Tuesday, October 28, 2014 

The pull factor.

A few years back now, an enterprising individual with a paint can took it upon himself to daub "KILL ASYLUM SEEKERS" in 2 foot high letters on a wall close to where I worked.  It took the best part of a month before anyone saw fit to cover it over.  How and why this person chose asylum seekers specifically as the focus of his passive aggressive ire rather than illegal immigrants say, or a defined ethnic minority has always stuck with me.  After all, it's a lot harder to argue against providing someone fleeing persecution with sanctuary than it is to oppose economic migration, legal and illegal.  Hence why the tabloids got into so much bother with the countless pieces on "bogus asylum seekers", their attempt to fight back against a loaded term with one of their own.  The PCC was forced into recognising there could be no such thing as an "illegal" or "bogus" asylum seeker, only those whose applications had been rejected and so were "failed" asylum seekers.

In all likelihood, the person responsible wasn't specifically offended by the idea of states being required by international law to provide sanctuary to someone who asks for it, and whose case is found to be legitimate.  He just hated immigrants, regardless of their merits or demerits.  Our politicians, by contrast, don't hate asylum seekers; they just either don't care, or rather, care only about the resources they use and the responsibility they have to look after them, especially in the face of public outcry.

One approach by which they try and evade responsibility is that old favourite, blaming everyone other than themselves.  Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, might as well have been quoting from a years-old think piece in the Express in her evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on why it is so many migrants continue to try to get to Britain rather than seek asylum in France or work there.  Bouchart claimed those camped out in Calais aren't asylum seekers, and yet when challenged by Ian Austin on why they couldn't then be deported as illegal immigrants, said she was in dispute with the French government over the matter.  All the talk of the "pull factor", of migrants being attracted by the benefit system, of the UK being a "soft touch", all was to distract from how the French have never cared about asylum seekers, genuine or otherwise, trying to get to Britain through French ports but obviously can't admit as much, and second, how France is so poorly regarded that many of those fleeing persecution want to stay anywhere but there.

There are many reasons other than ones to do with our famously generous welfare state for why those wanting sanctuary aim for Britain rather than elsewhere in Europe, and they're pretty much the same as why others choose to head for Sweden or Germany rather than ask for asylum in the first European country they enter.  Real pull factors are relatives, or friends who've previously made the journey, as little as stories of friends of friends of friends.  Long established communities of ex-pats are known about and play a similar role.  Then there's language, culture, the way countries have an image whether accurate or not, and knowledge of economic success.  There's a reason why Australia continues to attract migrants and asylum seekers despite its hardline approach to both, whereas a country like Japan which on the surface ought to be similarly regarded doesn't.

The fact is facts don't matter.  Politicians don't really believe funding search and rescue operations encourages other desperate people to pay traffickers to get them into Europe, as they aren't that stupid.  The idea someone weighing up whether to flee Syria, Iraq, Libya or Eritrea is going to be put off by the Italian navy not being there to save them should their boat sink is patently, insultingly absurd.  Nor is it about money.  Both ourselves and the French for instance had no problem in finding the cash to bomb Islamic State in Iraq, just the latest self-defeating measure in a whole line of policies connected with Syria and Iraq.  Rather than try to bring an end to the civil war in the former, we lined up behind rebels it quickly transpired could not overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  Despite our role in fomenting the conflict, with millions of Syrians displaced, the only European nations to go beyond platitudes have been, again, Germany and Sweden.

It isn't that politicians are heartless, inhumane or morally bankrupt either.  Rather, the sad thing is they're just going by what they hear.  People don't care that hundreds, almost certainly thousands of migrants are drowning every year while trying to reach Europe's shores, or if they do, it's because they're angered more isn't being done to keep them out, to remove those "pull" factors.  The only surprising thing is we've reached a point where another excuse wasn't found as to why EU-wide funding isn't going to be made available, and this was presumably only down to how the Home Office thought they had cover due to it being agreed by a group of foreign ministers.  The contrast between the current attitude and that of Sir Nicholas Winton, celebrated today for making the arrangements that allowed 669 mostly Jewish children to escape from occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, could not be more stark.  Then too sanctuary to those escaping conflict was opposed and demonstrated against.  That we haven't truly moved on from those times ought to challenge more consciences than it apparently does.

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Monday, October 27, 2014 

Enoch: "I misspoke".

Despite being dead for 16 years, Enoch Powell has surprised politics by admitting that he was "careless" in his notorious "rivers of blood" speech.

"I used words I wouldn't have normally," said the reanimated former Ulster Unionist MP.  "To be frank, I misspoke."

"Looking back now, there are many obvious problems with my oration.  For instance, I quoted an unnamed man, who said "in this country in 15 or 20 years' the black man will have the whip hand over the white man" .  Quite apparently, those were my views, and I shouldn't have tried to hide behind someone else in such an intellectually dishonest manner.

"Also, in quoting Virgil from the Aenied, who wrote of the "river Tiber foaming with much blood", I wore my past, that of a professor of the classics, rather heavily.  I was posing as the prophet, expecting riots, perhaps almost hoping there would be.

"You'll have noted that despite these qualifications, I haven't actually stepped back from anything I said at the time.  As I don't regret it for a second.  The lesson is clear: you can say the most outrageous things so long as you use language carefully.  Michael Fallon's real mistake was in mixing his metaphors: how on earth can a place be swamped as well as under siege?  As for his past reference to Bryony Gordon as a "slut", he ought to have referred to her as "not being known to express prejudice".  Unlike myself.  Ha ha."

In other news:

Faceless McNomark, the TV executive behind this year's smash hit fly-on-the-wall documentary Just Take a Gander at These Feckless Cunts, has defended the show amid continuing protests at the filming of two follow-up series.

"They assume we have malign intent, when we don't," the indignant McNomark told me.  "There isn't an agenda.  Just because we suggested the documentary was going to be called "Community Spirit" doesn't mean they have a right to complain.  Indeed, what they're calling for is nothing less than censorship.  I will never relinquish our right to take advantage of and completely fictionalise the stories of some of the most distressed parts of our society."

Due for broadcast in January and March, Why Aren't You Stringing These Scrounging Bastards Up Right Now? and Filthy Fucking Pikeys: Over Here, Taking Your Jobs promise a new paradigm in current affairs programming.

In short:

PM in security scare: proves the prime minister needs more security, say security experts
Media obsessed with Russell Brand, complains everyone over the age of 10
Media not obsessed enough with Russell Brand, complains Russell Brand
War in Afghanistan draws to a close - sequel expected in 2017

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Thursday, October 23, 2014 

Extremely loud and incredibly close.

John Harris is without a doubt one of the best political commentators we have.  Unlike many of the others with a column and their name in a large font, he bothers to respond to the keyboard hammerers below the line, and he really does go beyond, indeed anywhere but Westminster.  Just though as not getting out enough leads to losing touch, so too can travelling to wherever the next by-election is being held make you think the hot topic of the moment is the most important issue in politics outright.  Add in a straw man, and you pretty much have his piece for the Graun today.

