Time for hard headed realism on immigration

Liberal Democrats members have attacked the proposed Migration paper A Fair Deal for Everyone for reasons ranging from fairness, to morality, to family, to economics. But for a political party, it has another fatal flaw. Its well-meaning, wishful-thinking naivety is just terrible politics. It’s time to get politically streetwise with a bit of hard-headed realism. Let’s ask the tough questions, get back to evidence-based policy and demand better.

Meaning Well and Wishing Are Not Enough

I’m sure the people who wrote the paper and its defenders mean well. And I can see how they got themselves into this mess. Two of the deepest Lib Dem instincts might be put simply as ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And most of the time those go hand in hand. But at times like these, when the country’s split, hate’s on the rise and things seem to be going horribly wrong, cracks can appear between the two. The proposed Migration paper feels upset at how nasty things have got – and I feel the hurt of that too – and wishes, really hard, that everyone would be nice to each other again. ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And so it compromises: a bit for immigrants; a bit for people who hate them and want them all gone. But in the real world, wishing doesn’t cut it, and there comes a time when you have to choose standing up to bullies instead of hoping they’ll turn nice if you only half-encourage them.
In thirty years of the Liberal Democrats, there can’t have been many more wince-inducing juxtapositions than one month ago. On August 14th, Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable said unequivocally that, hard as it might be, there was no room for racism in the Lib Dems. On August 15th, Lord William Wallace – a peer I have a lot of time for and usually agree with – gave an apologetic defence of the proposed Migration paper by saying that we have to pander a bit to racists otherwise they won’t vote for us (I paraphrase, but not unfairly).
The proposed Migration paper has the point of view that policy and the British polity should be kinder and gentler, wishing that people were nice, assuming everyone means well deep down and really agrees with us, and if they don’t yet then compromises in good faith will help them agree with us, and if nothing else maybe they’d vote for us after we tell them we agree with them, really, just a bit, and please, please, don’t hurt us. I can empathise. The problem is that the evidence supports none of it. I believe the Lib Dems backing these proposals mean well. But I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone else means well, and that wishing won’t make it so. The fight to make Britain better can be won. But it will take a fight, and if Liberals don’t put up a fight, who will? It won’t be won by acting as if we’re non-combatants who won’t take our own side in a quarrel, saying, ‘If you don’t want immigrants then you have a point’.
I don’t want to take this unduly personally, but when the proposed Migration paper puts forward a well-meaning compromise and I realise, ‘I’m the son of an immigrant and had this proposed Lib Dem policy been around when my parents met I’d never have been born’, it loses its appeal. That’s the trouble with compromising between haters and the people they hate; it always makes things worse for the ones who are already getting all the flak, but never goes far enough to satisfy those who want them gone. The proposed Migration paper proposes as a moderate compromise that I shouldn’t exist. What would I have left to give on the next compromise?

Stop wishing. Look at the evidence. Ask the difficult questions.

Look back ten, twenty, thirty years: the attitudes and policies and hostile environment against immigrants that are now ‘mainstream’ were confined to a few vicious hatemongers like the British National Party and then UKIP. How did we get here?
Has compromising bit by bit to defuse racists worked or encouraged them? Has mainstream politicians talking about ‘valid concerns’ increased harmony? Has fanning flames extinguished them? Has encouraging xenophobia quietened it?

I don’t blame people for thinking, once – maybe if we give a little we can avoid something worse. I do blame people who still stick to that hope when it has been tried over and over again and every time, the bigots have grown and strengthened as a result. Hostile immigration policy – hate crimes – Brexit – all these were unimaginable ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Compromising a little at a time has never stopped at a little. It didn’t work. That is the evidence. That is the unhappy fact. The ‘wishing’ approach of the proposed Migration paper has been tested to destruction.
Pandering to racists only increases racism. Saying ‘I share your valid concerns’ doesn’t win hearts and minds – it just makes people say, ‘Well, if even the Liberals say immigrants are bad…’ And saying out loud – the shocking naivety! – that we have to pander to racists to make them vote for us, that although we want to make things nicer for immigrants, because we recognise their valid concerns, we wouldn’t make things as nice as all that? That’s just treating voters as idiots.
Since the Brexit Referendum there’s been more hard polling evidence than ever before in British history on how social attitudes break around votes for parties. About 90% of the Lib Dem vote comes from people who also voted Remain. Voters who hate immigrants as their top issue? That’s UKIP’s big thing. That’s Theresa May’s big thing. That’s even Jeremy Corbyn’s big thing. Why on Earth would Lib Dems propose a Migration paper in the hope of appeasing appealing to such a crowded marketplace as what will only ever be the fourth choice of authoritarian racists? Let’s make an evidence-based call here: stop asking, ‘How do we get racists to vote for us?’ Because they won’t anyway.
Look at Labour’s record. Gordon Brown in 2010 trying to recover from “I agree with Nick” in the first debate by monstering him over immigration in the second and third. Yvette Cooper attacked the Coalition from the right for not being tough enough on immigrants. Ed Miliband put immigrant-bashing on a mug. Jeremy Corbyn tells lies about foreign workers stealing British jobs. Do Labour get credit for being tough on immigration? No. Racist voters still think they’re too soft. Because there are always other parties that will go harder right to compete.

