Opinion: We should be making the positive case for immigration

The Economist’s front page this week signals its leader on immigration – which says that the Government is getting it wrong on immigration.

The Economist is right. The Government is getting it wrong. All the evidence points towards skilled migrants having a positive impact on the economy for everyone that’s already in the country. And the evidence for unskilled workers having any negative impact on wages or jobs is at best ambiguous. As the article points out (give it a read if you haven’t), making it near on impossible for the brightest and the best to come to the UK from outside  Europe with an essentially arbitrary cap on immigration is bad not just for Britain, but for what those in favour of the cap would call ‘British workers’.

Politicians are either wilfully ignorant of the evidence on this (I suspect not) or they are scared of the opinion polling. There is an accepted wisdom in Westminster that a liberal immigration policy loses votes. That’s why Labour and the Conservatives both make sure they sound as tough on it as possible, and the last Lib Dem manifesto talked about deportation and exit checks.

But there is some polling that suggests public opinion is a little more nuanced than that. Between 50 and 75% of those questioned usually say that there is too much immigration – although it is worth remembering that this implies that between 25 and 50% of them were either indifferent or thought there was too much.

However, where more detailed polling has been done, a different story begins to emerge. A 2010 survey found that 72% supported admitting more doctors and nurses from other countries to cope with increasing health care demands, with 51% supporting admitting more care workers. An (admittedly old) poll from 2001 suggested that 67% supported allowing entry to those even without needed skills if they can support themselves financially.

There is a sort of inverse nimbyism on this issue. Research commissioned by The Sun (of all people!) in 2007 suggest that only 15% think migrants are causing problems in their own neighbourhood. Another survey found 85% though that in their area people of diverse backgrounds get along fine.

In other words, people think immigrants are fine in their back yard, but they hear they’re causing trouble elsewhere. They are, on the whole, happy for skilled immigrants to come to the UK, so long as they’re able to support themselves financially.

Immigration is good for the economy, good for business and a natural liberal position. The public’s view on it is more nuanced than Labour and the Conservatives give them credit for. It’s also a pretty clear method of differentiation – comparing a Liberal Democrat Britain open for business with the closed, short sighted position taken by the other parties. Nobody is making the positive case for immigration, even though there’s evidence a significant portion of the public would be open to it. As Liberal Democrats, we should be.

* Tom Richards is a Liberal Democrat member in London.

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33 Comments

  • ‘Failure on immigration policy’ is code for failure of immigration analysis.

    It’s not at all about the effect of immigration on jobs and the economy, it’s about services like health, education, policing and housing – and immigrants are easy scapegoats for conservative-minded people.

    It’s far more difficult for to concede the structural weaknesses of a system put in place over the course of successive governments that to point the finger and play the blame game.

  • Richard Dean 21st Oct '12 - 6:23pm

    I am all in favour of relatively open borders, and have been a temporary immigrant in a foreign country myself, but some of these statistics might need careful interpretation.

    For example, when “72% supported admitting more doctors and nurses from other countries to cope with increasing health care demands”, the 72% may perhaps be thinking of immigrants in a service-provider role rather than a citizen role – perhaps too as temporary residents rather than permanent ones.

    Given that the source countries also need skilled persons, encouraging them to move to the UK may represent a rather arrogant, colonial insensitivity to the damage done to the source countries.

    So maybe it would be better to train the people who are already here?

  • As the age profile rises, the need for more immigration will increase; add to this important deficiencies in our education system, the need becomes pressing.

    There is the issue of whether it is right to drain poorer countries of well educated aspiring workers.

  • Richard Dean 21st Oct '12 - 7:45pm

    Why not fix the deficiencies in our education system, so strengthening and enriching the people who are already here, rather than draining poorer countries of their wealth-creators?

  • Richard Dean writes:

    Why not fix the deficiencies in our education system

    That is where we are stuck. The deficiencies in education were largely created out of politicisation of education, yet any remedy is further politicisation, the cause of the problem to start with.