To say I'm bored out of my mind by the immigration debate in general doesn't really cover it.  It's taken the place of the Iraq war in being constantly talked about without anyone ever making an original point or changing their position.  These are the facts: despite claims to the contrary, we've been having a debate about immigration for over half a century now.  Yes, there have always been some people who've shouted racist whenever the topic is broached, mainly for the good reason that up till relatively recently the majority of complaints about immigration, rather than being couched in economic or social terms, were based around skin colour or culture.  This is to simplify massively, but Steve Bell captured how far we've come in his cartoon from last week: we've moved on from the days of "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour" to "if you want a fruit picker from Romania for a neighbour, vote Labour".

Next, Labour did not try and transform the country into a truly multicultural society through immigration, as those who can remember back to the times when it was asylum seekers rather than eastern European migrants who were regarded as the biggest problem facing the country will know.  The mistake in 2004 was not realising the effect opening the borders to A8 states would have, especially when only Sweden and Ireland similarly didn't impose further restrictions.  Even fewer Poles speak Swedish than English, hence why so many journeyed here instead of to Stockholm.  Lastly, as it bears repeating, it's now almost been a decade since the Conservatives under Michael Howard used "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" as a slogan.  Ever tighter limits have since been imposed, except of course when it comes to the EU.

Harris's piece could have almost been in response to my post on Tuesday.  He was though most likely thinking of the works of either Polly Toynbee or Richard Seymour, aka Lenin from the Tomb.  Without referring directly to Harris, Seymour has since tweeted this poll finding, which does rather underline his point.  No, people's worries and fears about migration writ large aren't racist, bigoted or down to prejudice; are however some of those fears at their most base down to as, Seymour puts it, entitlement and chauvinism?  Well, yes.

That topsy-turvy poll finding by ComRes does in its own way sum up the immigration, even the Europe debate in microcosm.  Do we still want the undoubted benefits of being in the EU, that past waves of immigration have brought here?  Certainly.  Are we as keen on the impact on public services, on how towns like Wisbech, Peterborough and Boston have been altered, and just how swift the pace of change has been?  Not so much.  At the same time, the poll makes clear those most concerned about immigration are extremely noisy, as a solid 36% still accept freedom of movement within the EU.  As Flying Rodent has argued, concern about immigration is one of the relatively few areas of public opinion which is pandered to.

And it hasn't worked, for the reason it hasn't addressed the fundamental right of freedom of movement, as politicians haven't had the guts to make the argument for why it's one of the few areas of EU policy they ought to be able to agree has been a success.  Chris answers Harris's question of whether free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour, but that obviously isn't going to convince the people he's been listening to.  What might, and is something Westminster politicians have shied away from as it would reduce their control is, as we now know to a fair extent where the most pressures have been put on public services and housing, the targeting of extra funding to those areas.  This, finally, does seem to be where Labour is moving towards, with Ed Miliband today setting out 5 points around which an immigration bill from his government would be based.  We can quibble about the rights and wrongs of preventing migrants from sending child benefit and child tax credits back to their home nation when Brits working abroad can do the same, but if it helps to staunch public concern then so be it.

If some of the left has been blasé about migration, as Harris puts it, the reason is precisely because of the way we've arrived at this point.  Yes, public concern about immigration has been high in the past, and is high now.  Where though did the current mood have its roots, and is it all about migration or rather migration becoming the rallying point for a whole other myriad of concerns?  Easily forgotten is the way panic was whipped up last year over the looming ending of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians coming here, with the media all but joining UKIP in predicting a movement similar to that of post-2005.  It didn't happen.  What did happen is the economy continuing to recovery, albeit without a similar recovery in living standards, the former leading to workers in western rather than eastern Europe looking for jobs further afield.  The fault is not with the migrants, but with the joint failings of late capitalism and politicians both here and in Europe.

For all the insults and asking of what the "modern left" would do, Harris himself doesn't offer a solution other than restricting free movement, despite how this both isn't going to and shouldn't happen.  We could start with being straight with the public rather than continuing to lie to them.  Who knows, it might just begin to have an effect.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 

Farage's face, staring out - forever.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell through O'Brien offered as a picture of the future a boot stamping on a human face - forever.  It's a visceral, shocking image you want to turn away from, yet it's not as horrifying as the current vision of the future we are presented with.  It still involves a human face, only rather than it being stamped on, there's a rictus grin across its mug, the eyes bright, teeth being flashed for all their worth.  The face, all but needless to add, belongs to Nigel.

Future historians looking back on the coalition government will have plenty to examine and debate over.  They will wonder how a government which insisted it was dealing with a national emergency, the size of the budget deficit, could first choke off the recovery left by the previous government by cutting back capital spending and then conjure to provide a recovery of their own in which the deficit fails to fall.  They will try to reach conclusions over whether it was the emphasis on cuts to the welfare budget by this government that led inexorably to the dismantling of the system of social security as the country had known it post-Beveridge.  Most significantly, they will be forced to consider how despite presenting himself as a strong leader, David Cameron was in fact the embodiment of a weak prime minister, at every step giving in to the worst instincts of his party rather than pursuing what was right for the country.

The evidence for just such a finding is there in abundance.  Most fundamental will be the colossal error Cameron made in January 2013, announcing in a speech that if returned to power in 2015, his government would hold an in/out referendum on remaining in the European Union by 2017, after a successful "renegotiation" with the other member states.  Designed to win over backbenchers complaining about his leadership and the party's standing in the polls, it does for a matter of days.  Having succeeded in pressurising a leader they have never taken to and never will into making one promise, they quickly demanded he move sooner.  They make clear their displeasure at legislation not being present in the Queen's speech preparing for the referendum, and again, Downing Street soon gives in.

Not that it was only backbenchers taking the credit for Cameron's shift.  In another example of Cameron's reckless promises coming back to bite him, prior to the 2010 election he set out how a Conservative government would bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the "tens of thousands".  At first it looked as though he might achieve his aim, only for the continuing economic woes in the Eurozone to result in a surge of migrants from the western European states most affected by austerity coming to the country.  Immigration duly becomes second only to fears over the NHS in people's concerns, not because of it having a personal impact on most, but as a catch-all complaint over the sense of drift, the general feeling of powerlessness most are experiencing as real wages fall and politicians refuse to offer anything resembling a vision of where the country is heading.

So desperate are the public they look anywhere for an alternative.  In any other circumstances Nigel Farage would be an incongruous figure, a deeply boring, petty man who covers up for his party's lack of policies and rigour with an overarching narrative: things ain't what they used to be, and it's all the fault of the European Union.  Nigel smokes tabs, drinks beer, and so delights a media starved by the blandness and sterility of the focus grouped out of existence political elite.  They can't get enough of him, and the publicity combined with the mood of hopelessness leads to his UK Independence Party winning hundreds of council seats, before it comes out on top in 2014's European parliament elections.  Rather than bother to submit Farage himself to anything resembling proper scrutiny, with a very few select exceptions, the media instead focus on those lower down the party structure.  All the while the personality cult of Farage continues to build, to the point where a former DJ imagines the UKIP leader at Number 10 in a calypso inspired song.  It seems and is completely absurd, and yet the main topic of debate is whether Mike Read's appropriation is racist.