Taking A Stand

We must do better than the proposed Migration paper. We can do better by demanding better of ourselves again.
One of my defining early political experiences was Paddy Ashdown leading the newly formed Liberal Democrats alone in standing up for the rights of Hong Kong British citizens. You might think struggling on a good day to hit 11% in the polls puts our party in the doldrums now, but back in 1989 a good day was hitting half that and the sheer relief of getting beyond the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls. Standing up for a liberal immigration policy then let us hold our heads up. Mrs Thatcher’s Government steered the familiar Tory course of nationalism tempered by greed: standing by Britain’s promises to only the richest, offering citizenship by bribery. Norman Tebbit led a Tory rebellion against Mrs Thatcher to stop anyone with the wrong colour skin entering Britain, and the Labour Party piously opposed the idea of citizenship for the rich – then voted with Mr Tebbit’s Tory far right to stop anyone being let in at all. Mr Corbyn takes the same faux-ethical stance of economic populism as cover for immigrant-bashing today.
In April 2000, during a hard-fought by-election campaign where the Liberal Democrats were striving to take ultra-Tory Romsey, Charles Kennedy took on the immigrant-bashing Conservative campaign head-on. The Lib Dem campaign could have played down our Liberalism, played it safe, stuck to ‘popular’ issues and only challenged the Tories where they were perceived as electorally ‘weak’. Instead, the Lib Dem Leader took the huge risk of facing down the Conservatives’ asylum policy, in a speech in Romsey, where conventional wisdom was that saying the right thing would lose us the seat. We didn’t cower. We won. Charles said afterwards:
The voters of Romsey were not beguiled by William Hague’s personal brand of politics – those based on fear and division… By concentrating on the negative, and pandering to the small-minded, he insulted the electorate.
Standing up for our principles heartens and rallies the people that none of the anti-immigrant parties can reach. And making the case instead of letting it go by default changes minds. We can persuade by telling it as it is – not by pretending and pre-compromising. How do we make racism less bad? Not by saying it’s right. Why can’t we all get along? Because some people don’t want to. Someone has to confront hate, say why it’s wrong, and don’t say they have a point when they don’t. But it’s not just about standing up to hate: it’s appealing to the better instincts of people for whom it’s complicated. Whose fears may have been stoked by wall-to-wall hate, but who like their neighbours and were appalled by Theresa May over Windrush.
Liberal Democrats must make the case for immigration and for immigrants – because it’s right, because it’s the only way to turn back the poison, and because no-one else will. Immigration is good for the economy. But it’s not all about the money. Immigrants are the lifeblood of the NHS. But it’s not all about the work we get from them. Families should be able to be together because love is more important than money. Most people think if you marry an immigrant they can stay – tabloids screaming lies about “open door” immigration when it’s way tougher than anyone believes have led to families being torn apart. That’s the sort of appeal Lib Dems should make – not the proposed Migration paper keeping a price on family life.

Demand Better

Remember – these are only proposals to be debated and decided at Conference. It is not A Fair Deal. For Liberal Democrats, it is not a done deal.
Be politically streetwise. Look at the evidence. Tell the truth. Don’t pander to racism and don’t settle for wishful thinking that has been proven year after year only makes things worse. Vote to send the proposed Migration paper back so the Liberal Democrats can campaign on something better.

* Alex Wilcock is married to Richard Flowers and an occasional blogger. He joined the Liberal Democrats in 1988 and has since been a parliamentary candidate, Lib Dem Youth and Students Chair and member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, as part of which he contributed to the 2002 philosophy paper, It’s About Freedom.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alisdair McGregor 15th Sep '18 - 1:59pm

    I can only applaud this article. It is precisely what the party should be saying.

