Opinion: Queen’s Speech – the success and failures of coalition in a nutshell

Nutshell 2One part of the Queen’s Speech – or rather one absence from it – neatly encapsulates the Liberal Democrat experience in coalition government, both good and bad. It is the absence from it of an immigration (dislike thereof) bill.

A solo Tory government would have introduced one and – thanks to Labour’s attitudes towards immigration – even a minority Tory government might well have got an anti-immigration bill through Parliament. It’s the Liberal Democrat presence in government which has stopped it.

That’s not only good for liberalism, it’s also good for our economy (and is why, whispered quietly, some Conservative MPs who have been listening to the views of business are rather pleased the Liberal Democrats have vetoed the ideas coming from their colleagues). It’s even – as former Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth has pointed out – an attitude that is popular with those who are willing to consider voting Liberal Democrat.

But the elephant sized but in all this is that it’s something that has secured almost no attention. We’ve done the right thing, secured the right outcome and will get all but no electoral credit for it.

In part that is the peril of trying to turn the absence of something into a positive reason for support. It’s tougher to persuade the public by pointing to something not having happened than to something concrete you’ve achieved.

It is also, however, in part the party’s own fault because much of Bill Le Breton’s critique of the party’s absence of campaigning to secure credit for Steve Webb’s pension work applies on immigration too.

The one significant disagreement I have with Bill’s piece however, is how narrowly top down its perspective is. After all, just because the party at the top isn’t doing something doesn’t stop campaigners at the grassroots doing it themselves – and I say that as someone who recently sorted thousands of target letters from Steve Webb about his pension reforms (with thanks to Steve for his swift cooperation on that).

Yes, the party centrally could and should be doing better (and here are some of my ideas on that). The party’s internal communications with campaigners before, during and (so far) after the Queen’s Speech aren’t going to win any awards for brilliant planning and execution.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t get on with it anyway at the grassroots. Indeed, we have too, for as the immigration example shows, there’s an awful lot of work to do.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • I’m afraid my brain got stuck on the concept of an elephant-sized butt. I think I must be related to Sir Mixalot.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Jun '14 - 12:11pm

    I accidentally flipped out at Steve’s pension reforms because I thought people were going to be forced to use them. However, my fears were not entirely without justification considering he tried to launch a populist “full frontal assault” on the industry and has been dabbling with price controls and other controversial measures.

    When it comes to selling them it is pure hypocrisy to over-sell their benefits whilst fining financial advisers for miss-selling products. People need to be rational and fair when marketing policies and the 30% bigger pension figure should not be used in any circumstances, which was the same kind of tactics used to miss-sell endowment mortgages. The evidence from elsewhere clearly points they are no silver bullet and have positives as well as negatives.

  • Alex Sabine 5th Jun '14 - 12:57pm

    On the absence of an immigration bill, I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies!

    Indeed, I find it bizarre that so many people (Labour obviously, but also many of the papers) deem the number of bills to be an appropriate gauge of the quality or sense of purpose of a government. Surely we have learned by now that the creation of new laws is no substitute for good government, indeed is often inimical to it.

  • “[Absence of an immigration bill is] not only good for liberalism, it’s also good for our economy …

    The reflexive support for immigration by the many Lib Dems is hard to understand on many levels. Are we, as democrats, favouring some iron-clad theory over strong popular opposition and despite the appalling record of economic theorising (the financial bust for just one example). Are we supposed to think that it’s a branch of free trade (also deemed “good” even when the meaning of “free” in this context has been completely redefined since the nineteenth century)? Is it because we have a post-colonial sense of noblesse oblige towards the rest of the world? Or is it because we think that the economy could not survive without an endless influx of (mostly) low skilled people? And who or what is “the economy” in any case? Liberalism should be about and for people, not some disembodied concept that actually equates to “capital” in practice. What is good for capital is not necessarily good for people so the distinction is crucial.

    For most of the population what the mass immigration of recent years means is increasing competition for jobs, lower pay in those jobs, more expensive and crowded housing and a less sustainable future for their children. Of course not all are losers: winners include employers in lower paid businesses (e.g. cleaners, care workers) and landowners generally, but especially the less reputable sort of landlord who can get outsize rents from multiple occupancy properties and – say it quietly – successive governments who don’t have to face up to the failures of their dismal education and training policies.

    Low wages are good for the individual firm but to assume the same is true for the economy as a whole is a fallacy of composition. It’s worth remembering that the industrial revolution happened in Britain in part because of good laws and coal but also in large part because labour costs were HIGH. That stimulated the development of alternatives and better technologies and the rest is history. Low wages just make a country – well, poor. If we continue on this path the welfare state will collapse; overwhelmed by demand.

  • @GF Speaking for myself, my views on immigration are neither simply reflexive not based just on theory but rely on a careful reading of the evidence too – such as http://niesr.ac.uk/blog/british-jobs-and-foreign-workers-todays-reports-immigration-and-unemployment#.U5C4LvldWSq. The consistent picture from credible evidence is that immigration helps the economy overall and doesn’t cause the sort of employment problems you set out in your comment.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Jun '14 - 7:45pm

    Mark – with respect

    People believe the evidence of their own eyes. Your qualification that it helps the economy, ‘overall,’ is perhaps telling.