Absurd is the word.  Cameron's weakness knows no apparent bounds.  Only a few weeks ago he offered to his party and by proxy the country the promise he would put freedom of movement at the heart of his renegotiation strategy.  He said he wouldn't take no for an answer.  The outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, points out the answer could only be no when the rest of the EU, imposing its own restrictions on benefits or not, has not the slightest intention of curtailing one of the EEC's founding principles and biggest successes.  Panicked further by the prospect of losing the Rochester by-election, and apparently fearing a leadership challenge in the aftermath, we now learn Cameron is set to announce some form of unilateral restriction on low-skilled eastern European migrants, most likely by refusing to issue them with national insurance numbers.  How this will affect the economy he cares not; nor does he worry over the legal implications.

Cameron's gambit has failed on all fronts.  His backbenchers, meant to be sated by his giving them what they want, now realise they have pushed to the point at which they are closer than ever to reaching their goal of getting Britain out of Europe.  Why on earth would they stop now?  UKIP, meanwhile, has had its every argument validated, continues to gain support and still can point out that the only way to truly control the borders is to leave.  All this, and the Conservatives remain behind Labour in the polls.  The only reason Cameron hasn't been called on this disaster is due to the majority of the press sharing the backbenchers' opinion on the EU, and how they can't imagine anything as terrible as Red Ed in Number 10.  I can.  It's another 5 years of Farage's fizzog staring out from every screen, every alternate sheet of newsprint, every billboard, the same silent laugh emanating from his gob.  You're the one he's laughing at, Dave.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014 

David Cameron will find you.

It's Tuesday, it's the dog days of July, so it must be time for a reprise of the who can be the most reprehensible cunt to immigrants act. You might recall last year around this time the Home Office sent round their "go home" vans, a move we're now informed wasn't the brainchild of Lynton Crosby, will wonders never cease. It wasn't a complete success, truth be told, but a majority didn't think it was racist and those that way inclined probably quite liked the message.

Facts you see don't enter this equation.  According to our fabulous prime minister Labour operated a "no questions asked" approach to benefits and this acted as a "magnetic pull" to migrants, or presumably at least those with an iron constitution.  This contradicts just about every piece of evidence we have about why those from the accession 8 countries came here, with the Migration Advisory Committee most recently finding little to support such claims, but no matter.

As well as announcing a further limitation on the time those from EU countries can claim Jobseeker's Allowance, a change it's estimated will affect around a whole 5,000 people, Cameron was also channelling his inner Liam Neeson.  Apparently if you're an illegal immigrant, he will find you and he will kill you.  To make clear just how serious he is, he went along on a raid, and was filmed by the BBC chillaxing in the victim's alleged criminal's kitchen with Theresa May.  It's probably worth noting as this point how Mark Harper, who had to resign as a minister earlier in the year after he was found to be employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner, got a job back in the reshuffle, while Isabella Acevedo is waiting to be deported, separated from her teenage daughter.  Ah, justice.

It doesn't matter all this is self-defeating in the extreme.  Politicians simply aren't listened to on immigration any longer, and haven't been for quite some time now, the reason being they took their cue from the tabloids, made all these foolish promises about limiting it, and haven't done so because they can't.  Rather than start admitting they can't and return to making the argument immigration is positive overall, while the negatives can be tackled through careful targeting of the areas which have seen the most change, like reckless gamblers they keep doubling down.  Cameron is still, still, insisting his beyond idiotic target of bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands can be achieved, while Labour continues trying to one up the Tories.  Adding illegal immigration to the mix is just asking for it; the days of the Liberal Democrats calling for an amnesty, the only even remotely workable solution, and one which would bring the exchequer hundreds of millions (at least) in extra revenue, are long gone.  Instead they must all be found and sent home.  Just like Lucan, Shergar and Madeleine McCann will be (apologies).

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014 

The scandal hiding in plain sight.

Anyone surprised by the Labour Force Survey figures confirming there hasn't been an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers since the restrictions on free movement were lifted at the beginning of the year?  No?  Thought not.  To listen to Danny Alexander though, you would have imagined he and the rest of the main political parties had always rejected the idea there would be a similar movement of labour as when the A8 countries joined back in 2005.  "Gives the lie to UKIP's scaremongering," apparently.  Forgive me for having a memory slightly longer than a gnat, but that most certainly wasn't the message coming across last year, when politician after politician lined up to say they were taking the issue very seriously indeed, and people were right to be concerned. Didn't Tory backbenchers force a vote in an attempt to reintroduce the restrictions? Were they told to stop being so damn silly? Ask a stupid question.

Not that we should think this one survey puts the matter to rest. The numbers might yet pick up, and it could be there have been a few thousand unemployed Bulgarians/Romanians who've made the journey without being counted by this particular survey. That there's been a drop in the first quarter seems a good indication this probably isn't the case, and bears out what some of us argued: why would they come here when the whole of Europe would be open to them? The fall is probably attributable to some moving closer to back home, the countries that had more stringent visa programmes now being as open as everywhere else.

Besides, the issue never was actual immigration, as I doubt Farage or the tabloids believed their own rhetoric, unless they fell into doing so after repeating it so often. It's that those 26 million Europeans can and could come here and we can't do anything about it. Anyone making just the economic argument is part of the problem, not understanding it's the speed of change, the perception of unfairness, the stories about migrants working for a pittance, putting locals at a disadvantage.  What does it matter if it's not affecting you personally when you simply know it's happening?

There is always something easier to blame.  It's all the stranger when you consider the latest employment figures suggest the coalition might be encouraging something on the scale of the parking of the long-term unemployed on incapacity benefit in the 80s.  Scratch beneath the headlines of a "jobs boom" and the most people in work ever, and the massive rise in the number becoming self-employed stands out.  In the year to March, 375,000 designated themselves as such, more than the number entering work in the private and public sectors.  This has been hailed by some within the coalition as a example of entrepreneurial zeal, only research by the TUC suggests the number starting their own business has in fact fallen.

Some of this rise can be explained perfectly normally, with agency workers for instance being pushed into self-employment.  Others have set themselves up on eBay, selling the odd thing to keep the wolf from the door and away from the ever harsher Jobseeker's Allowance regime.  Another explanation becomes clearer once you take a look at the also released today numbers of those sanctioned, i.e., had their benefits stopped in the last three months of 2013.  Incredibly, this had risen to 227,629, or almost a quarter, yes, a quarter of those who were claiming JSA in November.  Back in February of last year there were reports Work programme providers were pushing people into self-employment, getting the clients off their book, a payment for their company and delighting the DWP in the process.  The "customers" were told to claim working tax credit, especially if they had children as the additional child tax credit would almost certainly take their overall payment above the amount they would get normally on JSA.

With Jobcentre advisers under intense pressure to issue sanctions for non-existent infractions, life on any sort of income, even if below the £72.40 a week pittance JSA provides suddenly becomes attractive.  This also ties in with the crash in earnings of the self-employed since the recession, not all of which can possibly be put down to an increase in people fiddling their incomes.  With the ironically named "Help to Work" scheme rolled out at the end of last month, the aim of the programme being fairly transparently to stop those who have been out of work for 2 years claiming at all, or to sanction them when they fail to show up at the Jobcentre every day, it wouldn't be a surprise if the more sympathetic at the dole office were informing their customers of this almost government backed alternative.  Keep in mind also that those on workfare schemes are counted as in work, rather than unemployed, and the fall in unemployment no longer looks quite so impressive.

