Author Archives: Alex Wilcock

Time for hard headed realism on immigration

Liberal Democrats members have attacked the proposed Migration paper A Fair Deal for Everyone for reasons ranging from fairness, to morality, to family, to economics. But for a political party, it has another fatal flaw. Its well-meaning, wishful-thinking naivety is just terrible politics. It’s time to get politically streetwise with a bit of hard-headed realism. Let’s ask the tough questions, get back to evidence-based policy and demand better.

Meaning Well and Wishing Are Not Enough

I’m sure the people who wrote the paper and its defenders mean well. And I can see how they got themselves into this mess. Two of the deepest Lib Dem instincts might be put simply as ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And most of the time those go hand in hand. But at times like these, when the country’s split, hate’s on the rise and things seem to be going horribly wrong, cracks can appear between the two. The proposed Migration paper feels upset at how nasty things have got – and I feel the hurt of that too – and wishes, really hard, that everyone would be nice to each other again. ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And so it compromises: a bit for immigrants; a bit for people who hate them and want them all gone. But in the real world, wishing doesn’t cut it, and there comes a time when you have to choose standing up to bullies instead of hoping they’ll turn nice if you only half-encourage them.
In thirty years of the Liberal Democrats, there can’t have been many more wince-inducing juxtapositions than one month ago. On August 14th, Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable said unequivocally that, hard as it might be, there was no room for racism in the Lib Dems. On August 15th, Lord William Wallace – a peer I have a lot of time for and usually agree with – gave an apologetic defence of the proposed Migration paper by saying that we have to pander a bit to racists otherwise they won’t vote for us (I paraphrase, but not unfairly).
The proposed Migration paper has the point of view that policy and the British polity should be kinder and gentler, wishing that people were nice, assuming everyone means well deep down and really agrees with us, and if they don’t yet then compromises in good faith will help them agree with us, and if nothing else maybe they’d vote for us after we tell them we agree with them, really, just a bit, and please, please, don’t hurt us. I can empathise. The problem is that the evidence supports none of it. I believe the Lib Dems backing these proposals mean well. But I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone else means well, and that wishing won’t make it so. The fight to make Britain better can be won. But it will take a fight, and if Liberals don’t put up a fight, who will? It won’t be won by acting as if we’re non-combatants who won’t take our own side in a quarrel, saying, ‘If you don’t want immigrants then you have a point’.
I don’t want to take this unduly personally, but when the proposed Migration paper puts forward a well-meaning compromise and I realise, ‘I’m the son of an immigrant and had this proposed Lib Dem policy been around when my parents met I’d never have been born’, it loses its appeal. That’s the trouble with compromising between haters and the people they hate; it always makes things worse for the ones who are already getting all the flak, but never goes far enough to satisfy those who want them gone. The proposed Migration paper proposes as a moderate compromise that I shouldn’t exist. What would I have left to give on the next compromise?

Stop wishing. Look at the evidence. Ask the difficult questions.

Look back ten, twenty, thirty years: the attitudes and policies and hostile environment against immigrants that are now ‘mainstream’ were confined to a few vicious hatemongers like the British National Party and then UKIP. How did we get here?
Has compromising bit by bit to defuse racists worked or encouraged them? Has mainstream politicians talking about ‘valid concerns’ increased harmony? Has fanning flames extinguished them? Has encouraging xenophobia quietened it?
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Opinion: Making it easier to follow conference

Liberal Democrats returned home last week from another Conference: holding government ministers to account; debating policy (even nearly managing the rare feat of throwing out a policy paper); catching up with friends. But while it’s fresh in Conference Committee’s minds, I have some small suggestions for next time. Talking to Lib Dems who may not have read every word of the Agenda or Conference Daily updates, and to people who were watching at home on BBC2 or BBC Parliament in their vast ratings of one or two, just a few simple changes could make Conference a lot easier …

Posted in Conference and Op-eds | 6 Comments

Opinion: Never Mention “STV” Again

The Liberal Democrat Conference opens today in Birmingham with perhaps the most depressing talking shop ever put on a Lib Dem Agenda. It’s the consultative session for the “May 2011 Election Review”: a big drop in the popular vote; a major setback on local councils; a disaster in Scotland; a total and utter thrashing in the AV referendum. And it’s the last that looks the most hopeless.