    Academies and Free Schools, which represent a further major centralisation of education, will only be another part of the problem. On the up side, it does look as if Gove recognises that there is a problem. Ofsted, who meanwhile have overseen continually declining standards in important subjects should be told they have failed as an institution.

    Back to immigration, so long as immigrants can supplement the UK workforce, educated in a markedly inegalitarian system, the pressure to deal with deficiencies in education will be reduced.

    The time-scales of reform are all wrong . The best the UK could do would be to systematically recompense poorer countries for the education of their emigrants.

  • On the point about draining poorer countries of their workforce I think the thing to have policies which encourage “circular migration” which basically recognise that people might not want to settle here permanently, just gain some experience and make some money and go back to their families. If people felt they could easily come back and work as and when they’d perhaps be more likely to return to their home countries and put their skills to use there knowing that if circumstances changed returning to Britain again would be an option.
    In general I agree that this is a great issue for us to campaign on – I don’t think anti immigration attitudes are really that strong – there’s just wide spread dissillusionment about the way it’s been managed. Addressing our domestic skills shortage is essnetial. I’d start with literacy and numeracy (17% functional illiteracy and 50% functional innumeracy clearly need addressing) which don’t seem to be the focus (but presumably a hoped for by product?) of the changes to the school type and exams for 16 year olds policies that seem to be central to education policy. Other things aligned with Lib Dem thinking that we could do quite reasonably might be:
    Address the perception that immigrants drive down wages by implementing a Living Wage and continuing to move the personal tax allowance upwards and ensure we take a robust stance against employers who fail to make correct NI contributions on wages.
    Think about how we can adapt the pupil premium principle to reflect that pressure is placed on the infrastructure of communities which experience high levels of immigration and since the whole country benefits from immigration there should be national government financial support. The policy definitely needs adapting so that the money goes to the benefit of the community as a whole not the immigrant specifically.
    Take every possible opportunity to highlight the economic data which show the rationality of the position. For instance, as the Economist states (annoyingly without quoting its source) “Poles, like most people who migrate for work claimed few benefits and contributed far more to the public purse”
    – if anyone’s bothered to read this far down and knows their source, seriously, please do say

  • Richard Dean 21st Oct '12 - 8:17pm

    Pressure causes change. So if “the pressure to deal with deficiencies in education will be reduced”, will we ever fix that problem?

  • Richard Dean: as I wrote the time-scales of educational reform and economic requirements do not match at all, so it is difficult to be that optimistic. It is perfectly true that if, hypothetically, immigration was stopped and Public Schools were banned, then there would after some time, necessarily be improved education, but before that happened there would be a lot of chaos, including real hardship for the elderly.

    Politics can create some pressure and Liz Maffei puts forward some strong points

  • We can’t have high net migration and keep our commitments to cut CO2 emissions. More adults mean more energy consumption and we already face a possible energy crisis in the next 3 years.

    It is probably also worth mentioning that the benefits associated with immigration are not evenly distributed across society. The wealthiest benefit most while the poorest lose out. Being pro immigration is very regressive. There is probably a need to tax immigration and redistribute to the losers in society.

  • Liz Maffei – the research on A8 migrants that you are probably looking for was done by Christian Dustmann. Yp can probably google for it. However it does give 3 different estimates on the net fiscal contributions of A8 migrants and the most generous estimate tends to be quoted.

  • Tom Richards 21st Oct '12 - 9:42pm

    Just to respond to a few of the points here:

    1) (on education vs immigration) I absolutely agree we should be educating people better (who wouldn’t!) but that operates on a much longer timescale. Businesses need shortage skills (programmers, engineers etc) now, not in 10 years time. I think not letting immigrants in because it would increase pressure on the education might be a case of creating two problems (no skills and poor education) where there could only be one. And I’m not convinced, given educations. Timescales, that the pressure would be that great politically.

    2) Environment – yes I suppose it will make the uks emissions worse, but it won’t necessarily make the world’s emissions worse as its just someone moving from one country to another. And surely the global picture is the one that matters here?