The only problem for the coalition (as opposed to those who are being left reliant on food banks, which the DWP insists is not due to the mass sanctioning of JSA claimants) is this dodge can't last, thanks to Iain Duncan Smith's own Universal Credit wheeze.  As Johnnyvoid explains, once fully rolled out only those earning the equivalent of someone working full time for the minimum wage will qualify for the UC replacement for tax credits.  Should UC ever be fully introduced, or indeed if the Tories are still in power, this has the potential to suddenly and apparently inexplicably increase the unemployment rate.  Hopefully by then Labour or even UKIP might have realised a real scandal is hiding in plain sight.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014 

Judging a year by its start.

One of the best pieces of obvious advice you can ever give or be given is not to judge a book by its cover.  Unless of course that book is a magazine called Readers' Wives, in which case you can be fairly certain it will contain photographs of amateur women in various states of undress.  Or a novel/biography by Katie Price.  Or Alex Ferguson's understated autobiography, I Was Always Right And Youse Should All Be Doing Obeisance Before Me.

You can however make a fairly informed judgement on the way a year is likely to pan out based on the themes of its opening days and the few that came before.  Last year was dominated by continuous attacks on those who dare to continue to subsist on benefits, and then attention turned to those other sponging bastards, the immigrants who come here purely to leech off the taxpayer.

January the 1st has duly come and gone, and despite the alarmist even by their standards shrieks from the outer reaches of the right-wing press, those dastardly Romanians and Bulgarians have yet to flood into the country, instead making the journey in their tens, if that. There probably will be thousands overall who decide to come here over the year as a whole, so it's more than slightly premature to start the crowing and mockery now, but if it turns out to be the tens of thousands predicted by the more egregious scaremongers I'll be surprised as anyone.

Immigration will then remain a theme, as ever, regardless of the reality, just hopefully with less hysteria than of late. The bullshit quotient will though be amply filled by the Tories telling us the plan is working, as evidenced by David Cameron's ever informative new year message. It doesn't matter that the plan was for the deficit to have been eliminated by the end of this year in time for some election giveaways, with the Tories now promising to achieve a surplus by 2018/19, a mere 5 years later, and that there's evidence to suggest it was the very forced loosening of the plan that prompted the recovery we're now experiencing, just know you'll be told repeatedly that it's working. For the umpteenth year in a row Cameron has said the economy is the be all and end all, so who are we to disagree?

We will though also be treated to excerpts from what is being called the Tories' "pre-election manifesto" or to call it by its proper name, the Lynton Crosby whistle and see who answers strategy. As a preview of what seems certain to be the most right-wing party manifesto since Thatcher's heyday, the Tories look set to either espouse full withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights or at the least attempt some sort of fudge giving the supreme court rather than the ECHR final say. How this will work without leaving the convention isn't clear, and even if legal it will almost certainly be challenged, so the chances of it happening are fairly remote.

What they most certainly can do, or at least threaten to is interpret the ECHR's rulings in the most asinine way possible.  Whereas it's taken two governments 8 years now to not implement the ECHR's verdict that some prisoners must have the right to vote, the ruling of last year that those given whole life terms must have access to a review system at some point has become rather more urgent as some judges, in line with the ruling, have declined to impose whole life tariffs, although it hasn't stopped others.  Most notable is that Mr Justice Sweeney delayed sentencing the two men found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby until after an appeal court ruling this month on the issue, one the government clearly expects to lose.  Hence one of the options we're told is being considered is American-style tariffs of hundreds of years imprisonment, which could then be reviewed and shortened to something more sensible like say, three score years and ten.

Despite the court being at pains in its ruling to make clear it was not saying no one could be given a whole life term, merely that in line with other European countries it believed those given such a sentence must be able to have it reviewed after say, 25 years, the Tories unsurprisingly have presented it as yet another outrageous imposition from those loco unelected idiots in Strasbourg.  It doesn't matter that it's only very recently that such a system has been introduced, and then only in England and Wales as both Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems, Scotland not having full life terms at all, life David Cameron declared must mean life.  Except it doesn't for the vast majority of those given a life term, rather only to the now 50 or so considered the worst of the worst.  The slightest change to the current system would suffice, say giving a prisoner the opportunity to apply for their sentence to be reconsidered after 30 or 40 years by either a judge or the parole board, but apparently this would be too obvious and too soft.  Better to go overblown and make a mockery of the ruling, especially when there's an election in the not too distant future and making clear how determined Cameron is to reform everything European ahead of the promised referendum is hardly going to be a voter loser.

Here's then to another year of posturing, blaming the victims and the most reprehensible cynicism.  And there might be some of that at Westminster and in the media as well.

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Monday, December 23, 2013 

Thing of the year: the immigration monster.

Hasn't it been a fantastic year?  After the miserable period of darkness that was 2012, brightened only by the Olympics, 2013 has been a 12 months without parallel.  We've had twerking, the fourth wave of feminism, selfies, people disappearing even further up their own arseholes on Twitter and, and, and, yeah, I can't keep this up.  2013 hasn't been as bad as 2012, for the reason 2012 would have been improved markedly had the world ended on the 21st of December. We were then starting from just about as low a point as was possible.

All the same, it's still been fairly catastrophic.  We've moved from having a flatlining economy to one where growth is being driven almost entirely by the housing market and consumer spending, without so much as a indication that the rebalancing the coalition supposedly wanted is beginning to happen.  And does this worry George Osborne?  Of course not.  The man who had the audacity to criticise Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining (the only reason public services have held up so well during the first few years of austerity is thanks to the billions pumped in during the good times) is so desperate for any sort of growth that he's not bothered where it's coming from.  His plan for eliminating the deficit and running a surplus by the end of the decade we now know is based on two eventualities: first, that the Conservatives will be back in opposition and so the problem will be his successor's, or second, failing that, he'll have to massively put up taxes, as it simply won't be possible to cut everyday government spending back to the same share of national income as in 1948 without something, or rather many things breaking.

The real clusterfuck of the year has however been, yet again, on immigration.  Almost as soon as Jools Holland brought in the new year the tabloids picked up on the fact that in 12 short months hordes of marauding Romanians and Bulgarians would be free to come to this green and pleasant land and despoil it by working for a pittance picking the vegetables their readers are currently shovelling into their trolleys.  Within the month the government had decided on the perfect solution: they would fund advertisements informing all the gypsies, mafia types and other assorted stereotypes that far from being a welcoming, tolerant place, life in Britain is pretty damn terrible, especially if you're a for'n and don't speak the lingo.  Incredibly, this didn't placate our famously agreeable press, and for the rest of the year the scaremongering has just kept building.  Little things like how there isn't going to be anything approaching a repeat of the '05 cock-up, when only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden opened their borders immediately while the rest of the EU put in controls on the A8 states have either gone unexplained or been ignored.

