult the working group might be that he is unhappy with it for some reason. If so, he could have discussed his reservations with the chair of the FPC, Duncan Hames MP, who also happens to be Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Or since Clegg is a member of the FPC himself, he could have come along to a meeting and expressed his views in person. He did neither.

Meanwhile, any outsider puzzled about what current Liberal Democrat policy on immigration actually is should consult the motion (‘Immigration in the 21st Century’) debated at the party’s 2007 autumn conference. It was proposed by the party’s then Shadow Home Secretary – one Nick Clegg.

Postscript (1): Nick Barlow has written a very perceptive blog post, which questions whether the arguments for remaining in coalition still hold water, and ponders what depths Nick Clegg will next plumb.

Postscript (2): Several members of the party’s FPC and policy working group on immigration have written an open letter to protest about the speech.

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