Our litmus test of the state of UK politics today

This is a joint posting by Left Foot ForwardConservativeHome and Liberal Democrat Voice

LitmusThe leading blogs of left, right and centre, Left Foot Forward, ConservativeHome and Liberal Democrat Voice have teamed up to publish a special, limited edition newspaper – Litmus – looking at the key issues facing Britain today, which will be distributed at the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Party conferences.

It may not have been the Internet election that many had predicted but websites and social networks played a greater role than in any previous election. The blogosphere, in particular, grew up. A medium which had sometimes been criticised for its trivialisation of politics became the place for incisive commentary, rapid fact checking, and serious debates on the future direction of Britain.

In Litmus, we look at some of those big issues; the economy, immigration, climate change, social justice, electoral reform and technology:

• With deficit reduction essential but myriad concerns about a ‘double dip’ recession, Labour MP Chuka Umunna, Lib Dem blogger David Boyle, and Policy Exchange’s Chief Economist Andrew Lilico ask what role can the tax system can play in getting us out of this mess;

• Public concern over immigration was a key issue during the election but business concern about shutting the door is currently making the headlines. Immigration Minister Damian Green MP, Lib Dem blogger Dinti Batstone, and ippr’s Senior Research Fellow Sarah Mulley examine whether Britain is full;

• The Copenhagen conference last year ended in failure but 2010 is likely to be the hottest on record. Climate Secretary Chris Huhne, Green party leader Caroline Lucas MP, and Conservative Home editor Tim Montgomerie ask whether Britain should lead the world in tackling climate change;

• With a national debate raging over the fairness of the Coalition’s Budget, Conservative MP Therese Coffey, Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone, and Labour MP Kate Green ask whether the Big Society can defeat poverty;

• A referendum on the Alternative Vote is due in September amid widespread Conservative opposition and concern from Labour over boundary reforms. Lib Dem Voice editor Mark Pack, Left Foot Forward’s Will Straw, and blogging peer Lord Norton examine whether electoral and Lords reform change anything; and finally

• Labour MP and former minister focusing on tech issues Tom Watson, Liberal Democrat peer Richard Allan, and internet entrepreneur Stephan Shakespeare each answer the question: Will technology kill bureaucracy?

We want you to join the debate, at Left Foot Forward, on ConservativeHome and here on Liberal Deomcrat Voice. Please send us your personal views on any of the questions, or post comments below. We’ll include the best in the paper itself. The deadline for reader comments to be included is close of play tomorrow.

Litmus will be available free to download from next week; more details to come.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Well I suppose it makes a difference from bloggers blowing their own trumpets …. they’ll be blowing each others instead.

    “The blogosphere, in particular, grew up. ”
    Oh please. Still overwhelmingly preaching to the converted, spreading gossip and obsessed with infighting

  • Regarding immigration: Limiting it is tantamount to signing our own death warrant. We can’t sustain our system with an aging population and British graduates are not filling the science and engineering places we need to diversify our economy. We need more young people coming to this country to work, not less.

  • George W. Potter 9th Sep '10 - 11:04pm


    As a student doing an engineering degree and hoping to get a job in the engineering industry, I can say it would help a lot more if, instead of the government cutting funding for and ignoring the sciences, they actually invested more in research and development. The UK industry has huge potential and punches far above its weight despite receiving very little backing from the government compared to other countries. But unless that changes once again we will be left behind by other nations who see the value of and are willing to invest in science.

  • @George W. Potter: Couldn’t agree more, but I think we need to promote it better in education too. Make it so that you get a proper science or engineering degree, you work in the UK for a company in the field for 5 years, and we wipe the remainder of your student loan. Add in a grant for foreign students doing the same thing for the same time scale. We could pay for it by eliminating places on useless courses like Fashion Accessories and Sports Tourism and reforming the university payment system so that the poorest receive more help and the children of the richest pay the full economic fee.

  • I was also astounded that we were happy to be called the “centre” !

  • With regard to immigration, I disagree with the first contribution from Thomas (but agree with his second contribution!), and I strongly endorse the comment by George W. Potter.

    The statement by Thomas that “British graduates are not filling the science and engineering places” is very misleading. I know from personal experience that there are large numbers of well qualified British science, engineering and computing graduates who are either unemployed or have been forced to accept jobs that are well below their qualification level. I work in a science/engineering/computing based industry and every week receive large numbers of CVs from British graduates who are looking for work, some newly qualified and some made redundant in the last year or so. I personally know a physics graduate from a leading UK university who is currently working in a supermarket petrol station. Another graduate I know obtained a good Master of Physics degree yet could not find any suitable jobs in industry; so he returned to university to obtain an MSc in computing, yet even with this it took him about six months to find employment (a relatively junior programming job). Both attended a large number of interviews but for every vacancy there were many dozen other equally well qualified British applicants – competition is fierce. I now know a mathematics graduate who is going through exactly the same experience. I could add further examples.