Rather than attempt to counter this by calling out the tabloids and UKIP on their nonsense, the Conservatives have just gone with the flow.  Each month seems to have seen a re-announced crackdown on migrants' benefits, with by my reckoning the restriction on claiming before 3 months set out, eerily enough, 3 times.  We have in fact reached such a point that the Tories now seemingly want new states joining the EU to have to wait far longer before their citizens gain the right to free movement, their economies needing to have caught up further before any Albanians or Serbs would be allowed to come to Blighty.  That it will be at least a decade before Albania might be able to join, meaning under the current rules it would then be a further 6 years before EU states would have to open their borders doesn't seem to matter; we need these changes in place now, damn it.  To that end, a potential yearly cap of 75,000 migrants has been mooted by the Tories, again despite how such a policy would be illegal and would almost certainly lead to other EU nations putting limits on the number of Brits they would allow in each year, as both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have pointed out.

Such is the way things have gone that we now have the Telegraph and Tory MPs outraged that Cable should so much as mention Enoch Powell and "rivers of blood" in the same breath as talking about immigration panics.  Anyone who isn't a complete idiot will have realised Cable wasn't suggesting the Tory rhetoric was comparable to Powell's, rather bringing up past examples of panics as evidence of what happens when we don't have a sensible debate or politicians acting responsibly. Whether Cable is a hypocrite for being so critical while remaining a minister in the government that's presiding over such self-defeating policies is worth considering, but it's a separate issue.

As John Harris writes, of course it isn't racist to be worried or anxious about large-scale immigration. It's also the case that the A8 accession did transform life in a number of towns, such as Peterborough and Boston. The point is surely though that the eastern European migration was a one-off due to the aforementioned factors, and won't be repeated again. For reasons known only to themselves, rather than calm the debate, the Tories have spent much of the year stoking it.  If the idea was to then claim their changes have stopped tens of thousands coming, then any credit they might receive will be outweighed massively in the long-term by the whole situation repeating. The immigration monster isn't going to go away when you keep on feeding it. And if you think you're going to gorge yourself over Christmas period, just wait until you see it tuck into the headlines over the new year.

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Monday, December 02, 2013 

Isa Muaza: no sense of shame.

There are more than a few reasons, it must be said, to doubt Isa Muaza's case for asylum.  Arriving here in the UK from Nigeria on a visit visa in 2007, rather than pursue an asylum claim immediately he instead worked under a false name, only applying for leave to remain in 2011.  He finally claimed for asylum in July of this year, and was swiftly refused under the fast track system just 13 days later.  Muaza's case revolves around the threat he says he faces from Boko Haram, the jihadi group whose attacks in the north of the country have killed in the region of 1,600 civilians over the past four years.  Muaza says he fled after he was given the choice of either joining the group or being killed, and says two members of his family were murdered by its members.

While Boko Haram was formed in 2001 and has been active over the past decade, whether it was acting in the ways claimed by Muaza in 2007 is a lot more difficult to ascertain.  Reports suggest at that point the group was mainly focusing on targeting the police, while members also disengaged from society and went to live in camps in remote areas.  It also doesn't explain Muaza's decision not to claim asylum straight away, although one factor could be Boko Haram was barely known outside of Africa until the beginning of the current decade.

It's also not been made completely clear by much of the reporting that while there are significant concerns over Muaza's mental health, the government has not refused to have him admitted to hospital (para 40 of this ruling).  Rather, they say Muaza's actions are against his detention as a whole.  The state also disputes Muaza's claim that he has hepatitis B, as there is no record of his either being tested or immunised against the disease. Muaza's original complaint was that he couldn't eat the food at Harmondsworth due to his medical condition, which also includes kidney problems.  His refusal of food developed out of this complaint, and while he had still not been seen by a psychiatrist when Justice Stewart gave his ruling in the middle of October refusing interim relief, an assessment by Dr Hartree of Medical Justice suggests that he most likely has schizophrenia.  Hartree added that she believes it "unlikely that IM [Muaza] is making a conscious, calculated protest against detention", rather that it is a symptom of his psychosis.

Something that's not disputable is regardless of how this state of affairs was arrived it, it is the height of inhumanity to subject someone who has been refusing food for over 100 days to deportation, let alone the farce the Home Office's attempt to fly Muaza back to Nigeria turned into.  Unable to get a man strapped to a bed onto a Virgin Atlantic flight, the decision was made to charter a jet.  Despite taking this incredibly extravagant decision, estimated to have cost somewhere in the region of between £95,000 and £180,000, they apparently failed to either inform the Nigerians of their plans or to persuade them they should take a man near to death back into their custody.  Refused entry to Nigerian airspace, the jet made turned round and stopped over in Malta, before making its way back to the UK.  A nice little earner undoubtedly for the charter company, an disgraceful fiasco for those of us in whose name the deportation was authorised.

As with other cases, the reasoning behind the deportation is apparent enough: out of sight, out of mind.  Who cares if Muaza dies within days of being returned, as long as someone causing such a problem is got rid of?  Apparently secondary was any concern that the stress of the deportation could result in Muaza's death, rather suggesting that if any lessons were learned after the death of Jimmy Mubenga, they've been forgotten extremely swiftly.  The Home Office's change in policy from previously releasing those who had been refusing food for a lengthy period is easy enough to understand if not agree with, but it seems not to operate on a case by case basis: if Muaza is refusing food due to psychosis rather than as a protest, he should have been seen by psychiatrists as a matter of urgency.  Even if not psychosis, to refuse food for the period of time Muaza and others have done after their claims failed is the epitome of desperation.  Many of us bitch and moan about the state of the country; others so want to stay here they are prepared to risk death to do so.

The Home Office's actions in this instance have been self-defeating in the extreme.  Keeping someone in an immigration detention centre costs an estimated £120 a day, or £43,800 a year, around £6,000 higher than that of a prison place.  Even if the chartered plane cost 95 grand rather than £180,000, that still would have paid for Muaza to be kept in custody for a further 2 years.  Instead of attempting to treat his psychosis or try to deal with his determination to die rather than return to Nigeria, the decision was made, despite the risks, to make him someone else's problem.  It backfired spectacularly.  With reports suggesting Nigeria is now willing to accept Muaza and the Home Office having long been unburdened by any sense of shame (or concern for taxpayer's money), the odds are the deportation will be attempted again.  Whether Muaza survives it or not doesn't seem to factor in to the equation.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013 

The cycle continues.

At times, you just have to sit back and admire the sheer cant of some of our elected representatives.  Take David Blunkett, who's rather cross that his giving an interview to BBC Radio Sheffield resulted in headlines claiming he predicted riots, something he denies so much as saying.  Whether he did or not, the national media piled into the Page Hall area of the city and came away with the distinct impression that something had to give, such was the local anger at the Roma who had moved into the community daring to stand around in groups outside at night.  They even found a bloke at Halal Fisheries who said a Romanian couple had tried to sell him their baby, as those wacky gypsies are so often trying to do.  While he might not have expressly talked about riots, the Graun does quote Blunkett talking about "explosions", "implosions" and the three northern towns that saw race rioting back in 2001.  All he wants you see is a calm debate, such as the one he instigated previously when he said the children of asylum seekers were "swamping" schools, not to mention the time he gave an interview to the Sun agreeing with them that all these asylum seekers should be sent back, guv.

