Party Positioning

Tactical Policy-Making: – As reported in The Guardian, “Ed Miliband has promised an immigration reform bill in the first few weeks of a new Labour government as he challenged the “false promises” of Ukip and the Conservatives on the campaign trail in Rochester and Strood.”

This is clearly a tactical attempt to gain political traction in a by-election and it doesn’t help to explain what Labour as a party stands for.  Voters need to know how to vote, both now and at the next General Election.

The Impact of Coalition Politics: – It appears that British politics is entering a period of uncertainty, and no party can guarantee to deliver its manifesto policies in a coalition.  Negotiation between the coalition partners will result in some compromises and some election ‘pledges’ will fall by the wayside.  Nick Clegg was forced to apologise for the Liberal Democrats’ ‘U-turn’ on university tuition fees, which was very costly in terms of the party’s political credibility and popularity, yet such occurrences will become more common if coalition politics becomes the norm.

Political parties must explain how they intend to negotiate: defining policies for the key issues that are perceived as important by the electorate, and listing their priorities for a prospective coalition agreement.  A recent YouGov / Prospect survey lists voter priorities, and some of these are itemised below.  After the election, coalition partners must be prepared to explain the outcome of the negotiations – listing the policies which had been sacrificed and those that survived.

Since no party will be able to deliver all its manifesto policies, voters will have to look towards what the party stands for.  None of Britain’s political parties (with the possible exception of the Green Party) has stated its core values and key policies in clear and concise terms.  The larger parties need to rectify this shortfall in their manifestos and election literature.

Core Values: – Most people don’t read election manifestos, but they are more likely to glance at single-page election leaflets – so parties should be able to describe their ideologies simply and concisely.  A good example comes from the Communist Manifesto:

“The immediate aim of the Communist is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

This extract is admirably clear (although it is buried at the start of section II in a 20-page document), whatever one might think of its desirability as a political credo.  The major parties in today’s Britain do not currently show the same clarity.

Economic Policies: – Policies on tax and public spending should be spelt out in sufficient detail for the Office of Budget Responsibility to cost them, so that politicians don’t mislead the electorate about their impact on the deficit.

It would also be helpful if parties spelt out their philosophies on the following questions:

Who should bear the biggest burden of taxation in a time of austerity?

What are the policy objectives in setting the levels of benefits, and what criteria must claimants meet?

What are the party’s attitudes towards inequality and what its policies about redistribution of wealth?

How is economic growth to be delivered? What are party attitudes towards ‘middle-out’ versus ‘trickle-down’ policies (i.e. stimulating demand by ensuring that middle-income people have money in their pockets, as compared to a policy of letting the rich get richer in the belief that some of the benefits would trickle down to the rest of the economy)?

What is to be done to ensure the stability of banks and financial services?

Immigration: – This was rated as the most important issue for the voters who were polled in the survey.  Policies should be spelt out, along with clear statements about whether these are compatible with current EU rules.  This issue includes border controls, access to benefits, housing and employment for immigrants.

National Health Service: – Parties should include proposed levels of NHS spending in their economic proposals.  They should also state their attitudes towards providing customer choice and localisation of some services.

Energy Prices: – As this is an item of considerable concern to voters, parties should outline their proposals (if any).

Minimum Wage: – An increase in the minimum wage has the effect of reducing government spend on benefits but might have an impact on economic growth.  The Low Pay Commission is responsible for recommending minimum wage levels, so parties need to specify how and why they would deviate from its recommendations.  The Office of Budget Responsibility should calculate the net effect on the budget deficit.

Devolution: – Although some decisions will be taken before the next General Election, much will remain to be done after it. The survey showed that voters don’t regard it as a priority issue, and it appears that people prioritise equality of treatment over local autonomy for health and education, but devolution will profoundly affect the next government.  Parties should articulate their positions on the questions raised.

Britain in Europe 2

Nigel Farage won yesterday’s debate on Britain in Europe, cleverly and dishonestly, but he cannot win the argument.  His was an appeal to the heart: “I want Britain to get up off its knees, let’s govern ourselves again, stand tall, and trade with the world.”  Just as with last week’s debate, Nick Clegg’s arguments were simply swept aside and failed to carry their full force.  Clegg correctly defined Farage’s vision as “dangerous fantasies” but, in the heated atmosphere, he failed to fully expose his opponent’s deceitfulness.

Farage argued that Britain is capable of running its own affairs and should not be dominated by the EU, which he represented as undemocratic.  He misrepresented the democratic accountability of the EU, its impact on British legislation, its control over our trading relationships, and the practical impact of trying to retain our trading relationships with Europe without being a full EU member.