    3) Regressiveness – as I said in the article, the evidence is at best ambiguous on low skilled/low income workers – tere are studies that argue it either way. It also depends on how we design the system. Actually, given that we are letting in relatively skilled workers only, but making the process much easier for them and business then they’ll be net contributors to the exchequer – meaning more money for welfare, education and so on.

  • Tom Richards 21st Oct '12 - 10:02pm

    Incidentally, someone mentioned that the polling evidence needed careful treatment. I absolutely agree – although you’ll find that it’s actually surprisingly difficult to find public polling that explores public attitudes towards it in more depth. The one that’s often cited is the ipsos-Mori issues index, which usually puts immigration quite high up – but it’s still only mentioned by less than half of people as an issue facing the country. It’s far outweighed by the economy. So to me that says there’s room for making the argument in terms of business and the economy (rather as the Tories did with Beecroft).

    As a final point (and it’s anecdotal I’m afraid) – have you ever met someone who voted Lib Dem because they think the party is tough on immigration? Or even someone who’s highly anti immigration that votes lib dem? I haven’t. But I’ve met plenty of Labour voters who dislike their immigration rhetoric. Would be interested to see if any polling that backs up or disproves this (I’m not actually aware that there is any)

  • Richard Dean 21st Oct '12 - 11:30pm

    I sometimes think by feeling, and find it difficult to describe the result. Often the attempt to describe ends up offending a lot of people ….

    Right now I feel it’s a bit disrespectful, and perhaps a little naive, to say in effect – we’ve got a problem, we’ll get some immigrants in to fix it, we’ll make it circular immigration to get round any objections from the electorate, and we’ll bribe the source countries not to moan about any developmental losses they suffer as a result.

    This reminds me of the rather cynical attitides of Britain towards immigration from the British Commonwealth in the 1950’s and 60’s. If I remember right, a comnservative government encouraged immigration to fill vacant jobs here in the UK, but then argued for a system of repatriation once the need had passed. That kind of approach violates many of the human rights that LibDems believe in. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enoch_Powell).

    So, I believe that the concept of circular immigration would be ethically wrong if this was the only choice available to foreigners wishing to work in the UK for any length of time.

    There is also an economic effect. The old people that those temporary workers will support aren’t themselves able to generate income. Consequently, when the temporary staff leave, taking their earnings with them, the electorate that remains in the UK will be poorer. This must be a significant effect, because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have the staffing problem in the first place. I don’t think the electorate would like this.

    Well, I’ve probably offended just about everybody, so I apologize. I have no problem if anyone wishes to insult me in return! 🙂

  • Richard Dean 21st Oct '12 - 11:31pm

    @jedibeeftrix. I have no idea how your last sentence relaes to my comment

  • Little Jackie Paper 22nd Oct '12 - 12:04am

    An earlier comment spot on nailed this one. Do we mean immigrant as, ‘person who comes to provide a service then leaves,’ or person who is (for want of a better term), ‘a good citizen who may or may not be of high economic value.’ My immigrant wife is ‘high value’ in no meaningful economic sense of the term, but I am yet to hear anyone tell me she should not be here or is somehow ‘undeserving.’ Or even a bad egg. If we define good immigration in terms that are narrowly economic, is it any surprise that there are anti-immigrant voices basing their argument on an narrow pounds and pence calculation?

    I don’t think that NIMBY is quite the right comparison here, at least no more than NIMBY-ism when it comes to good and bad citizenship on the part of anyone at all, immigrant or not. I don’t care if the anti-socials here are local or immigrants, I don’t want them hanging around on my street corner.

    The problem, and one I don’t think that the Economist really takles, is that we never really seem to have an answer to the question of what is ‘a shortage skill’ as distinct from ‘a skillset of value to employers.’ It may well be that Granny’s geriatric ward is understaffed, but that does not mean that the baby heart unit at the other end of the corridor is similarly undersubscribed. Unemployment amongst UK graduates in so-called hard subjects like IT (not computing) and Engineering have unemployment rates in double digits. We may be short of niche power engineers, but is that a shortage of skills, or a shortage of skills transfer within the industry? Put at its most brutal, is the shortage one of skills or wages that allow locals to live?

