Sarah Teather: Liberal Democrats must tell positive story on immigration because nobody else will

Ex-minister Sarah Teather made an impassioned plea to Liberal Democrats yesterday not to give in to fear of the Daily Mail on immigration but instead to “stand for something” on the issue.
Delivering the Gladstone Lecture in Westminster the MP for the heavily-diverse seat of Brent Central repeated her call in a recent Guardian article to bravely challenge popular language that “dehumanises and degrades” immigrations who make a positive contribution to British life and culture.
She accused the coalition government of splitting up thousands of families just so that David Cameron can boast about reducing numbers of immigrants at the next TV debate and said that the negative public discourse on the subject was having a corrosive effect on migrant communities and served to divide society as a whole.
Recent reports suggest that up to 18,000 families in the UK will remain without the husband or wife as a result of government policies making it harder for spouses to join their families in the UK, and many thousands of highly talented international students will be hit by a tightening of entry rules, a policy previously criticised by the business secretary Vince Cable. In fact, at the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday, Vince said:
I salute Sarah Teather’s comments in the Guardian.
Teather said that the cap on migrants was not working and other changes, such as restrictions in legal aid, proposals to limit hospital treatment and the threat of prosecuting landlords and friends of illegal immigrants who house them, were unworkable and morally wrong. The NHS policy in particular was “barking mad”, she said.
Speaking to a packed room in an event organised by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum she said it was a “national disgrace” that politics and the media had poisoned the debate around immigration and the consequence was “wasted talent” who were banned from working and kept on the margins of society.
The former education minister argued that the Liberal Democrats should challenge the national discourse on these issues and stand up for what many party members really believe.
Her comments come after party leader Nick Clegg backed the idea of a “visa bond” which would charge visitors from handpicked countries as a guarantee that they would not become illegal immigrants. The move has been criticised by migrant groups who warned it would prevent thousands of legitimate visitors attending family weddings and other occasions.
Teather said:
Illegal, criminal, bogus, scrounger, liar, cheat, terrorist, health tourist. Words matter, they frame the story. Politicians and journalists affect decisions made by individuals such as how we approach our neighbours or what school we send our children to or where we choose to live.
We detain, disperse and disbelieve them, render them destitute, prevent them from working, We dehumanise, disrespect and disable. The way we treat people seeking our protection is nothing short of a national disgrace.
We have turned asylum seekers into a burden by our own design and have placed that burden upon the shoulders of groups least able to bear it.
We have split up families essentially just to allow David Cameron to stand before the electorate in the next TV debate and say he has driven down the numbers of foreigners in our country.
We have got ourselves into a cycle entirely devoid of ethical perspective. As a Liberal Democrat I believe Britain is the better for immigration. I am proud of the diversity of my own constituency, of culture and ideas, of talents and interests.
We have to decide what story we want to tell on immigration. We must decide whether we have the courage to tell [a positive] story. If we don’t no-one else in politics will.

* Lester Holloway is a former councillor and member of the Equalities Policy Working Group, and a member of the Race Equality Taskforce

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  • vey good words out there,, … i will vote for lib dem no matter what,,, good the good works going, even they will try to keep u down but i knu one day you will stand up to be the best for our country

  • Very important issues for debate and discussion here.

    Id hope the Christian Forum, Sarah and EMLD are willing and able to support cases of atrocities in asylum cases where LGBT+ people are mishandled at least, or mistreated at worst.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '13 - 11:10am

    I would have thought the answer to this is obvious: immigration is neither 100% positive or 100% negative, so we need to tell the truth and try to maximise its positives and minimise its negatives. We should not be seeking to just tell a positive story like Sarah suggests.

    Maybe one day it will be desirable to have a world with free global movement of people, but it is not yet.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Jul '13 - 12:24pm

    Thank you, Sarah

    Tony Greaves

  • “I would have thought the answer to this is obvious: immigration is neither 100% positive or 100% negative, so we need to tell the truth and try to maximise its positives and minimise its negatives. We should not be seeking to just tell a positive story like Sarah suggests.”