The EU is as much under democratic control as Britain is, although some reforms are needed (  The EU Commission is unelected – but it is a form of civil service.  Britain doesn’t elect its civil servants either; it appoints them on the basis of their expertise.  The EU Commissioners themselves are politically appointed, on a formula of one per country, but the other Commission employees are European civil servants.  All major EU decisions have to be ratified by elected politicians: Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of member countries, or directly-elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

There was an undignified spat over Europe’s impact on British legislation.  Clegg’s figure of 7% was not a lie, as Farage alleged, but it only referred to primary legislation; he was quoting a House of Commons library report:

“In the UK data suggest that from 1997 to 2009 6.8% of primary legislation (Statutes) and 14.1% of secondary legislation (Statutory Instruments) had a role in implementing EU obligations, although the degree of involvement varied from passing reference to explicit implementation.”

The report acknowledged the practical difficulty in coming up with a definitive figure.  Some of the confusion came from a finding that he failed to mention:

“The British Government estimates that around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact originates from EU legislation.”

Since our trade with the EU is so important, the 50% figure is hardly surprising.  These economic regulations would no longer apply to trade within Britain, if it were outside the EU, but they would still apply to trade with EU countries; it was deceitful to imply that they would have no relevance if we left the EU.

Farage cleverly misrepresented Britain’s alleged loss of control over its trading relationships.  He said that the EU negotiator is Dutch and that Britain isn’t even in the room when deals are being done.  This sounded almost sinister, as if Britain were in some way enfeebled by this arrangement, but the reality is quite different.  Europe is negotiating as a whole, with much more economic power than Britain can wield on its own.  We are therefore stronger, not weaker, by contributing our weight to a Europe-wide deal.

He also misrepresented Britain’s trading power outside Europe.  He didn’t make it clear whether he envisaged Britain staying in the European Economic Area or not:

  • He said that our trading relationships with Europe would continue unchanged if we left the EU, but this would only be true if we stayed in the European Economic Area – like Iceland, one of the two examples he cited; Switzerland has a similar, bilateral arrangement.  Clegg quite rightly pointed out that this would mean paying a contribution towards EU costs, and being subject to its regulations (including free movement of labour), yet we could not participate in defining these regulations if we were not full EU members. 
  • Farage simply brushed this argument aside, blustering to the effect that everyone would wish to continue trading with Britain, which has the world’s sixth largest economy.  By identifying New Zealand as a possible trading partner, he was appealing to British sentimentality over the Empire and the Commonwealth – and he was implying that we would be outside the European Economic Area, in which case we would have to renegotiate our trade deals with the EU, from a much less powerful position. 

Farage’s acknowledged admiration for president Putin is revealing.  Putin has demonstrated how to increase his domestic political appeal, even though Russia will suffer from its annexation of Crimea: from diminished cooperation with other countries, from economic sanctions, and from the increased rapidity with which other countries will now develop alternative sources of energy.  Like Putin, Farage is politically adroit in trying to increase his personal power – and he shows a similar disregard for his country’s best interests.

Europe Debate 2014

This is an open letter to Nick Clegg, following his debate with Nigel Farage on Wednesday, 26 March 2014.  Clegg, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was arguing in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU; Farage, on behalf of UKIP, was arguing that Britain should withdraw.  Media comment following the debate suggested that neither man emerged as the decisive winner.

Nick, I feel that you did not make your case as powerfully as you might have done, for the following six reasons:

1. You argued that “3 million jobs are linked to Britain’s membership of the EU”.  This is a weak argument, because it does not decisively imply that these jobs would be lost if Britain left the EU – and Farage pounced on that weakness.  A much stronger argument can be made by inverting the proposition: could anyone seriously suggest that companies would move to Britain specifically because it was not in the EU?  Britain’s membership of the EU undobtedly makes it an attractive place for foreign companies to set up business.

2. Farage made the point that EU employment regulations, at 350 pages, were overcomplicated.  What you could have said, with certainty, is that 26 separate sets of regulations would have amounted to a great deal more bureaucracy.  At least Britain can trade with the whole of Europe on the basis of a single set of rules.

3. You did not decisively win the argument on European Human Rights.  The audience should be asked a rhetorical question: why would British citizens deserve less protection than other Europeans from government oppression?  You could have pointed out that Human Rights legislation protected our ancient right of habeas corpus in December 2004, when the Labour government tried to introduce arrest without trial in the name of protecting us from terrorism.

4. You could have pointed out that Farage’s desire to have ‘Britain run its own affairs’ was just a coded suggestion that we could trust him as an individual with much more power than a British Prime Minister currently has.  Members of the EU have pooled their sovereignty on matters which either require cooperation between countries or, like human rights, should be universally applied whatever national government is in power.  National politicians should only decide matters upon which countries need autonomy (and local politicians should probably be given more power than they have now).  Political power should be dispersed appropriately across the different levels of subsidiarity.

5. You did not clarify your reasons for opposing an immediate referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  You were right to point out that the Lisbon Treaty would have been an appropriate moment for a referendum, and that any big future future ceding of power to Europe should also require one.  What you did not make clear is that any referendum creates an uncertain climate for investment and so will threaten jobs.  There should be a clear case for having one, not just a wish to put UKIP’s defining policy at the centre of British politics.