  • I love you

  • Hywel ap Dafydd 15th Sep '18 - 4:09pm

    Couldn’t agree more Alex.

    Thank you x

  • Hear hear – people will not vote for the Liberal Democrats on the basis that we are “tough” on immigration. Making the case for the benefits of immigration in a reasoned and compassionate way is not only the right thing to do morally, but will help win back votes. Maybe not now, maybe not for a few years, but it is the legacy of this that matters.

  • Bill le Breton 15th Sep '18 - 4:56pm

    Alex, we were a better, a far far better, Party in 2000 when Charles said that, as we were in 1999 when Conrad Russell wrote The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism and Kennedy was our leader.

    As Neil Fawcett (@neilefawcett) tweeted on the 8th of this month, “From what Vince Cable said, I gathered that #LiberalDemocrats stand for finding out what the Tory and Labour positions are on any given issue and trying to find a position somewhere between the two. Not a very inspiring ideology really.”

  • I disagree. People who feel overwhelmed with immigration cannot all be smeared with being racists. It can be that it’s been managed incompetently.
    If you don’t personally know anybody who you know to be gay and are reliant on homophobic comments from those you do know, you have no basis to make good decisions, but it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. The same is true of migrants. The Tory’s system is inhumane & unacceptable but It does need to be much more managed in a compassionate and respectful way – for both sides. We have seen the results of poorly managed integration across Europe so setting a better quality standard is desperately needed.

  • nigel hunter 15th Sep '18 - 6:17pm

    We must stand up against racism,immigration bashers. Racism leads to hate and distrust not lov.e of fellow humansmmigrants have given great benefits to the country from the Dutch influxpof centuries ago to those who fled Europe before WW2. Look what happened to compromise when ‘negotiating’ with Hitler over Czechoslovakia.

  • This one really matters. In my salad days Laura Grimond would have been wheeled out to oppose dissent. Well done Alex.

  • More Alex, please!

  • Sean Hyland 15th Sep '18 - 9:08pm

    well reasoned and well argued – thank you

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 15th Sep '18 - 10:06pm

    I agree with your comments 100%, Alex, but I am not at all confident about how the debate will go.

  • Can a few of us just read this out in relay during the debate?

  • Bill le Breton 16th Sep '18 - 9:23am

    Sorry to pop in again. I share Ruth’s concern.

    The more I reflect on this the more I realize how emblematic this issue is to the recent history of the Party.

    At the first PM debate of the 2010 election – you remember the one in which Dave and Gordon kept saying, “I agree with Nick” and after which I polling rose dramatically? There was a good deal of feeling that our then immigration policy spelt out by our leader in the debate was sane, sensible and better than those put forward bu the ‘other two’.

    The panic reaction to the rise in our poll rating resulted in the right wing press mounting a full on attack against us – leading that attack with a vicious racist campaign against our immigration policy.

    What did we do? Did we defend it? Did we turn up the dial on our communication of its merits? No. Went went quiet. We thought if we didn’t mention it again, kept our heads down, it would go away. We were supine. Cowardly. Incompetent as campaigners.

    From that moment on our poll rating declined. Not because the policy was ‘unpopular’ with the 25% or more of the electorate for whom it was eminently sensible, but because we feared taking the issue to those who had yet to be convinced.

    You know the result. Rather than increasing our representation we lost seats. Worse: we lost the potential gains that would have given us a sizable and weighty group of MPs with which to exploit the balance of power in the following Parliament.

    And this supine fear of what illiberals might think of us continued throughout our time in Government and which, even outside of Government, continues to characterize our feeble Liberalism.

    Good luck today to those who continue the fight for the soul of the Party.

  • Martin Pierce 16th Sep '18 - 9:58am

    Good article Alex. Trouble is it’s not just on immigration. On Brexit we have been way too timid since the referendum, also wanting to appear in the middle and not upset either side. So we never mention all the (very many) everyday appalling things about Brexit that many voters either didn’t know about in 2016 or didn’t imagine a government could be so incompetent as to not sort out before leaving. So we are left with the radical cry of ‘could we have another vote on the terms of leaving please?’ If Leave has lost 52-48 they’d have spent the last 2 years saying the voters were lied to and demanding a re-run. We seem to still have the Coalition mentality of working out some diplomatic compromise as if we were still in government when we’re actually on 8% (ok it might be 9) and HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.

  • The Lib Dems should have a policy to allow people who live here to vote here – at the minimum in local elections.

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