    Simply saying over and over again to people on the rough end of economic dislocation that they should be grateful really because you have a fine, ‘overall,’ evidence base really isn’t going to cut it.

  • Richard Dean 5th Jun '14 - 7:47pm

    What does Dem mean? In what way is it a credit to LibDems to have ensured that this parliament does not address an issue that is high on much of the electorate’s list of priorities?

  • “Your qualification that it helps the economy, ‘overall,’ is perhaps telling.”

    Do you mean that it’s “telling” that Mark can’t assure you that every single immigrant individually is beneficial to the economy? Surely that would be asking a lot – far more than is true of the native population!

    As I remember, what’s known of EU migrant workers is not only that they benefit the economy on average, but that their average net contribution to the economy is greater than that of non-immigrants. Is that really still not good enough?

  • No bill now but if we exit the EU that will affect millions of people including non-British EU citizens living here and British people working on the Continent. We need senior Lib Dems who can do more than act as a temporary impediment, we need leaders who can make a case.

  • Mark Pack
    You say —
    ” …. just because the party at the top isn’t doing something doesn’t stop campaigners at the grassroots doing it themselves ”
    Erm …. How precisely do the campaigners at the grassroots enforce the Coalition Agreement?
    The campaigners at the grassroots in 2010 signed up to a coalition on the basis on the published terms, the Coalition Agreement.
    But they have got is something very, very different.
    How do those at the grassroots do anything about that?
    Or is your piece a coded encouragement to grassroots to hold EGMs and campaign for a change at the top of the party?

  • @Little Jackie Paper People make mistakes and people can only see a relatively small part of a picture with their own eyes. What you see with your own eyes can give lots of useful clues , such as noticing how dependent skilled industries and public services like the NHS are on immigration of skilled professionals, things I both regularly see with my own eyes and which wider evidence backs up, But it’s also hugely limiting and myopic to think that what you’ve seen yourself is both the full picture (and that you’re absolutely sure you’ve interpreted it right).

    It’s very dangerous to think, “What I’ve seen myself must be the complete and flawless truth”. After all, I’ve never been to Africa so I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. Perhaps I should start thinking it doesn’t exist and claims to the contrary are just a conspiracy theory by the establishment that wants to pull the wool over my eyes…

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Jun '14 - 9:59pm

    Very good comment by Mark Pack about people making mistakes and only seeing a relatively small part of the picture themselves.

  • @Mark, one of your best pieces. Especially your part about how self-defeating it can be to judge things with your ‘eyes’ alone.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Jun '14 - 10:52pm

    Well there you have it.

    You say you have seen that our skilled industries and our health service have become, ‘dependent,’ on migrant labour. Not, ‘make use of,’ but, ‘dependent.’ You see that’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy state of affairs to my mind (stress, to my mind). Never mind the fact that our UK medical and medical schools are oversubscribed (evidence) or that there is a 13%+ six-month unemployment rate for engineering graduates (also, one might think, evidence). We are dependent on immigration regardless of skills.

    You and others with a corporatist outlook on this look at the situation and think, ‘wonderful.’ I look it and wonder what wider factors in our economy there are that have led us to, ‘dependence,’ and what the effects of it are on those not in a situation where they can take advantage of open borders or other social trends.

    You talk of your study of evidence and belief that you have an evidence based policy – but you see we could trade these studies all day. The cynic in me has come to think that increasingly these studies, are little more than exercises in policy-based evidence. Those that use them look to shape the evidence to preferred policy outcomes. You might find a sort of seat-of-the-pants evidence limited, short-sighted perhaps a touch distasteful – but to a lot of people the doctor’s waiting list is evidence. The influx of non-English speaking pupils into school is evidence. The lack of housing is evidence. How far this is down to immigration, of course, is open to debate. Say that again – debate, the stuff of politics. But Mark your fine studies aren’t much consolation to the people on the rough end of trends and I am at a loss as to why you are so willing to suggest these people should basically just take it on the chin.

    Incidentally NIESR are great. Their evidence on generational loading in favour of the boomers for example, perhaps you would like to talk boomer generation voters through that piece of evidence some time, and see what they make of it?

    No Mark, I would never be so arrogant as to proclaim that my world view is somehow gospel truth, but neither would I wave a study around and tell the voting public at large to disregard the evidence of their own eyes or what they are feeling. And I most certainly would not want evidence to somehow be used to close down legitimate debate with, for example, meaningless and irrelevant comparisons to conditions in Africa.

    You want to talk about immigration and the corporate aspects of it – great. I’ll read it. Only when you are doing it please don’t tell me that views you find, ‘myopic,’ are somehow less worthy an evidence base to your mind.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Jun '14 - 11:41pm

    In your angry list of reasons that liberals might support immigration it apparently doesn’t even occur to you that the immigrants themselves are of any interest or importance as human beings. It is not obvious to me that the starting position should be “we must stop people moving across borders unless we can prove some benefit to those on the greener side of the fence”. I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, and I’m not going to get into an argument about what’s really “liberal”. I just think people should be free to move where they want unless we can show some powerful reason why not. I’m surprised and depressed that that point isn’t made more often here.