    How about young, skilled bankers – do we need more of those? Maybe we do – but who has taken a hard-headed look?

    We should always be careful when talking about this because ‘immigrant’ can mean any number of things. And the comment and popular opinion on it can be influenced by any number of individual cases that have only the most tenuous of connections.

    I have to disagree with jedibeeftrix – are you saying that (for example) my wife who has helped to care for the 90 year old lady downstairs, volunteered at the day centre, speaks perfect English and has never claimed a penny of benefit is somehow undermining ‘community cohesion’ by dint of being an immigrant? The locals here would disagree with you. But then my wife and the immigrant family down the road who can’t speak a word of English, wake the neighbours up at night etc have in connection only the fact that they are immigrants. It is an incredibly broadbrush term and far more nuance is involved here.

    The argument that, ‘young and skilled,’ is an asset de facto has for too long been unquestioned. And the idea that there are shortages in particular medical specialties, rather than shortages of nurses and doctors per se wil not always be palatable on the doorstep. I’m inclined to think that a nuanced unpopular policy might be a better policy – as work permits for doctors on balance was. If we have shortages that need immigrants, great, but surely we need to make sure that immigrants actually fill up the shortages – otherwise that is immigration for the sake of it? But reducing this to a narrow cost-benefit calculation obliterates any number of perfectly valid immigration routes like marriage that can (not always will) service society for the better.

    In a strange way, I would suggest that immigration might be a bit of a red-herring. The real political issue is, ‘illegal immigration.’ In 2010 I did not vote Lib Dem for the specific reason of immigration amnesty – an idea I regarded as a slap in the face for those that went through legal channels in good faith. I know I was not alone in taking that view. A big part of the way to taking the political fire out of immigration is to really get to grips with illegal immigration. And that might not be pretty. Talking about young bright, high value types is well and good, but immigration as a political debate can not be reduced in that way, there is more to immigration than that and the Economist surely knows that.

    Wow – that was longer than I was planning!

  • Little Jackie Paper 22nd Oct '12 - 12:10am

    Richrad Dean (with respect) – I don’t think that human rights is the right basis to argue on here. It is not a human right to have immigration on demand. In years to come I expect I will move to my wife’s country, but I am always mindful that untill I pass the citizenship test and so on, I have no right to be there, I have been promised nothing. This is not the 1950s and 1960s – the world moves on.

    Were it the case that every person with a funny name, accent and blue passport was locked up at the border then maybe there would be a case – but every year hundreds of thousands use legal routes. It is those that do not use them that are by and large the problem.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Oct '12 - 1:57am

    An immigrant has the same human rights as anyone else.

  • Richard Dean: So you were once a temporary immigrant-what ever that may mean.
    I have lived for years abroad but I am not an immigrant. I am considered an alien in the respective countries where I have lived.
    Counting people such as overseas students as immigrants in the UK is ridiculous.
    The debate about immigration is absurd. The restrictions placed on non EU nationals mean there are few real immigrants soming to the UK now.

  • Tom – I have been a lib dem voter all my life (except for voting for Frank Dobson once when I was a student). I probably won’t vote lib dem again until they sort out their policies on immigration. It was Vince Cable that said 3 years ago that Labour had used immigration to suppress wage inflation.

    I think the official lib dem policy on skilled non EEA employer sponsored migration had one of the best suggestions and it is a pity that it never became coalition policy. There should be a fee on visas that is allocated to training UK workers in the skkkills that employers say they find hard to find (like in the US). Australia and other countries alao make training residents a prerequisite of emplpying foreign workers.

  • Tom Richards 22nd Oct '12 - 9:45am

    Gary – interesting that it’s a big issue for you with the party – Lib Dem policy on immigration I don’t think has changed substantially in tone over the past 10 years or so has it? In which case is your problem that the current Government’s policy is misguided (I absolutely agree!) or that Lib Dems should be tougher on immigration? If it’s the former, then it’s difficult to see where your vote would go!