You can't really blame people for being cynical though when it's become clear just what the government was up to in suddenly announcing yet another benefits crackdown for those supposedly coming here just to leech off our fantastically generous welfare state.  Rather than net migration falling towards the desired tens of thousands, as Cameron and pals pledged, it instead went up in the year to June 2013, rising by 15,000 to 182,000, mainly thanks to a fall in emigration.  Considering Dave has been chastised in the past for apparently pre-empting releases by the Office of National Statistics, it's not that big a stretch to think this might be another example of the coalition acting on information only it has seen.

We are then once again seeing the destruction wrought by the immigration monster.  No amount of facts or pleading can stop the tabloids from claiming come the 1st of January Bulgaria and Romania are going to empty out, the whole population of the two countries upping sticks and coming to sponge off our soft touch welfare system.  It doesn't matter how many Bulgarian ambassadors we hear from who point out that most applications for work permits are already accepted, and that it was 2007 when the two countries actually joined the EU that the largest number decided to start a new life in the UK, clearly the migrant horde is going to be snaking its way through Dover on New Year's Day.  Nor does it have it any impact pointing out that unlike in 2004, when the citizens of the accession 8 states had only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden to choose should they want to look for work elsewhere, this time all the states that haven't yet allowed free movement have to open their borders.  Why would Romanians and Bulgarians come here rather than chance their arm in Germany, say, or somewhere slightly more receptive?

It perhaps does bear repeating that we aren't the only country where sentiment against immigration has turned decisively.  There is also a certain amount of truth in the government claiming that the Germans and French are taking action themselves ahead of January 1st, although again this seems mainly in an attempt to placate public opinion rather than out of there being any hard evidence of benefit tourism.  Putting further restrictions on when migrants can gain access to certain benefits only encourages rather than refutes the narrative that migrants aren't here to work.  Indeed, Cameron didn't so much as attempt to argue that the concern might be misplaced, instead yet again blaming Labour for getting it wrong in 2005.  The opposition meanwhile continues to up the rhetoric, criticising the government for "panicking" at the last minute, while former ministers dig themselves further into the mire by continuously apologising for the mistake they made in thinking other countries would be opening their borders in 05 as well.  The estimate now ritually criticised was made on that assumption, which was why it was so out of line with the reality.

The latest immigration figures in fact suggest politicians are fighting the last battle; rather than it being workers from eastern Europe making the journey, there have been large increases in those arriving from the countries hardest hit by the crash.  Free movement of labour goes both ways: wanting to put an end to it might please the UKIP tendency the Conservatives are still trying to win back, but it isn't going to appeal much to businesses who are already complaining about the government's approach.

Such has been the shift from defending immigration or singing its praises to saying it must now cease while not being able to do much about it, combined with the lack of political will to confront the hysteria from the tabloids, we've reached the point where the public doesn't believe any of it.  More to the point, only a fifth were able to pick out the "tens of thousands" pledge as being government policy.  Why not then be brutally honest with everyone: whether we remain in the EU or not, freedom of movement is highly unlikely to go away when the economic benefits are fairly well established.  We could raise the drawbridge entirely, like say Israel or Australia, but is that the type of country we want to become?  Acceptance of migrants excepting the unskilled is in fact fairly high.  Besides, regardless of whether most know the tens of thousands pledge now, they will come 2015 when UKIP and Labour will doubtless make great play of the coalition's failure.  Only then might it occur to some of our politicians to break out of this self-defeating cycle.

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Thursday, October 31, 2013 

The immigration monster and the "go home" vans.

If anything, it's a bit of a surprise that as many as 11 people decided to "go home" rather than face the rather distant possibility of arrest after learning of the Home Office van campaign. This raises the obvious question of just how desperate a situation they must have been in to want to take their chances back in their home country, but such concerns are clearly irrelevant. These people shouldn't be here and they should go.

Only, as the reporting of Mark Harper's written answer makes clear, it costs more to enforce a deportation (£15,000) than the average illegal immigrant costs the taxpayer a year (just shy of £5,000). The latter figure seems difficult to believe, in any case: most illegal migrants won't/can't access public services, and so will use hardly any resources at all.  The motivation behind the campaign is then somewhat financially sound: paying for a flight for someone is hell of a lot cheaper than doling out money to our friends at G4S or Serco to "Mubenga" someone.

The problem was in the execution, but then that was clearly the point. This was a stunt straight out of the Lynton Crosby playbook. Wait until news was slow, then launch a campaign using a borderline racist slogan designed to attract both condemnation and attention in equal measure. If some people did take up the kind offer, all the better. The Tories could portray themselves as tough as well as practical, and Labour would be caught in the trap of either condemning sending illegal immigrants home, or condoning a 70s style National Front demand.  They didn't however factor in that this being the social networking age, a thousand people would prank the phone and text line, or indeed that even Nigel Farage would denounce the campaign as being too nasty, designed purely to win back some of those who had defected to his party.

Without figures for voluntary deportations for a similar period prior to "Operation Vaken", we clearly can't make a comparison as to how successful the whole charade really was.  It might well be that a similar number to the 125 total claimed to have been motivated by the operation would have submitted themselves anyway without prompting.  This is the thing: there is absolutely nothing wrong with ensuring those here illegally know they can return to their country of origin if they so wish, with the government picking up the tab.  It's how you go about doing so, and telling people to go home or face arrest is manifestly not the right way, not least when it's clearly a political campaign designed to look tough and win votes.  It probably does save money, although the idea the Vaken might have saved the taxpayer £830,000 is ridiculous.

Something that wouldn't just save money but actually benefit both the taxpayer and the economy would be an amnesty, bringing those working cash in hand out of the shadows and onto the path towards citizenship.  That however would go completely against the rhetoric and policies of the past few years, where politicians have followed public opinion rather than attempt to lead it.  Too bad that as Sunny wrote previously, it's now probably too late: the monster is loose.

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Monday, October 14, 2013 

How the coalition works.

Last Thursday:  
Theresa May announces the 8th immigration bill in 18 years.  Designed to create a "hostile environment" for illegal migrants, it will impose new checks on anyone applying for a driving licence or bank account, with a view to extending similar restrictions to those looking to rent, if a pilot scheme works.  Rather than move towards an amnesty (as the Lib Dems supported at the election), which would result in those working in the shadow economy being encouraged to become residents or citizens and in turn contribute to the exchequer, the government instead continues to promote the idea that all those here illegally can either be deported or "persuaded" to return home.  The implication seems clear: by making such bureaucracy affect everyone, it will exacerbate resentment while making life ever more miserable for the migrants, but not to the extent where they'll return home, even if they could.  That the evidence contradicts the idea there is mass benefit tourism, or "pull factors" beyond relatives already living here is also ignored.

Today:  

George Osborne goes to China to lessen visa restrictions.  Not just for business reasons, but as the Guardian explains:

Ministers were understood to be alarmed when one study found that Chinese tourists were buying vastly higher numbers of expensive designer handbags in Paris than in London.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 

Political dog-whistling: still not working in 2013.