  • My very sincere thanks to Malcolm Todd for saying this —
    “………. I just think people should be free to move where they want unless we can show some powerful reason why not. I’m surprised and depressed that that point isn’t made more often here. ”

    This sums up a Liberal view perfectly.
    What kind of madness says that is OK to move from London to Dundee but that it is bordering on the criminal to want to move from Dunkirk to Dover?
    In the context of the USA it is apparently perfectly OK for someone born in Florida to move to live and work in Hawaii; But they have put up a fence , which is patrolled by armed men, to stop people born in Mexico from getting a job picking grapes a few miles down the road in California ?
    Back in the UK we smile on people born in the Falklands ( what should be a long forgotten speck of imperial foolishness ) but we turn up our noses at people born in Poland.

  • Whatever the legal restrictions on immigration there will always be people wishing to immigrate if they think that life could be better here. Just denying immigration legal status would not stop it, there would need to be measures which would impact on our own citizens. These would include relatively trivial things such as taking much longer time trying to prove that your passport is not false at airports when returning from holiday.
    Those calling for tighter immigration controls should be asked about how it would be done and what impact it would have on everybody.

  • Mark does however have the luxury of not having to defend his positions personally at the ballot box.

  • David Allen 6th Jun '14 - 9:27am

    “As I remember, what’s known of EU migrant workers is not only that they benefit the economy on average, but that their average net contribution to the economy is greater than that of non-immigrants. Is that really still not good enough?”

    Of course it’s not. The benefit is real but it does not reach everybody. The comfortably off gain. Those whose jobs are taken away, those on low wages which are driven down by the competition, those whose local facilities are overstrained, lose.

    If we do not recognise that there are losers, and do something for the losers, then it is Liberal Democrats who are “myopic”.

  • DavidnAllen
    “…………..The benefit is real but it does not reach everybody. The comfortably off gain”

    Would you agree that this describes the economic and social system in the UK , with or without immigration?

    The logical response would be redistribution of wealth, so that everyone gains not just the few born with for example a stately home and the title deeds to most of the land in Shropshire ?

  • David Allen 6th Jun '14 - 1:08pm

    John Tilley, I don’t think it is appropriate to divert the discussion away from immigration. Redistribution should be undertaken specifically to compensate those who lose out because of immigration. For example, funding formulas should be adapted to direct more resources towards areas of high immigration, to ameliorate the problems which arise when “natives” and immigrants compete for school places, health care and housing.

    It is important to show that we care about the “losers” and, specifically, that we are listening to them when they talk to us. It’s all very well to favour a fairer overall distribution, as you and I would do – but that’s a separate debate, and frankly it is an issue that has been tossed back and forth in politics for generations. So, just to say “I’m on the side of more redistribution” tells people “The LDs aren’t going to take urgent action to deal with my problems, and that says they don’t care about me.”

  • @ Mark Pack – It’s taken me some time to track it down but I earlier had in mind a report I remembered by the OBR which shows (table 3.4 on p63) how migration is expected to boost GDP growth over the coming decades.


    But if you look at GDP/capita which is obviously the more important metric, then in recent years while the economy has been in recession (and it’s still way off its former trend growth) and total GDP near flat-lining, then per capita GDP has declined; mass immigration can only have sharpened this decline. Add to that the thought that some groups in society have proven to be remarkably recession-proof (top end pay is still increasing), then the implication has to be that for some – primarily those near the bottom of the pile – there is concentrated pain. Anecdotal evidence supports that conclusion as does the UKIP’s successful targeting of Labour voters. So while I agree that immigrants don’t come here to “steal” our jobs there are layers of complexity here that argue we should tread carefully.

    Of course if a company needs particular skills that genuinely cannot be sourced domestically then there is a case to look overseas but it begs the question why we do not have domestic candidates.

    @ Malcolm Todd/John Tilley – a fair point. There is no doubt that immigration has vastly enriched us culturally and in other ways. But just because a bit of something is good for you doesn’t mean that an excessive amount is equally good and it is disingenuous to pretend that cultural and wealth disparities should be ignored. In practice migrants are the big winners (otherwise they wouldn’t come) but it’s far less clear that existing residents do well out of it (although a few in the property-owning elite tend to). As above, I suspect that’s something we’re already seeing in voting. Then again there is the question of sustainability. In Victorian times we could command the resources we needed from a world empire. We no longer can and I have an uncomfortable feeling we are living in the resource equivalent of the ‘Great Moderation’ – the false calm that prevailed before the financial crisis struck.

    If we really want to help those overseas then we should focus more on tackling the way debt sucks wealth and hope out of developing countries far in excess of the aid flow they receive. I would like to see the UK more as a fair dealing partner than a lifeboat.

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