In 2018, let’s campaign for Councils of Sanctuary

2017 was a year when a lot of unpleasant events occurred – from the Trump inauguration, to a continued Tory government, to reminders every other week that Labour still think foreign policy is something that only happens to other people. One story you may have missed however – and one of the most shocking – was that of an undocumented migrant being arrested by border security after reporting her own rape to police. That modern Britain is in a situation where the police will simply hand over extremely vulnerable victims of violent crime to the Home Office’s enforcers – a practice both Labour and the Tories are defending – is deeply, deeply saddening.

This story alone should be enough to make us ask whether action is needed – but the wider implications are even worse. Forcing the police to act as lackeys for immigration enforcement effectively cuts out immigrant communities from reporting crime, including people who do have regular migration status but are afraid of the time and intrusiveness of aggressive Home Office investigation procedures. The same is true of other public services: the obsession of successive governments with immigration enforcement is cutting folk off from basic healthcare and other vital public institutions. This is a huge boon to criminals who can profit from the fact that increasing sectors of the population are being forced off the grid for fear of, at the least, arrests, intrusion, and interrogation for simply reporting a crime or seeing their local council about a problem.

This is a problem well beyond migrant communities. The Tories forcing folks underground and out of reach of public services will incubate deeper social problems and allow violent criminals to commit offences with impunity. The case I referenced above may become an isolated incident for all the wrong reasons – in future, who in her position will report their attacker? The police’s ability to get on with the job and fight serious crime, affecting everyone, is undercut every time they are forced to down tools and do the Home Office’s job for them, and further undercut every time senior Labour and Tory figures promote this failing policy.

There’s one piece of good news, and it’s this: we have a solution, and we can fight for it right now in 2018. Sanctuary councils, where public services set up information firewalls and anonymised systems to reassure those with undocumented status or concerns over Home Office intrusion, are now a well tested policy in parts of the USA, and can both improve the lives of migrant communities and reassure the public that the police are on the case when it comes to violent and serious crime.

It’s already the Liberal Democrat position that we should maintain an information firewall between the police and Home Office on migration issues, but we don’t need to wait until 2022 to make our case. With council elections coming up across the UK, it’s time for Lib Dems to be taking proposals for effective, radical action to our voters, working with local forces and changing the ways councils store information to ensure that Lib Dem councils are liberal councils – councils of sanctuary, providing safety to migrants and to other members of the general public alike.

The question we need to be asking voters is this: do you care more about Labour & Tory immigration obsessions, or public safety for all of us? The Lib Dems, if we have the guts to run local election campaigns based on our principles, can stand out and stand proud as the party of compassionate local government and effective crime fighting this year. Let’s do it.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from South West Norfolk and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, where he works on digital studies of medieval Georgia. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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9 Comments

  • John Marriott 9th Jan '18 - 9:40am

    Interesting thoughts, Mr Baillie. I can see why you are a member of the ‘Lib Dems Radical Association’. Whilst the cases you highlight are a sad reflection on the state of affairs vis à vis immigration in this country. As a kind of immigrant yourself at the moment, you probably have a keener appreciation than many of us. I was an ‘immigrant’ once, having lived and worked in Canada and what was then West Germany in the early 1970s so I too have some empathy.
    However, for many people immigration, or the seeming lack of control of it, was why they voted Leave in the EU referendum. I don’t think many of these people, who, incidentally are unlikely regularly to vote in local elections, will be swayed by the policy you appear to be advocating, despite its obvious merits.
    After being a councillor for thirty years and having knocked on a few doors during that period, I think I know what motivates people, certainly around here in Lincolnshire.

  • John Marriott 9th Jan '18 - 9:47am

    Call me a cynic if you like but compassion is not going to win elections at any level on its own. Campaigning for the restructuring of local government (scrapping the remaining County and District Councils and introducing Unitary Authorities) and reforming local government finance as a recursor to the formation of Regional Government and a Federal UK might just be an idea whose time has come. That is unless Brexit drowns everything out. Now, is that ‘radical’ enough?

  • James Baillie 9th Jan '18 - 11:52am

    John: Thanks for your comments. I agree that compassion alone doesn’t, alas, win elections – hence the importance of pointing out to voters that this Labour & Tory policy will let violent criminals get away with their actions. That’s a much more visceral and direct appeal than our all too frequent potholes-and-bins approach to local elections, which I fear will be insufficient in the many parts of the country where the Lib Dems have all but died out. In such areas we really need to show clearly what sets us apart and have solid, gut-level appeals to voters in areas that the other parties can’t compete with. We have to really justify our existence in a way, I think, that we rarely had to do through the 1990s and 2000s.