    As for the education/training thing – I agree it should be easier for people to retrain in shortage skills. But, to reiterate a point I made earlier, training highly skilled workers (say, programmers) takes time, and a lot of companies need workers now not later.

    More generally, I’m not saying there should necessarily be an unqualified throwing open of the borders. More that there is a positive case to be made for some immigration, and it’s not being made! There’s certainly room for a more thoughtful approach to the issue than the Government’s present position.

    Also, just to flag up (in case people haven’t seen) Julian Huppert’s paper on science policy – some good passages (from 48 onwards) on immigration there.

    http://www.libdems.org.uk/siteFiles/resources/docs/policy/SciencePolicy.pdf

  • Tom – Lib Dem policy hasn’t changed much but in the last decade far too high net immigration has created problems. I suspect only a tiny minority of people are anti all immigration, but most people want a better managed system that concentrates of the best outcome for the exisitng UK populaton. Labour created the problem, the Lib Dems are ignoring the problem, and the Conservatives are at least pushing something even if it is misguided. Reducing net migration to 100,000 is crude but at least it is opening the debate on what is a sensible level and which migrants are the most beneficial, and who wins and loses (and how benefits are redistributed).

    I am probably a pro immigration restrictionist. Immigration can be good, but unmanaged immigration, too much, too quickly, and too much of the wrong type is damaging.

    Even when their are net benefits, the benefits are unevenly distributed. The Economist wants less restrictions on immigration so that should probably hint at who the winners are.

    Looking deeper into specific issues around how the immigration system works and the system is perverse. The non-EEA skilled immigration that you and the Economist think is good is based on tier 2 of the Points Based System. Migrant workers are sponsored by and tied to their employers for 5 years before they can get indefinite leave to remain and join the labour market unhindered. Clearly this benefits employers using the tier 2 visas. The going rate salaries that are supposed to protect migrant workers from being underpaid and settled workers from being undercut are set well below the average salary for the occupation (i.e. they are set at the national 25th percentile salary).

    You mention programmers and training, and that is probably the best example of how the system is leading to problems. It is actually quite easy to train up programmers. Anyone with the right aptitude can learn a simple programming language in a few weeks, and become very proficient in more complicated ones in a few years. Yet programmer is the single most polular job title for sponsoring migrant workers under tier 2 (i.e. about 6% of all tier 2 migrants are programmers and 40% of tier 2 migrants have IT job titles). The majority are 26 years or under and have a few years experience.. Yet UK Computer Science graduates have the highest unemployment rate 6 months after graduating of any group and only a third get professional level jobs. There isn’t a lack of potential programmers in the UK, but there is a lack of entry level jobs to get the vital first few years of exprerience. This is partly because it is so easy to bring in heaper foreign workers. The median salary for a tier 2 programmer is £28k while the median salary of a UK programmer is £31k. Agencies often have hundreds of applicants per programmer vacancies and only people with the exact match have even a chance.

    There aren’t real shortages but employers no longer feel any need to invest in training or accept UK workers with almost but not quite the skills match they are looking for. The Skills Sector Council for IT (e-skills) now reports that only 3% of IT employers have any recrutiment problems.

  • Just to add, the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee released their latest report (which covered the Tier 2 Codes of Practice) last week so the government’s response in the next few weeks might become topical. Despite accepting that having 25th perctentile going rate salaries increases the chances of undercutting, they have recommended keeping the salaries low as the purpose of the report was housekeeping and not a strategic review.

    To e-skills quote from the report:
    “The Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology, e-skills UK, stated that employers seeking to recruit via the Tier 2 route should be expected to offer remuneration at a level equal to or above the UK median rate of pay for the occupation. If a lower rate were acceptable then this would permit employers to advertise at below the market rate”

    So even the Skills Sector council thought it was wise to increase the going rate salaries to the median.

