A New Year’s resolution: turning immigration from our weakness to our strength

January 1st 2013, I stepped on the scales. I had spent Christmas at my in-laws and they had 12 of us round for Christmas Day, so of course my mother did enough Christmas dinner for 36 people. Leftover food was in abundance. The untouched Turkey weighed more than my then 4-month-old son. I was having a full Christmas dinner for breakfast, lunch and tea (yes, “tea”, I’m Northern) from the 26th to that morning.

The scales hit 18 stone dead on. I was officially fatter than I had ever been before in my life. I decided enough was enough, my weight had bothered me too long. I made my first ever New Year’s resolution; “I’m going to get thin.” And I did. I started by eating a lot less food (just two Christmas dinners a day), and then I started exercising. I did those Insanity workout DVDs (they’re brutal, they really work). At my lightest I got myself down to 12 stone 3. I felt great. I felt like I looked great. I wasn’t embarrassed when trying to get ready. I wasn’t embarrassed when my appearance came up. I wasn’t just pretending to be confident anymore. I was confident. Everything felt better because of it. I made something that has always worried me, I worked on it and it felt amazing.

The Liberal Democrats need to do the same. As a Lib Dem who has spent a large portion of my life in Conservative-Labour marginals and with friends who live in areas of Manchester and Lancashire that are now UKIP facing Labour seats, what bothers me about us is our reputation on immigration.

I am pro-immigration, I recognise the economic benefits of immigration; immigrants helped build this country and immigrants help keep this country running, but to say immigration isn’t an issue to many voters in the UK, we would be fooling ourselves.

We can have great policies and visions on mental health, on housing, on the environment, we may have done wonderful work for people locally, but without clear and popular vision on immigration many voters won’t give voting Lib Dem a second thought.

Not for a second, am I saying we need to go full UKIP, close the borders and force everyone in here to be baptised in the Church of England. But what we need to do is balance our liberal beliefs with the general mood on immigration and come up with a strong but easy to convey, on the doorstep and in a leaflet, argument for immigration and we need to make our vision of it the headline for our next General Election campaign. For too long we have had to shirk the issue and pretended that it doesn’t matter as much as the tabloid press make out. For some people, it does. We aren’t going to regain ground in some seats until we do.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what that policy is or should be, but I think we should take a lead from when we, as a party, felt at our most popular; Thursday 15th April 2010. The day of the first Leader’s Debate. The birth of Cleggamania. Here’s what Nick said (pdf) on immigration:

Gerard, you talked about a fair, workable immigration system. That’s exactly what I want. What’s happened over the last several years is almost precisely the reverse. You have had lots and lots of tough talking about immigration from both Conservative and Labour governments, and complete chaos in the actual administration of the system. It was a Conservative government that removed the exit controls so we knew who was leaving as well as who was coming in. It’s what the Labour government followed up on as well. What I think we need to do is, firstly, make sure we restore those exit controls, so we have borders so we know exactly who is coming in but also when they are supposed to leave. The second thing I would do is this. At the moment under the immigration system, if you want to come and work in this country, you have to show two things: firstly, that you’ve got a sponsor who is sponsoring your arrival in this country, and secondly, that there is a job for you to do. I want to add a third element: that you also only go to a place, to a region, where you are needed. So that we only send immigrants to those places where they can be coped.

And then later on:

The truth is that there is good immigration and there is bad immigration. I was in a hospital, a paediatric hospital in Cardiff a few months ago, treating very sick premature young babies. I was being shown around and there were a large number of babies needing to be treated. There was a ward standing completely empty, though it had the latest equipment. I said to the ward sister “What’s going on? Why are there no babies being treated?” She said “New rules mean we can’t employ any doctors from outside the European Union with the skills needed”. That’s an example of where the rules are stopping good immigration which actually helps our public services to work properly. That’s where I want to see, not an arbitrary cap. We can’t just say a cap, what is it? 10, 10,000? A million? What if you reach the cap in the middle of summer and someone wants to come and play football for Manchester United or Manchester City? Do you say they can’t come? No, let’s have a regional approach where you only make sure the immigrants who come go to those regions where they can be supported.