    We need to sharply remind voters what we stand for – we are, by temperament, history, and constitution, a pro-immigration party. In the long run, there is nothing to be gained from approaches that obfuscate this for voters, especially in areas like ours (I am from rural southern Norfolk myself!) where anti-immigration sentiment is high; we will only set ourselves up for eventual failure that way. We also stand to gain much more in the long run by rebuilding in a way that implements our constitutional values directly both at local and national level, to give people a clear sense of who the Liberal Democrats are and what we stand for.

    I would, incidentally, also favour stronger policies on local government restructuring of some sort, though I think that like many constitutional issues it’s not the easiest doorstep sell – we often struggle to get “fair votes for all” across in a way that makes sense to people, let alone the more complex stuff!

  • Katharine Pindar 9th Jan '18 - 5:09pm

    This is very worthwhile truly Liberal thinking, James, and it’s great that you show the wasteful and dangerous nature of diverting police capacity to enforce illiberal Home Office procedures. We are indeed in danger of becoming a kind of medieval society ourselves, where outsiders must be feared and persecuted, as Jews were in medieval England. We can remind people that illiberal thinking is extending not only to illegal migrants, but to settled EU citizens who thought they could live here undisturbed, and to men and girls brought here by unscrupulous criminals who are forced to work as virtual slaves. It is none of it in keeping with our society’s belief in our tolerant, live-and-let-live culture, which is in fact being undermined.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Jan '18 - 5:31pm

    Katharine Pindar: Not “virtual” their suffering is real. “Modern slavery” applies to people who are not chattel slaves under the law.

  • John Marriott 9th Jan '18 - 6:46pm

    I’m glad, James, that you also support local government restructuring. I don’t know whether it and reform of Local Government Finance would pass the Pindar test of Liberalism or not AND, I except, that it doesn’t set the electorate’s pulse racing. However, neither Labour or the Tories seem prepared to grasp these particular nettles.

    With the prospect of no central grant to local government by 2020, that Barnet Graph of Doom may be a lot more than scare mongering. Are we really prepared to accept institutions that, since their birth at the end of the 19th century, have provided generations of our citizens with such things as clean water, sewerage, social housing, education, electricity, gas (I could go on) going to the wall?

  • James Baillie 10th Jan '18 - 12:57pm

    Everyone: thanks for the additional comments. I think the difficulty with this sort of policy is persuading ourselves that it deserves time and leaflet space at a local level – where the instinct is always to play to the percieved audience, but where right now we probably need to catch folks’ eyes and stand out more than we once did. Does anyone have any more thoughts on that side of this?

  • paul holmes 11th Jan '18 - 5:01pm

    Hi James,
    In response to your last questions for views: I think it depends what you see the purpose of running for election/being in a Political Party to be?

    If you want to ‘educate the public’, fight for your principles, act as a Pressure Group etc then running primarily on issues of principle such as Sanctuary Councils or Proportional Representation or being ‘The Party of In’ does that but will not win you elections under our FPTP voting system. Indeed even under a PR system the purist ‘Party of In’ campaign in 2014 didn’t save us from losing 13 out of 14 MEP’s.

    If you actually want to get elected then you have to appeal beyond a niche group who agree with your ‘Core Principles’. The Green Party would pretty much be an example of the ‘pressure group’ approach. In all these years they have elected just one MP and a very small scattering of Cllrs. The Lib Dems on the other hand were, only a very few years ago electing 90 national politicians,thousands of Cllrs, served 4 years in Government in Wales, 8 years in Scotland and 5 in Westminster plus running major Northern City Councils. Even in a smaller Borough Council area like Chesterfield we were able to run the Council for 8 years and for example put our principles into practice by doubling recycling rates, introducing solar panels/ground source heat pumps etc into Council buildings, negotiating ‘Green’ building requirements with commercial builders and so on. Yet had we run for election solely on Green issues we would never have won 36 out of 48 Cllrs so that we could actually ‘do’ things instead of just talking about them.

    Ref your comment on the 9th Jan I would very much disagree ‘that we did not have to justify our existence’ in the past. In one capacity or another I have been fighting and running elections for our party from 1983-2018 and we most certainly had to justify our existence. Colleagues who were active even earlier in the 1970’s tell me it was even tougher then.

    I’m interested in your Sanctuary Councils ideas but do Councils in the UK have the legal power to do this? The examples in the USA, which President Trump is bitterly opposed to, operate in a very different and much more decentralised Federal system.

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