    One of the problems facing newly qualified British graduates is that they (typically) lack work experience and are being under-cut by migrant graduates who have gained a small amount of experience overseas. It is absurd that UK employers all too often say they will only consider experienced applicants – how are the applicants ever to gain the necessary experience if employers are not prepared to take on newly qualified workers? I was fortunate that when I left university many years ago it was normal practice for employers to provide inexperienced graduates with on-the-job specialised training and mentoring, but this seems to have died along with apprenticeship schemes. I suggest that one reason for this demise is that far too many UK employers are simply lazy when it comes to recruiting British graduates and they find it easier and cheaper to bring into the country experienced workers from overseas. (This is especially true in the field of computing and information technology.)

    The current situation is a disgrace and it is denying employment to large numbers of British graduates who rapidly become disillusioned after leaving university when they find it impossible to gain employment. Employers should be required to provide appropriate on-the-job training and work experience to UK residents before recruiting migrants. Vince Cable is wrong on this issue.

    The situation has been worsened by Vince Cable’s recent announcement of severe cuts to the funding of science and technology. These proposed cuts are crazy, and the arguments used by Vince Cable in justification absurd or (in the case of the “45% of research was not of an excellent standard”) downright wrong. The UK already spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on scientific research than many (most?) other developed countries, yet despite this our research is of a higher standard – we already get “more from less”. To cut funding further is madness.

    I also disagree with Thomas’s general point that “We can’t sustain our system with an aging population”. Due to the recent influx of young migrants the birthrate has increased greatly and, in addition, the government has already announced that for the financial good of the country employees will have to retire later and work until they are older. Moreover, using immigration as a short-term solution for labour shortages is blatantly unsustainable – it stokes a vicious circle of rising population, escalating overcrowding, infrastructure overloading, environmental degradation and resource depletion. As a labour or employment policy it is equivalent to a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.

    However, to return to the original question of immigration, the fundamental problem is that the UK is already a grossly overpopulated and overdeveloped country – one of the most densely populated countries in the world. (At this point some naysayer usually quotes entirely spurious population statistics to suggest that we are not so densely populated by implicitly comparing the UK with lots of tiny island states, like Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Vatican City, Malta, Bermuda, Maldives, Guernsey, Jersey, etc!). Fundamentally the question of population size (and hence immigration) is (or should be) determined by our ecology, not our economy. Sadly almost all commentators and politicians only consider immigration in terms of its short-term effects on the latter, not its long-term effects on the former. To misquote Bill Clinton, “It’s the ecology, stupid!” (And, of course, if we trash our environment then, ulimately, we will also trash our economy.)

    Britain is increasingly reliant on imported food and energy, water shortages exist in parts of the country, open countryside is vanishing under new housing, and our environment is increasingly degraded. Our population is projected to grow even larger, primarily due to further immigration and the fecundity of recent migrants – this will require the production of increasing amounts of food from decreasing areas of cultivable land. And all this at a time when oil and gas (essential to modern agriculture) will be increasingly expensive and scarce and, in addition, there is the possibility that a changing climate will further disrupt agriculture.

    The current population of the UK is unsustainable, therefore to allow further population growth would be sheer madness. Thus the conclusion must be that Britain is indeed full, and, regrettably, the net immigration level should be set accordingly.

  • Left, Right & Centre?

    Rather simplistic – are any of the ‘main’ parties Left anymore? They all support the present capitalist system and all believe the Right’s propaganda that we need to cut public spending – which of course means as the Chancellor gleefully expressed yesterday cutting benefits from the worst off and poorest and least able to defend themselves.

    This government dominated by the Tories merely wish to propel their belief in cutting the state – and Labour (no longer a socialist party more or less goes along with that credo. The LibeDems sadly too.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Sep '10 - 10:19am

    Terry, I think you are right. In our party, we think we are so trendy and modern-minded and anti-discriminatory to oppose restrictions on immigration, but it is as you say it is.

    The big companies who dominate this country have no interest in financing the education and training of its people because they have no interest in its people. This country is just a convenient place to park themselves, and if we get pushy and demand any contribution more than the crumbs from the rich man’s table, they will threaten to withdraw and go elsewhere. Why should they bother about us when there are plenty of other countries who foolishly do more to educate and train their people, so the big companies can just grab what they can from those countries and let British people rot? How exquisite it is that they can dismiss any concern expressed over their behaviour as “racism”, and so therefore get the left and the centre as well as the right to sing from their hymn book?