This message was buried deep into our 2010 manifesto, but it was popular. Nick was famously “more popular than Churchill” off of the back of it. However, we sort of let our vision on immigration get buried after that and we ended up losing ground. What Nick said in that debate balanced our beliefs that immigration is beneficial, but it needs to be managed to make sure it is beneficial. It isn’t demonizing. It isn’t xenophobic. But it is controlled. We need to reduce those 410 words into about 5 words and lead our 2020 campaign on that.

This January 1st, we need to step onto the scales and be honest with ourselves, are any of us truly confident when we speak to potential voters and immigration comes up? Even if it isn’t what I suggested, our New Year’s resolution should be to take ownership of immigration and not try and brush it under the carpet. Let’s develop a strong, liberal, localised vision of immigration and let’s shout it from the rooftops. Let’s stop telling people that immigration is good and explain why our idea can make immigration good for them and their local area. I’m off to eat a turkey salad for my tea and do an Insanity workout.

* Charles Lawley is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Chapel & Hope Valley in the Derbyshire County Council Elections in 2017. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thomas Shakespeare 31st Dec '15 - 6:21pm

    A great article Charles. Wholeheartedly agree. Immigration is a big issue for many voters (not least the 13% who voted UKIP) and we cannot gloss over it.

    Bearing in mind that the EU is very big on preventing discrimination against EU workers, I am not sure whether the other nations would allow us to prevent immigrants working in certain areas of the country for a given period of time after arrival. Therefore I think that from within the EU, and I think that is where we should be, the policy is currently not workable. That’s not to say it isn’t something we should aim for in the long term.

    Therefore I think the solution to the strain that immigration can put on housing and public services is better allocation of taxes. I believe Tim has mentioned this but I may be misremembering. Since immigration provides an economic gain to Britain, it also clearly brings extra tax revenue. Therefore some of that extra tax revenue should go towards areas with higher levels of immigration. It can be spent on social housing, council services, NHS etc. This allows us to have a multicultural society with all the economic benefits immigration brings while alleviating the strain it can put on communities and services.

  • paul barker 31st Dec '15 - 7:05pm

    The 1st thing we need to grasp is that Immigration is most popular in those areas with the most immigrants & most unpopular in those with the least. We need to say that we believe in freedom, including the freedom for me & you to live , study & work where we want.

  • Eddie Sammon 31st Dec '15 - 8:06pm

    Great article. Often we just need to say one thing or have one policy that controls immigration to balance up the pro immigration soundbites and policies.

    For instance: during the refugee crisis just saying “refugees welcome” or “help refugees” isn’t good enough and I don’t think the party benefited in the opinion polls. All a liberal party has to do in this situation is add “with background checks”. It doesn’t even matter if they aren’t difficult to get past, just some kind of background checks need to be made.

    Things like telling France to do more helps too. It is all a bit of an electoral charade with any Calais mayor having to do a bit of English bashing too, but at least it shows we are looking to see alternatives besides “let anyone in”.

  • Mick Taylor 1st Jan '16 - 9:50am

    The real truth about immigration has long been lost in the deeply prejudiced and racist outpourings of populist politicians and the press. It is this. People want to move to another country to work – refugees apart – and this means that left to itself immigration is self regulating. When there is work, people come and when there isn’t, they don’t. EU workers come to the UK because they can find work, not to claim benefits, which in many cases are better at home than in the UK.

    The other truth that is lost in the clamour is that most EU migrants come here, stay for some years and then go back home.

    Refugees are a totally separate problem. The current situation in the Middle East and elsewhere is that people are fleeing war and terror in order to stay alive. They would rather be in their homelands but for the safety and security of themselves and their families, they cannot stay. What they want is a safe haven until it is safe to return to their own countries. The conflation of these two entirely different phenomena into a catch-all term ‘immigration’ is neither helpful nor desirable.

    Liberal Democrats have nothing to gain by moving towards the repugnant policies of the other parties – even selectively. We have to keep reminding people about the real facts and carefully distinguishing between migrants and refugees. There are decent people in the UK who understand the difference and welcome newcomers to our country. We need to be talking about policies to welcome and integrate people who come to our country and arguing for the necessary funds and infrastructure to facilitate it. We must also constantly remind people that it is immigrants who provide many of the staff of our vital public services, our homes for the elderly and especially the NHS. To those who say migrants take jobs that people in the UK could have we must ask the question why? The answer is that some, possibly many, people will not do these jobs and as a result migrants from the EU and the Commonwealth have come here to fill the gap. Obviously we also need to provide much more education and training for anyone who is currently unemployed or unemployable to help them obtain work – and not in the punitive way the current government is doing.