It took a while, but by the end of last week the government's billboard campaign telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" had attracted the wider press attention it deserved from the outset.  One of the old chestnuts we often hear when it comes to debating immigration is that politicians of old shut down debate by calling people racist.  Accurate or not, we now have the opposite problem: politicians are afraid to say that some of those opposed to immigration are racist, as one thing racists don't like being told is that they are racist.  Hence despite criticism of the campaign coming from the Lib Dems, a few Labour MPs (although not the leadership, again presumably because they fear it being used as "evidence" of their weakness) and even Nigel Farage for goodness sake, who in the next breath scaremongers about a Romanian crime wave, none have called a spade a spade.

It's therefore only lunatics on the left and the "pro-immigration industry" that believe such a straightforward message is racist, says Mark Harper, the immigration minister described by Nick Clegg as "a very good guy", given space in the Mail. He doesn't expand on just which organisations make up the pro-immigration industry, but perhaps he means the Office for Budget Responsibility, set-up by the coalition, which only last week published research on the continuing benefits. Harper for his part doesn't even bother to engage with the argument as to why the billboards are racist, which is that they reprise the old NF slogan and play on the most obvious of racist sentiments, he instead uses attack as defence, saying that those critical are encouraging the breaking of the law. To call this a non sequitur doesn't quite cover it; a billboard threatening illegal immigrants with arrest if they don't leave voluntarily is hardly the most striking example of the law being enforced. Rather, it only underlines the reality: it's completely unfeasible to deport every person here illegally.  Continuing to claim it is only raises unrealistic expectations which then feed further discontent.

For such a short piece, Harper makes up for it by packing in as many distortions as he can. He conflates perfectly legal migration with the illegal by going into the standard riff on Labour's supposed "open borders" policy, says there is evidence that migration has pushed down wages when there's plenty (PDF) that contradicts the claim, that some areas have faced "intolerable" pressure due to migration, despite services continuing to function, then tops it off by saying the government is controlling immigration, if failing to meet their target of bringing net migration down to 100,000 by 53,000 can possibly be considered controlling.

He ends by saying that if the poster campaign helps tackle illegal immigration, who could oppose it? Considering a poll for the Sun suggests that there's almost an even split between those in favour of and those opposed, a remarkable result when there's such a prevailing sentiment against immigration, it suggests plenty don't like such "stupid and offensive" campaigns, even if they don't regard them as racist.  Seeing as Harper doesn't even repeat the actual wording used on the billboards, perhaps he secretly feels the same.  Either way, someone ought to explain to Lynton Crosby that if dog-whistling didn't work in 2005, it isn't going to now.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Silly racism season.

The silly season is descending, although frankly it's getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the dog days of late July and August, and well, almost any other time of year.  Apparently, "bitchy resting face ... makes Gangnam Style look like a slow burner", at least according to Hadley Freeman, and yet somehow I had avoided encountering this cultural phenomenon until she elected to write about it. Beards have also reached their fashionable peak, doncha know, and in what seems to be an extraordinarily late April 1st joke, Kerry Katona is to be Marilyn Monroe.  Presumably alongside Peter Andre as JFK.  Oh, and Guido Fawkes, he of repeatedly declaring he can't be sued fame, threatens to sue Claire Perry.  Perry we've already established is a dangerous nincompoop, while Paul Staines is just a hypocritical tool.

Is there anything even vaguely serious going on then?  Well, sort of.  Coming from the same great minds behind the idea of putting up "adverts" pointing out how shit Britain is in Bulgaria and Romania (while at the same time declaring how great we are everywhere else), one of those billboard vans is being sent round six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest".  Why, we'll even be kind enough to help you with your travel documents, and we'll tell the immigration officers not to "Mubenga" you, as long as you come along quietly, of course.  Who wouldn't have their head turned by such a tempting offer?

Understandably, quite a few people are suggesting this is just a teensy bit racist.  On its own, it isn't.  There aren't that many pithy formulations you could put together that are simple to understand and carry the same message.  I mean, they could have gone with "In the UK illegally and want to leave?", but that doesn't carry the same element of menace all rhetoric on immigration must now have.  "Go home" though carries decades of baggage with it; it wasn't just a National Front slogan as Sunny says, go home (or words to the same effect)  is still one of the first resorts for racists, regardless of who it's used against.  "Go back to where you came from", even if you were born here and so were your parents; your skin colour doesn't fit.

When a government is reduced to such, err, dog-whistling, it ought to be apparent that it's in trouble.  One thing the Tories remain terrified by is the likely failure to keep their promise to get immigration down to the "tens of thousands" by the time of the next election.  Almost all the decline we've seen under the coalition has come as a result of the crackdown on overseas students, those grasping, scrounging bastards who come here, take almost nothing out and put hell of a lot in (is this right? Ed.).  Hence this year, as well as being partially in response to the rise of UKIP, we've seen further punitive policy proposals, including the ridiculous prospect of landlords being asked to do the job of the UK Border Force, as though making illegal immigrants homeless is something approaching a solution.  Sarah Teather made clear just how far the Tories would like to go when she revealed the "Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services" was first known as the "Hostile Environment Working Group".

As pointed out before, this is a great example of how the new politics works.  Politicians say they're listening to concerns, they talk tough and tighten the rules ever further, and then act surprised and chastened when the mood against immigrants hardens as the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall precisely because freedom of movement is clearly here to stay.  Rather than confront voters with a few facts and ask them if they like being able to move freely around Europe even if they don't want to at this precise moment, we just get ever more discriminatory rhetoric.  Once, that the government was paying for adverts which contained allusions to the racist slogans of years gone by would have caused a storm.  That it hasn't shows both how the Tories have succeeded and why they will also end up being hoist by that petard.

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Monday, April 29, 2013 

The rise of the unpopular populists.

Ah, UKIP.  There are a number of ways you can explain the rise in support for Nigel Farage's unhappy band of monomaniacs, whether it be disaffection from modern society at large, disaffection with Cameron's Conservatives, a protest aimed at the main three parties, for which there are a whole variety of reasons, complete opposition to continued immigration, or, and this is possibly the least significant factor, hatred of the European Union.

To give the typical nerdy fuller answer, the rise is in some way attributable to all these reasons, but also a couple of others.  Unlike much of the rest of Europe, we haven't seen a rise in support for the traditional far-right, somewhat to do with how the BNP have turned into a basket case and the EDL are a bunch of thugs led by a convicted violent criminal with an identity crisis, leaving those who are racist and xenophobic (decreasing numbers, it should be stressed) with having to compromise their feelings somewhat.

Far more important is that the media and indeed most politicians have given Farage almost a completely free ride. Farage has appeared on Question Time more often than any politician other than Vince Cable, regardless of the amount of support his party was up until around this time last year attracting.  When interviewed one to one, which is rare, he's also barely questioned on his party's policies beyond getting out of the European Union, which when even so much as glanced at fall apart.  A 40% increase in the defence budget, doubling the number of prison places, and spending £90bn building new nuclear plants? You can make the case for those policies individually perhaps, but all at the same time? Pull the other one.