6. Finally, I feel that you let yourself down on the question of your personal trustworthiness.  You were challenged about your broken election pledge that you would not increase tuition fees – you did not keep that promise when you came to power as part of the coalition.  This question will not go away.  Instead of trying to avoid it, you would have done better to explain clearly why you changed your position; it is inevitable that politicians should sometimes change their positions when presented with more information or when they are negotiating with another party in a coalition.

I hope that these suggestions will help you to make a stronger case in next Wednesday’s debate.

Hugh Winter


The Politics of Immigration

The political posturing on immigration in Britain isn’t based upon detailed analysis of what would be best for the population.  It is an example of the impact of pressure on politicians (6.4.6), which in this case can be summarised as balancing their need for popular support against the needs of business, with the media adding more heat than light to the discussion.

Impending elections are focussing politicians’ minds on their need for popular support – but what is popular seems to be more influenced by media reporting than by research findings.  A recent survey showed that 77% of the population want immigration to be reduced and that 47% believe that it is bad for the economy, reflecting the impact of popular newspapers which selectively report stories which put some immigrants in a bad light.  Stirring up popular indignation, against immigrants claiming benefits or committing crimes, sells newspapers – but it leaves a misleading impression that can wrongly be applied to all immigrants.  Academic research suggests that immigrants have benefited the economy – they contribute to economic growth and are less likely to claim benefits than are British citizens.

The government is delaying the publication of information which is favourable to immigrants.  It isn’t showing leadership.  It should explain the valuable contribution made by many immigrants, such as students who pay high tuition fees and the seasonal influx of people who pick fruit.  Targets for net immigration are mere posturing; they are unworkable.  Britain needs policies that allow beneficial immigration but prevent abuses.

The Conservative party is trying to match UKIP’s rhetoric because it fears losing support in the upcoming European elections in May.  It is more worried about keeping its own right wing satisfied than attending to what is best for the British people.

There are legitimate concerns about accommodating an increase in population – and there is already a need for more housing, irrespective of immigration.  It would be possible to reduce immigration, but the Office of Budget Responsibility (as quoted in The Economist) has forecast that the national debt would almost double over the next few decades if Britain shuts its doors.  In the words of The Economist:

“The country truly faces a fundamental choice. In the next few years it could lapse into isolation, or it could succeed in combining a smaller, more efficient state with a more open attitude to the rest of the world. So, Britain, which is it to be?”

Answering that question requires thorough analysis and mature political debate, not pre-electoral posturing.

European Convention on Human Rights

An article in The Mail on Sunday, on 3 March 2013, celebrated the British Home Secretary’s proposal for Britain “to pull out of the discredited European Convention on Human Rights that has allowed dangerous criminals and hate preachers to remain in the UK “.  The newspaper suggested that Theresa May’s proposed move “would mean foreign courts could no longer meddle in British justice”.  This is arguably not in the best interests of the British people.

The article brings into question the whole scope of Europe’s role in the subsidiarity of legal power (5.3.5).  It mentions “such hugely controversial decisions as banning the deportation of radical cleric Abu Qatada and giving British prisoners the right to vote”.  This raises three separate questions: how to reduce the impact of “hate preachers”, whether “foreign criminals” should have any civil rights, and to what extent any person forfeits their rights by committing a crime.  The newspaper ignores the reasons for establishing the European Convention on Human Rights.

As reported by the BBC, Abu Qatada “faces a retrial in Jordan for allegedly conspiring to cause explosions on Western and Israeli targets in 1998 and 1999” but has “never been prosecuted in the UK” because the “director of public prosecutions ….had never been shown any evidence to support a criminal prosecution”.  If British law has a problem in protecting the population from damage inflicted by “hate preachers” that is a purely domestic matter which needs to be addressed as part of preventing ethnic conflict (5.4.6); the fact that Abu Qatada is not a British citizen should be irrelevant in this context.  It would have been convenient for British politicians to dodge the issue, by deporting a single “hate preacher”, but that would not have resolved the problem of British citizens who preach hate.

There is a question relating to the civil rights of denizens – people who live in a country but who do not have citizenship.  They are human beings, so they should have the same basic human rights as anybody else, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights; that is the prime concern of the European Court of Human Rights.  The extent of economic or political rights for denizens is a different question (6.7.3).

The question of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote is related to the objectives of the penal system (5.2.7).  If rehabilitation is intended, prisoners will return to society at the end of their sentences.  It is surely counter-productive to make them feel that they can never play a constructive part in society; voting is one of the most basic mechanisms by which an individual participates in politics (6.6.1).

Theresa May’s proposal should be judged on whether it would it be better for the population if Britain were to completely withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.  British people have become complacent about their rights, yet this is unwise (5.4.7).  European intervention prevented the loss of the ancient rights which prevent arrest without charge and indefinite detention without trial.  The convention was designed for this very purpose – to prevent national politicians from seizing powers which can be abused.

If her proposal were designed solely to gain support for the Conservative party in a struggle against UKIP, without due consideration of what is best for the British people, she should reflect on the possibility that many voters would give such a party neither their respect nor their votes.