    That is a truly Liberal approach.

  • Good article. The big problem with the immigration debate is that it is usually – and wrongly – framed in terms of people being “pro-immigration” or “anti-immigration”, even though 90% of people’s views fall somewhere in between. This leads to an essentially phoney debate that will never achieve anything other than promote resentment and bad feeling between communities.

    Polls show that the vast majority of people, of all political persuasions, want the UK to continue accepting immigrants, but in such a way that the numbers and types of immigrants are regulated so as to maximise the benefits we receive from immigration and minimise any problems. This is all rather obvious and sensible, and I’m not aware of a single politician in any mainstream party (correct me if I’m wrong) whose views could not be characterised in this way.

    It ought to be possible, then, for politicians to have a reasonable and evidence-based discussion about how we can best manage immigration to everybody’s benefit. What we get instead is poisonous rhetoric and constant misrepresentation of others views. If your political opponent thinks the optimal number of immigrants is, say, 50,000 less than what you think it is – call them a racist scumbag! Or if your political opponent supports freedom of movement within the EU to a greater extent than you do – accuse them of wanting to thrown open the borders to all and sundry, including terrorists!

    This is entirely a problem with the quality of our political discourse, rather than a problem with what ordinary people actually think and want with regards to immigration. Politicians should trust and listen to the people more and stop focusing on the extremes. Sounds simple, but I’ve given up on it ever happening…

  • Good and thoughtful article. Immigrants fit into three groups.
    1. Immigration from outside the EU is now very limited and most of those allowed in would seem to be highly skilled professionals employed by large companies, universities and the NHS. This has heart-breaking consequences for many families. The I Newspaper carried a story last week about a 90 year old woman from Australia who had stayed with her 62 year old daughter in the UK for the last 6 months. The family felt she was too old and infirm to return to Australia and live on her own. The Home Office, with its usual lack of sympathy, said she had to return home.

    2. Students. The government confuses the issue by insisting on treating overseas students as immigrants – why did we let them continue that nonsense in coalition? Most go straight home after they finish their studies and the government is making it very difficult for them to stay on even for limited periods of work experience. While Cameron and Osborne encourage overseas students to come here, Theresa May makes them feel as unwelcome as possible. So more and more are choosing other more welcoming countries.

    3. EU citizens. This is the real story and the area which we can’t control and stay in the EU. As Mick Taylor says “When there is work, people come and when there isn’t, they don’t. EU workers come to the UK because they can find work….” In a growing economy that will continue to happen and so government must take steps to ensure that there is adequate housing and that living wage controls ensure that immigration doesn’t continue to depress wages for those in low pay industries like hospitality and retail.

  • “We must also constantly remind people that it is immigrants who provide many of the staff of our vital public services, our homes for the elderly and especially the NHS.”
    And we must constantly remind people that by using an Australian immigration system, instead of the crazy EU free-for-all, they could still come to the UK with their needed skills, and would be very welcome.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd Jan '16 - 9:38am

    There is a further truth that is lost in the rhetoric. Immigration is a two way street. Millions of UK citizens have chosen to live and work in other countries of the EU. In 2014 2.3 million EU citizens were living/working in the UK and 2.2 million UK citizens were living/working in other EU countries. (Parliamentary answer to Matthew Oakeshott in February 2014) 400,000 of the UK citizens abroad were pensioners. There is no reason to suppose these figures have changed much since.

    These facts give the lie to the nonsense about Australian systems, because they show the system is more or less self balancing in respect of the EU – at least in terms of numbers -and that freedom of movement within the EU is not the burden opponents claim it is. Where I live – a small town in Yorkshire – the recent migrants are from Poland and they are all in employment, some in care homes and others in the town’s chief remaining industrial concern. I know, from talking to them, that they see their stay here as temporary and they intend to return to Poland in the medium term.

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