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Sep '10 - 10:39am

    @Terry and Matthew

    This “overpopulated” argument just won’t wash, and there’s no need for spurious comparisons with “tiny island states” to show it. As this table shows, UK comes 51st out of 239 “sovereign states and dependencies”, and those above us in the list include: Bangladesh (pop. 162m), Taiwan (23m), South Korea (48m), Netherlands (16m), India, Japan, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Vietnam. That’s just countries with over 10m population, which I hope you won’t consider tiny, whether island or not.

    There is almost certainly a problem with the population of London and the southeast. I very much doubt that restricting immigration is the answer to that, since London has historically and continues to suck in population from the rest of the country – that’s the problem that needs tackling.

    By the way, Matthew, how about a deal: I’ll assume that you and Terry are not motivated by racism or xenophobia; how about you stop alleging that those of us who disagree with you are motivated by a shallow desire to be “trendy and modern-minded”? I’m motivated by ethics, compassion and reason. You probably are too; we just disagree on what those mean or entail.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Sep '10 - 10:43am

    Just noticed another way of looking at the figures from that table that may be useful: about 30% of the population of the world lives in countries that are more densely populated than ours. Hardly suggests we’re in crisis, does it?

  • On the economy and climate change: The fundamental question all parties should be considering is how well their preferred system of governance – capitalist, democratic, or statist – is coping with today’s challenges. Nobody in power foresaw and took effective action to deal with a financial crisis which in hindsight, was an obvious disaster waiting to happen. Nobody is doing anything effective to tackle climate change. We are burning up the world’s fossil fuel stocks like there is no tomorrow. Unless we change, there will be no tomorrow. How well are the different parties and systems of governance coping? The answer is, we are all grievously failing. In the debate as to whether we should shrink, restore or reshape the state, a bit more humility is called for on all sides!

    It is easy to laugh at Gordon Brown’s “I saved the world” view. It would be better to recognise that for all Brown’s manifest failings and for all the problems with statism, there is a germ of sense. That is, we cannot simply rely on capitalism – or the “military-industrial complex” as Galbraith put it – to solve global problems. Something else is needed.

    From the Lib Dem standpoint, we should be developing the idea of a state in which power is transferred to the people through a stronger democracy, and which can therefore become an effective counterforce to the capitalist establishment. This, of course, is the opposite direction to the way our coalition is heading.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Sep '10 - 4:51pm

    Malcolm, nowhere in what I wrote did I use the word “overpopulated”. However, it is the case that our country’s population is predicted to rise at a much faster rate than other western European countries, and I do feel the infrastructure and social adjustment required to accommodate that may cause problems.

    It is very hard to get a serious discussion on these issues, and I think that is because things do line up as I suggested. People who are racists will be making the loudest noises against relatively unrestricted immigration, and that does cause those who fear to be assumed racist to take the line that it is better to remain silent, and better still, since that will clearly show one is not one of those nasty racist types, to come out publicly in favour of high immigration and denounce those who question it as “racists”.

    Now it seems to me that IS the prime duty of the government of this country to protect the interest of the citizens of this country. I do not feel the interests of the big company bosses in this country necessarily coincide with the wider interests of all its citizens. So I can certainly see it might be in the interest of a big company boss to urge low tax here, to find as a result the citizens here are poorly prepared for the jobs he has, and not to think that a problem because there are plenty of people in other countries who can do those jobs.

    It seems to me that if even in these times of high unemployment there are no British people to do so many jobs, that is an issue we should be concerned about, rather than sweeping it under the table for fear we might be accused of racism for raising it.

    You yourself have responded by ignoring the concern I expressed and instead throwing a yah-booh silly-billy we’re not overpopulated reply. That really does prove my point.