    I think what she is saying is that politicians who believe immigration is (on balance, obviously) a positive thing should have the courage to express a positive view on it – rather than pandering to the racists and xenophobes.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Jul '13 - 7:46pm

    Lester, Chris, I understand a more positive case needs to be made, I just get worried about going to the other extreme.

    A second point: check out this on the Telegraph homepage this evening:

    It can only be good if the Telegraph are now sounding off positive noises about immigration.

  • @lester any word on my post, please?

  • I agree, we need to do more to change the narrative on immigration, which is largely a very positive thing for the country. A recent OECD report conforms that immigrants pay more tax than they cost in services:

    As with Europe, liberals remain completely silent on this issue and then we are dismayed when public opinion shifts to the Right.

    At the moment, our position seems to be to publicly accept (in part a least) the right-wing consensus that immigration costs the country jobs and money. We then offer a milder solution to these imagined problems than the other parties. This will satisfy no one .

    We need to stand up and tell the truth about immigration or else we will never achieve a tolerant attitude towards immigration in this country. If not us then who?

  • I agree the political narrative needs to become less emotive and more coherent. However, in order for this to occur and for the narrative to be credible, it needs to coherently address the three main themes in the debate, namely:
    1. Those immigrants who are legally in the UK.
    2. Those immigrants who are illegally in the UK.
    3. Those who have yet to come to the UK.

    Additionally, it needs to be set against the backdrop of approximately 2.5M unemployed and approximately 9M economically inactive people of working age [Source: ie. we have more than sufficient people to counter many of the economic arguments made for immigration; particularly those based on the OECD report.

  • Jonathan Brown 17th Jul '13 - 10:53pm

    Thanks Sarah for speaking so well on this issue, and thanks Lester for writing about it here for those of us not able to attend the meeting. I look forward to reading the full transcript if/when it is available.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 17th Jul '13 - 11:40pm

    Sadly Sarah’s impassioned plea will in the eyes of some critics will be somewhat undermined by her apparent lack of support for LGBT issues.

    If one is a champion for equality and diversity then there is no place for a ‘pick n mix’ approach to issues, even when one may hold some illogical reservations based in a religious or other similar belief system.

    As for the current political narrative about immigration, it appears to be based on unfounded myths that the media love to circulate and scurrilous politicians attempt to exploit for their own benefit, but history shows us that at times of economic strife, blaming migrants, or for that matter anyone that is different is the norm.

    The Liberal Democrats should not be following the Tories and UKIP to sound more tough than those further to the Right, are not a Party that cheaply exploits others identity to appease a populist agenda.

  • @Lester: I agree there is overlap between the broad brush divisions I listed, hence why it is important for the core narrative to be coherent across the divisions. Remember the core message of any narrative is to get people to have faith/trust in both the substance of the message and those delivering the message (ie. the LibDems). Perhaps for clarity there needs to be a forth division specifically for asylum seekers.

    However, what is clear, just trying to showcase deserving case after deserving case that the current system is failing isn’t a credible narrative on immigration nor is it a basis for policy.

  • @Lester – Totally agree this is a campaign that requires patience and a calm head, something that for many wanting instant results will find difficult to accept.

    I think that great care is necessary in “setting out the statistics”, a topic that was recently touched on in LDV by Stephen Tall and Andy Boddington in their pieces on the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) newly published work on the Perils of Perception. What is clear from the research (in general) that (even statisticians) can find handling raw numbers easier to grasp than statistics and can often misread statistics. (Hence why I cited 2.5M unemployed rather than the less accessible statistic “7.8% of the economically active population”.)

    A key will be for the narrative to chime with people’s broad experience namely that some immigration is good but that doesn’t mean or imply all or unconstrained immigration is good.

  • @Lester – great posts and from others who made Lester post again. All great stuff. I support Lester’s points and know the others do too.

    What worries me most is the “pick and choose” mentality from among equality policies which LibDems have seemed to support. If we believe in equality, as I think LibDems do, why do some people select among the pick and choose sweets? They like the taste of some but not others? Are principles like that? Principles you might say vary from one place to another. Really? Why? if they are principles? But isn’t equality the greatest principle we should abide by? I would like to know the principles which are so great that they fall outside equality itself. Answer me Lester and others, please, and I and many others can return to the party we fought for over many generations. (I’m an equality activist)

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