    The report also recommends a new 10th percentile salary for “new entrants” taking graduate-entry job vacancies. In other words, it will be easier for employers to sponsor recent non-EEA graduates who left full time education in the previous 3 years) on low salaries. There IS a need to introduce this for non-EEA students studying in the UK now that the Post Study Work route has been ended and they must now get tier 2 visas and sponsorship to work in the UK. However opening it up to any recent graduates outside the UK when we still have such a high level of graduate unemployment seems foolish. It will make it even harder for recent UK graduates (both domestic and overseas) to find skilled work when employers will be able to recruit graduates with up to 3 years experience for similar salaries.

    Most UK graduates can’t get professional level jobs (only about a third that do find work get professional level jobs). Even in engineering 25% take unskilled jobs and only about half get jobs related to their course:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14823042

    There are not enough professional entry level jobs for graduates, but without these we can’t produce the experienced skilled people that the business needs. As I said before it has become far too easy to bring in the skills rather than grow them in the UK.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Oct '12 - 2:09pm

    @Jedibeeftrix. No. Perhaps you could elaborate?

  • Tom Richards 22nd Oct '12 - 3:32pm

    Gary – yes, some interesting points. Even with programmers (that was a fairly arbitrarily picked example by the way!) you note that it takes “several years” to train up programmers to do more complex/highly skilled programming – which again is simply too long if you’re a startup/any other company that needs to expand quickly. Part of the point is that sometimes we can’t forecast what skills we’re going to need in the future – immigrants can fill that gap.

    With regards to undercutting I think there are two points. 1) It’s very, very difficult to hire people from outside the EEA at the moment, simply because of the level of bureacracy required – so it’s hardly an easy option. 2) Somebody did mention the idea of simply charging firms a considerable lump sum for sponsoring work permits. I’m not sure what my view is on that (I’d have to have a think through the consequences!) but perhaps that could be part of a solution to undercutting? (Potentially could mean it was only worth hiring high marginal value/skilled workers, and it would mean there was a strong financial incentive for companies to look for a UK candidate).

  • Tom – I said a few years to become competent at programming. After several years, the technology is probably becoming out of date 🙂
    If there are shortages then it tends to be in newer technologies that are becoming popular e.g. C#/.net a few years ago or building apps for ios or android now, These skills are rarely easy to obtain by importing workers either. Imported programmers tend to have more mature skills (e.g. java), but are cheaper to hire.

    Most competent experienced programmers and new graduates can pick up the new skills pretty quickly given the chance.

    For startups, it is probably more a matter of value for money and retention. You can always get people with the skills if you pay or you can find people who are willing to learn on the job (but will leave for more money once they have the skills). If you are willing to navigate the bureaucarcy of the PBS, then you can pick up cheap resources with the skills and they are less likely to jump ship.

    It can be difficult, bureacratic and expensive to get started as a Tier 2 sponsor (especially for small companies), though that did not seem to be an obstacle for several thousand Indian/Chinese etc restaurants that made up a good proportion of sponsors when a chef could be brought in on £17k p.a.

    To minimise undercutting you need to ensure migrants are being paid the same salary and have the same terms and conditions as similar UK workers. Employer lobbyists have fought hard to make sure that does not happen.

    On the lump sum side, Microsoft recently suggested a $10,000 fee for H-1B visas (the US equivalent to Tier 2 General):
    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9232107/Microsoft_pitches_new_10_000_H_1B_visas

    H-1B visas are capped and the cap is usually reached pretty quickly. Microsoft is one of the biggest sponsors but loses out in the H-1B lottery to large and “mom and pop” sized bodyshopping companies.

  • jenny barnes 22nd Oct '12 - 5:21pm

    “Businesses need shortage skills (programmers, engineers etc) now, not in 10 years time”
    But they would rather not pay the higher rates of pay needed to get those shortage skills from the existing native workforce, but undercut them by bringing in people from outside. The almighty market has less enthusiasm when it means paying more for workers, apparently.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Oct '12 - 6:31pm

    It doesn’t take ten years to train most of those people. There’s also another answer to a skills shortage, which is to organize work so that those who are skilled supervise those who are less skilled.

  • Hi i respect every ones opinion but more than any thing
    i respect Ldv for there effort to highilight the real problems
    and my speacial thank for richard dean and liz maffel

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