  • @Matthew Huntbach: I believe Malcolm was directly quoting Terry in his reply, who did use the term overpopulated directly. As you stated you agreed with everything he said, he probably felt it appropriate to include you in his reply.
    @Terry: I’m taking that from what a number of industry leaders have been saying for some time:
    And as you deal with CV’s on a regular basis you must know that good academics aren’t sufficient to differentiate a graduate from the herd and haven’t been for some time. My teachers told me back when I started secondary school in 98 that extra curricular activities and work experience were just as important for success as good academics, so how does someone graduating in 2010 not know that? Most science, engineering and technology courses offer sandwich placements now so why do graduates lack that small amount of experience that foreign graduates can offer? If the problem is that there simply aren’t enough places on these schemes for every student who’s trying to get on them then that’s something the government should be helping to encourage, and I’ll admit to not knowing on this point, but these are not insurmountable problems.
    To address your point about population growth, the ONS projects that between 2008 and 2033, the UK’s population will grow by 10 million, while at the same time experience a growth in the population of pensionable age by nearly 4 million. If 40% of your population growth is in pensioners, then no, I don’t believe we can sustain that while sustaining our current levels of social welfare spending, which are important. The governments decision to more rapidly raise retirement ages is a good one, certainly, and there have been other encouraging articles on the subject recently, but it remains a problem Europe wide.
    Finally, over populated and over developed? Compare the skyline of a British city to an American one, for example, and we’re hardly over developed, nor as Malcolm points out are we over populated compared to many. We become overpopulated when we can no longer sustain real economic growth, and if industry continues to flee overseas then we may well come to that, but it’s certainly not today.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '10 - 11:23pm

    Andrew Hickey

    But then the solution is not to blame the people who *can* do those jobs, and certainly not to stop them moving here, which would just mean the jobs would not get done at all, or get done elsewhere (meaning the money would flow out of the country), as well as being an unconscionable restriction of people’s freedom of movement, but to try to fix the underlying skills shortage.

    Sorry, where am I blaming the people who can do the jobs? There you go, proves my point again – you are assuming something that is just not there in what I wrote. By using this word “blame” you suppose I am in some way attacking those people. I am not, they have done nothing at all wrong in seeking opportunities open to them.

    It seems to me, however, to be a remarkable insult to the British people, however, just to say none of them can do these jobs. Are you saying there is something genetically wrong with British people which means there arre vast numbers of jobs no-one who is british wouldever be capable of doing?

    So, this does go back to my point – maybe companies here would rather other people in other countries train their citizens to give them various skills, and then they poach these people, than pay a little of their profits into training people here. Do you think that a good attitude, one that the government should support?

    If that is the attitude which is supported by the government then the government is admitting it does not see its primary aim as the welfare of British citizens, rather its sees its primary aim as just the welfare of those here who are running companies. It cares more the freedom of people of other countries to come here than it does for those living here getting decent jobs.

    Well, if from this you mutter “racist”, I will say is it not also “racist” that the government here takes money and spends it on schools and hospitals here rather than in poorer countries in places like Africa where there are much worse facilities? If what you are saying is that the government should spread its concern across the world and should have no particular wish to defend the interests of British people above others, then it should be making far bigger cuts than it is now in order to spend money on services in other countries in order not to be racist. Let us consider, for example, why spend money educating less intelligent people here, when the same money could be better spent educating clever people in poor countries because teaching is much cheaper there, and getting those clever people to come and do jobs which require clever people here? That would surely be good for businessmen based here, and good for those clever people in other countreies. And who gives a stuff for the thickies here, herd them, into little camps for useless people maybe? And go and look at them and say “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, you’re too thick to get a good job, not like us superior types”?

    Do you realise that to some extent what I describe above IS how Britain appears to poor people living in poor places?

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Sep '10 - 7:22pm

    Name of god, Matthew, stop jumping up and down shouting “Stop thinking I’m a racist! I’m not a racist! How dare you think about calling me racist!”

    Nobody here is calling you a racist.

    Despite your claims to the contrary, people are trying to engage with the arguments. That’s “arguments”, plural, because there is more than one issue under discussion here. I chose to respond on one such issue – overpopulation – because it’s an argument I know a little about and get quite cross about the misrepresentation that often accompanies it. It doesn’t mean I’m glossing over, hiding from, or denying other arguments you’re raising, some of which may have some validity. But I’m not obliged to take on the job of tackling every argument, every point I disagree with or even that I do agree with. I answered a specific point. I put Terry’s name first in my comment, because he’s the one who said:

    “The fundamental problem is that the UK is already a grossly overpopulated and overdeveloped country – one of the most densely populated countries in the world.”

    I added your name second because you said:

    Terry, I think you are right. In our party, we think we are so trendy and modern-minded and anti-discriminatory to oppose restrictions on immigration, but it is as you say it is.”

    I’m sorry if you thought that my decision to answer a point made by someone else and endorsed by you rather than to deal with what you felt was more important upsets you in some way, though I’m baffled to know why it should. It certainly doesn’t “prove your point” about anything. It does suggest that you should take more care over what you’re agreeing with if you’re not prepared either to defend the position you’ve just endorsed or to admit that you hadn’t read it properly.

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