The interview is remarkable because no Liberal Democrat MP, not even the usual suspects, has previously made such a trenchant public criticism of government policy. Moreover, Sarah Teather has never had a reputation as a radical but has generally been regarded as a loyalist (although she has been increasingly critical since losing her ministerial job last year). If such fierce criticisms are coming from such a normally moderate source, it makes you wonder how much more dissent is bubbling under the surface of the parliamentary party.
In the interview, Teather explains at some length why the government’s new immigration policy is unworkable, even if you accept its dubious objectives. But then she gets to the heart of the matter:
The idea that these policies will save money is “patently nonsense”, she argues, looking torn between dismay and incredulity. “So what are we trying to do? To drive down the total number of immigrants, irrespective of what’s good for Britain. Everything is about getting the net immigration numbers down. That’s what’s driving this, nothing else. Even though it’s obvious that a lot of these people are not a burden on the taxpayer.”
When the spousal visa proposal came before the home affairs cabinet committee, she reveals that Tory members strongly argued for the minimum income threshold to be £40,000. “That would put you in the top 15% of national income!” Part of the problem, she concedes, is the gulf between the life experience of her coalition colleagues, and the reality of the lives they are legislating for.
During discussions to increase the delay in benefits eligibility for the newly unemployed from three to seven days, “there was a general idea that people would have their redundancy payments to get them through”. She allows a dry chuckle. “I’m not sure that my constituents coming out of short-term, low-paid work are getting big redundancy packages.” But she doesn’t believe that ignorance born of privilege is the real problem. “No. I think it’s more nakedly political than that. It’s about short-term tactics – and I’m deeply uncomfortable with a type of politics that is deliberately using people who are already relatively vulnerable, as outsiders, as a tool to demonstrate how tough we are. I don’t like that type of politics.”
If the problem were merely Tory ignorance, she says that would be relatively easy to solve. “What alarms me is that the immigration proposals feel as if they’re hewn from the same rock as welfare earlier in the year, where a lot of that again was about setting up political dividing lines, and trying to create and define an enemy. It’s got to a stage where it’s almost unacceptable to say anything else, and it bothers me that there is a consensus among the three party leaders that they are all making, well not quite the same speech – there are differences, significant differences – but there’s a consensus. It’s stifling the rest of the debate, making people afraid to speak. If you get to a stage where there is no alternative voice, eventually democracy’s just going to break down.”
The coalition’s flagship benefit cap has nothing to do with getting people back to work, she maintains. “It’s populist. It’s a headline. Just look at the evidence. You’ve got first the overall universal benefit cap, then you’ve got a 1% welfare cap, and then you’ve got the big macro welfare cap. So they’ve found something, a message that works in polling, it’s called a benefit cap. And then they’ve invented policy around it three times.”This government policy reveals two fundamental problems. First, the subordination of policy to short-term public relations objectives, where unworkable and unethical policies are pursued to mollify popular prejudices irrespective of the financial or human costs. And second, the competition between all three main party leaders to mollify the same set of popular prejudices.
And this reveals Nick Clegg’s main failing as Liberal Democrat party leader: his fallacious belief that most voters basically agree with one another, therefore that the party’s strategy should be to compete with the Conservatives and Labour for this imaginary ‘centre ground’.
But there is no such thing as the ‘centre ground’, no opinion that “most people think”, no mass in the middle you can mollify to win power. Yes, every poll result shows an average, but an average is not necessarily normal or typical. As Brian of Nazareth famously declared, “You’re all individuals!” Every Liberal should know that.
To understand why Clegg’s belief in the ‘centre ground’ is so utterly, catastrophically wrong, it is worth studying the Cultural Dynamics system of mapping of people’s different values. Basically, people divide into three broad categories: ‘Settler’, ‘Prospector’ and ‘Pioneer’, each sub-divided into four ‘values modes’, 12 in all. Take the test here to see where you fit.
The Liberal Democrat heartland is among ‘Pioneers’, and in good times expands into ‘Prospector’ territory. Support is negligible among ‘Settlers’, even when the party’s poll ratings are high. The voters who are nervous about immigration are concentrated in the ‘Settler’ group and never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, so why on earth does Clegg imagine he has to mollify such people when he has no chance whatever of winning their support? It can only be because he imagines that the electorate is essentially homogeneous, hence his repeated references to the ‘centre ground’. It cannot be overstated what a disastrous illusion that is. It explains why Clegg is alienating the party’s natural base while predictably failing to encroach on UKIP’s territory, hence Liberal Democrat poll ratings remain stuck at 10%.
Despite Sarah Teather’s warnings, the party will probably have to learn the hard way why Clegg’s ‘centre ground’ strategy is so disastrous. Even then, will there be enough party activists left after 2015 to rebuild support among ‘Pioneers’?
Postscript: In a blog post for the Centre for European Reform titled Don’t let England’s poujadists kill London’s golden goose, Simon Tilford argues why pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment is wrong. Since anti-immigrant sentiment is concentrated among older people who never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, the Liberal Democrats have nothing to lose by attacking their ignorance and bigotry.