Is electoral reform finished for good, or at least for a generation? Instead of endlessly debating what went wrong, there’s one major change we can make right now to improve things next time: …

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Alex Wilcock writes… Tory boy throws toys out of pram: not exactly Man Bites Dog

British politics is known for its name-calling and point-scoring rather than adult debate, and few sane voters find the bearpit of Prime Minister’s Question Time very edifying. But since no party won the election, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have tried to do the mature thing, with neither getting all of what they want because the voters didn’t give either party absolute power. The voters don’t matter, though, to Tory Boy Tim Montgomerie, who today screams and screams until he’s sick that With every passing day the Liberal Democrats are dragging the Coalition further away from the

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Opinion: It’s about everything but freedom

Bournemouth 2009’s big dust-up hurtles towards us on Tuesday morning – the debate on A Fresh Start For Britain: Choosing a Different, Better Future. And, as is ever the case when a paper taking the whole of our policy and priorities in the round comes up for debate, rather than taking in the big picture, everyone’s focused on just one relatively tiny issue that barely appears in it: last year, tax cuts; this year, tuition fees.

Just to confuse matters, when people address A Fresh Start For Britain, there are actually three separate publications they might mean – the motion printed in the Conference Agenda, the pdf / website which was launched in July with the key commitments, and the, er, other bits stuffed in at the back of the policy paper which no-one outside of the Conference hall will ever see. The most important bit is the version published on the website, because that’s the bit that’s the actual cast-iron policy for the General Election Manifesto: everything from page 10 onwards in the full paper comes with the caveat that it may be dumped in the run-up to the General Election (and so, implicitly, why bother?). This positions the Liberal Democrats as making the tough choices up front about public spending that the other parties are petrified of admitting out loud. The reason why people are furious about tuition fees is, of course, because that’s in the back end, and it’s the bit of the back end that Nick’s been drawing attention to in interviews, to prove we’re serious about tackling the economic black hole by saying we can’t afford something we really like as well as cutting back Labour projects we never liked in the first place. But there’s a lot of other stuff there that you should argue about cutting or not, too.

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Opinion poll round-up: The ‘New Leader Bounce’

You can’t have missed the fevered speculation as to whether Gordon Brown will call an early General Election, just two and a half years into a theoretical five-year term. Though such a gamble sounds absurd, if Mr Brown is considering such a thing it will be for the same reason that the rest of us are wondering: he’s seen the opinion polls.

The so-called ‘Brown Bounce’ appears to have turned round the Tory lead and given Labour the better chance of winning the next election. But how do these sudden opinion poll surges compare with similar situations in the past? And is the past, or are opinion polls, any guide to the future?

You might well be better off with tea leaves and sticking your finger in the air (or through a letterbox), but as you’re reading this for some opinion poll fun, let’s start crunching numbers…

The Liberal Democrats’ ancestry goes back to the 17th Century, but we’ve been going as this party since just 1988. That seems the appropriate point, then, from which to make comparisons – Liberal Democrat poll standing with Liberal Democrat poll standing.

During the lifetime of this party, there have been three new leaders before Mr Brown who’ve immediately turned around their party’s fortunes… And none of them have been ours! So what did the early Britain-wide opinion polls make of John Major (who ended badly), Tony Blair (who ended badly) and David Cameron (who may be starting to end badly)?

John Major

John Major became Leader of the Conservative Party on the 27th November, 1990, and Prime Minister the following day. If politics really does follow patterns, then he sounds like the ideal comparison: the dull, reassuring Chancellor taking over from the proven election-winning superstar who’d started turning the voters off by developing a barking mad messiah complex. Of course, he’d been a top political figure for little more than a year at that point, and in terms of his appeal you could argue he was the mirror image of Tony Blair – both popular because you could more easily imagine them as Leader of their largest competitor party than their own.

However, despite a traumatic and continuing split in the Tory Party over the removal of Mrs Thatcher – perhaps because, unlike the Liberal Democrats, they didn’t have a ‘nice’ image to trash – Mr Major started off with a huge boost. Like Mr Brown, you have to wonder whether this was down to the new leader’s qualities or simply the huge sigh of relief that his predecessor was gone, while Mr Major conversely had a popular war with Iraq to his name.

Whatever the reasons, though, Mr Major had a bounce. In September 1990, the Tories trailed on 36.5%, behind Labour on 46.8%, and the Liberal Democrats – still recovering from our merger blues – were on 9.8%. A month later, Eastbourne saw our first by-election victory, boosting us in the polls to 13.3%, bringing Labour down to 45.9% and sending the Tories into a panic on 33.6%. Mrs Thatcher admitted defeat on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, 22nd November, and that month’s polls already saw the Tories climbing back to 38.1%.