Farage and UKIP have been most obviously helped through the completely wretched scaremongering that has surrounded the upcoming lifting of the controls on the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who can come here to work.  This hasn't just been thanks to the usual suspects at the Mail and Express, although they were in the vanguard, but also to politicians who either haven't bothered to challenge such silliness or have in fact connived in it.  One of the most basic lessons of politics is that you don't win by stealing the policies of outlier parties, as the Eastleigh by-election ought to have shown.

By doing so, you either buy completely into their myths, or give them further credence: witness Sajid Javid on QT last week talking almost solely about making Britain "a less attractive place" for Bulgarians and Romanians to come to, when there is no evidence whatsoever that the level of benefits plays a significant role when people make decisions about where to go, or indeed when all the evidence suggests recent immigrants overwhelmingly put more in than they take out.  It's a measure of just how far the debate has been shifted when Farage isn't called out on his linking of Romanians to crime; it may be just about true that 30,000 people giving their nationality as Romanian have been arrested in the past 5 years out of a population in the region of 100,000 (it's not clear whether these arrests were all made in London or not), but this is close to being a worthless statistic when it's convictions that matter, not arrests. We also quite rightly worry when black and Asian men are disproportionately stopped and searched, but not it seems when it's foreigners linked to criminality by politicians.

Another factor is that once a bandwagon's going, plenty of people jump on precisely because it's seen to be the thing to do. Some of those who've voted UKIP in recent by-elections would no doubt be aghast at the views of Godfrey Bloom, and wouldn't dream of supporting a party where he's one of the most senior figures, but as a protest at the way politics has been conducted in recent years it makes sense to climb aboard.

It is therefore just a little rich when UKIP complains that its poorly vetted candidates for the local elections on Thursday are being, err, held up to the same standards as everyone else.  You can of course quite easily portray most people who have a presence online as being unpleasant or worse by cherry-picking questionable tweets or posts and presenting them out of context, yet if UKIP wants to be considered the third or fourth force in politics in this country then it can hardly expect to be given the benefit of the doubt, as it has been up to now.

The question of how you respond to UKIP's rise is a far more difficult one.  Difficult as it is to disagree with Ken Clarke when he reprises David Cameron's old line about the party being made up of closet racists and other assorted eccentrics, just dismissing Farage out of hand is a dangerous game.  Lord Ashcroft's polling may well have suggested that a large percentage of UKIP's support comes from those who are irreconcilable, and as likely as it is that come 2015 the vast majority of those currently flirting with the party will return to one of the main three, a UKIP victory in next year's European elections isn't something to savour.

The very first thing to do then has to be stop agreeing with them: we are not going to be flooded by Romanians and Bulgarians come January, nor will those few who do come have any discernible impact on the number of jobs available for our own young people.

Second, challenge them on their policies which have nothing to do with the EU (PDF): what's their stance on the NHS? Why do we need to double the number of prison places when crime is at a historic low? Why do we need to increase the defence budget so massively if we're going to leave peacekeeping and interventions to others, especially when we face no conventional threats whatsoever? How can their proposed flat tax possibly be fair, or affordable? How can they reconcile their opposition to gay marriage or decriminalising drugs with their claim to be a libertarian party? What impact will a halt to immigration have on the economy?

Third, question their every assertion on the EU, whether it be how much it costs through to their claims on red tape and the amount of laws decided in the European parliament. Hit back at their every soundbite or statistic with one that either flat out contradicts it or disputes it.

And fourth, just wait. UKIP and Farage are still at the moment a media novelty, and one that will be quickly tired of. They will only become a true fourth force in politics if they are indulged as such, as their overall appeal to the majority as anything other than a convenient protest is slight. Populists who fail to make a true political breakthrough quickly fade away. Farage isn't close to being a Boris Johnson yet.

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Monday, March 25, 2013 

Haven't I heard all this before?

If there's one thing you can say about David Cameron's speech on immigration today, it's that it was clever politics.  It worked on one level, and one level only: that of the tiger repelling rock.  The government knows full well that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to come here next year is going to be nowhere near as high as the numbers that came after the A8 accession states, so setting out a whole range of new "restrictions" makes perfect sense.  We ended the soft touch system we inherited from Labour and look at the results!  It won't matter that the figures overall will still show net migration of hundreds of thousands rather than tens, at least there aren't many of those nasty gyppos or other assorted stereotypes here as we feared, eh?

Other than that, it was just miserable.  It wasn't so much the actual announcements, if you can even call them that, as they were all but identical to those set out by Labour's Yvette Cooper a couple of weeks back with the exception of the requirement for those wanting social housing to have lived locally for at least 2 years.  Even this is undermined by how councils also have a requirement to house those in most need, although naturally Cameron deigned not to mention this.  It was instead that it gave in to every myth, claim and lie we've come to expect from those aiming to profit from scaremongering about immigration: that we're seen as a "soft touch", that the welfare system needs to be reformed alongside immigration itself as it clearly attracts those with no intention of working, and that under Labour immigration was out of control.  All were and are untrue.

It's not that it's wrong to publicise problems with the system, as Cameron said, it's that it's wrong to not challenge the idea that immigrants are here to scrounge rather than work.  Saying that the vast majority are hard workers but then dedicating the remainder of the speech to suggesting there are huge problems rather drowns out the reality.  The emphasis on benefits also spectacularly misses the concerns of most on immigration.  Until very recently, the main concern was not that immigrants from the EU were coming here to claim benefits, it was that they were undercutting wages, stretching the resources of local public services and changing communities beyond recognition.  Cameron today didn't address either the former or the latter, only that there would a renewed emphasis on ensuring employers aren't using illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the major announcement today has been rather buried underneath all the anti-scrounger rhetoric.  The government that ensured ID cards weren't introduced (although they were never going to be after the crash anyway) for us Brits has decided that they're fine and dandy for our friends from the EU should they want to come here, as they'll be the only way of determining just what they're entitled to.  Don't then be surprised if this inevitably leads to the rest of us also needing them at some point in the future.

The problem for Cameron today has turned out that, if anything, he's gone too far even for a press that has always led the way for politicians rather than followed.  The figures we do have suggest that the number of immigrants claiming benefits is low, and that the numbers in social housing are similarly not massively increasing.  On the NHS, ministers simply don't know how much foreign nationals are costing us: it's either £20m or closer to £200m, if we're to believe Jeremy Hunt, which isn't advised.  One suspects it's closer to the £20m figure, but either way it's a drop in the ocean considering the NHS budget is almost £100bn a year, and when as we saw last week George Osborne masterminded an underspend of £2.2bn to help get his borrowing figures in line with the forecasts.

As encouraging as it is that even the Telegraph is calling for politicians to make the case for immigration rather than keep on attempting to woo the UKIP vote (which is, as has been noted, to completely misunderstand UKIP's appeal), we've gone from a situation at the last election where we had at least one party calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if they tried to kept it quiet, to that same party fully signing up to the Tories' self-defeating measures.  It seems we are as far away as ever from something approaching an informed debate, let alone an informed policy.

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