Once Mr Major was securely in post – well, it looked like it at the time – the December 1990 opinion polls monthly average showed a huge turnaround. Tories on 45.7%, up 7.6% on November; Labour 40.4%, down 4.6%; Lib Dems on 9.1%, down 2.7%. Yes, Mr Kinnock was saying ‘Oh no, we’re doomed’ at a poll rating that would have Mr Cameron crying hallelujah and breaking open the champagne: remember that!

Posted in Op-eds and Polls | 2 Comments

Opinion Polls April 2007: Lib Dems On the Up – A Bit

When activists stagger home the night before polling day, it’s not just their sore feet and the thought that they’ll be up again to deliver more leaflets before dawn that makes them wish it was all over. By this point in a campaign most voters have already decided, so the desire to know the outcome is almost unbearable. It’s easy, then, to read opinion polls for a bit of ‘news’. Of course, when it comes to local elections you might as well read the tea leaves as national polls, but they’re still irresistible, aren’t they? And, this month, vaguely hopeful. I’ve written before that opinion polls showing a rise in the Lib Dem vote should be taken with as big a pinch of salt as those showing us in decline. They’re a very blunt instrument, and very few show a clear long-term trend instead of an hysterical margin-of-error blip – though the 24-hour news cycle’s desire for instant gratification (and the blogger’s, to be fair) means you rarely sit back and say, ‘Well, I’ll wait to see if that’s a trend over the next few months…’ So, with that health warning given, time to pretend they matter and pore over the entrails, but just remember that the time to celebrate or weep will only be Friday morning. In the meantime, good luck to Liberal Democrats working in local elections throughout most of the UK, and in the Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly campaigns.

Today’s most exciting polls are undoubtedly those suggesting the Scottish Parliamentary elections might put the SNP and Labour in a dead heat, while support for independence slips still further. Though both predict gains for the Liberal Democrats, they also suggest the party’s vote has been squeezed over the month, which must give Scottish Lib Dems mixed feelings. The most remarkable figure for me is the Guardian / Scotsman’s ICM poll on the gender difference in the Lib Dem vote – the most striking I’ve ever seen for any party – which suggests we have the support of 20 per cent of women in Scotland, but only 10 per cent of men. I wonder if the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party Election Broadcasts heavily promoted some of the party’s excellent women spokespeople, unlike the all-male ones we saw down in England? Without detailed breakdowns of Scottish voting intentions to hand, however, I’ll point you to Freethink for the figures, and take a look at changes in the party’s UK-wide support.

What did April’s Britain-wide opinion polls purport to show? Taking the mean average figures, it looks like both Labour and the Conservatives dropped a percentage point or so, with the proceeds split between the Liberal Democrats and the combined ‘Others’ (from 6.6% in March to 7.8%, though those figures measure so many different parties I don’t trust any samples of them, up or down).

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When Liberals Attack!

Compared to the other two parties, the Liberal Democrats are remarkably united in our philosophy. Even if most members cast it vaguely in terms of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Fairness’ rather than paying attention to deep philosophical debate, there aren’t yawning chasms in the party. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because Liberalism doesn’t provide set solutions in the form of any particular social or (despite Meeting the Challenge) economic analysis, and perhaps because Liberals just like that sort of thing, we’re also much more likely to have open debates. It’s just that, when we do, they tend not to be characterised by the sort of mudslinging, vitriol and acrimony seen when rows break out of the pressure-cookers that are the other two parties.

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It’s about… money

It’s everything from “monstrously idiotic” and “insultingly tokenistic” to “well-argued and full of practical steps built on clear principle.” Why then, asks former Federal Policy Committee Member Alex Wilcock, is more attention not being paid to the paper produced by the Meeting the Challenge debate?

This September, the Liberal Democrats debate their two most crucial policy papers between the last General Election and the next one. So why is all the debate about a 50p rate of tax? You’d think it was either a holy relic or the last wicked bastion of socialism, depending on which overexcited commentator you read last. Yes, tax is an important battleground, but when our whole political direction is up for grabs, it’s bizarre to focus on one detail in one policy area and to ignore the rest. Besides, while everyone’s arguing about the tax paper being ‘a shift to the right’ – which it isn’t – the other key paper is lurching in a quite different direction.

Posted in Op-eds | 19 Comments

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