The proposed Lib Dem immigration policy is simply not fit for purpose. I knew this as soon as I saw the consultation questions, which were all on the theme of “immigration: threat or menace?” and “how much should we punish immigrants? A lot, or more than that?”
These questions were later, after much internal arguing, supplemented by another set of questions which were more balanced. The responses to that second set of questions, however, seem to have been ignored. Huge chunks of the policy paper being presented to conference seem to have been copy-pasted from the original questions, with things like “should we” changed to “we should” (not an actual example, but the kind of thing we’re seeing here), and the working group who put this together clearly had its conclusions decided before the consultation even started.
That said, there is evidence that they have tried to change those conclusions slightly — mostly because between the consultation and the publication of the paper, the whole Windrush scandal happened, and so even the people running the consultation realised that public opinion was shifting in favour of immigrants again.
Now, the motion itself that’s being put forward for conference to vote for is weak sauce, for reasons Caron explains here — and I particularly dislike the “don’t let’s be beastly to the racists” section which would actually make it Lib Dem policy that we shouldn’t call racists racist just because they’re racist — but it’s the policy paper which the motion endorses which is the real problem. A lot of the worst parts of it are not specifically mentioned in the motion, but if conference votes for the motion, the whole thing will have become policy.
Before I start, I should make clear that this policy is still better than the current immigration policy, which is a precompromised excrescence that was put to conference in 2014 anticipation of a second coalition term that never happened (I voted against that paper because I found it quite horrific in all sorts of ways). But “better than the current policy” is not the same thing as good, and just because something’s an improvement doesn’t mean it should be voted for as policy — we have the option of making policy that’s actually good, if we give the job to people who aren’t more concerned with being apologists for racism than with getting the policy right. I’ll only be talking here about the real and significant problems with the paper, and not the good stuff, because this is basically a shit sandwich, and if you’re forced to eat a shit sandwich you don’t really care if the bread is good.
The problems with the paper start with section 1.1.2 which, after acknowledging that the party constitution clearly and unambiguously states that we support free movement, says:
However, migration today is not the peaceful, equitable, ordered guarantor of durable security that our constitution envisages. Fuelled by the failure of governments to spread economic prosperity widely, some people feel that their concerns about employment, housing, and social and welfare resources are somehow linked to immigration. There has been an alarming rise in hostility to all immigrants, including some British people settled here for a generation or more.
Now, let’s unpick that. It says that “migration today” is not what our constitution wants, but then it says that the reason for this is that people *think* it isn’t, because of bad government policy in other areas. It goes on to say that people think that immigration is bad because of the hostile rhetoric and policies from governments past and present — but that precisely because of this we must continue with hostile policies rather than doing what is right.
People think immigrants are bad because the government says they’re bad, so in order to convince the public that immigrants aren’t bad we must continue treating them badly.
This is the kind of logic that only makes sense in centristland, the land of the SPADs who think that it was a great win for the Lib Dems that our leaders got the plastic bag levy imposed in return for hurting benefits claimants.
Now, personally, I think the whole premise of trying to appease what the paper terms “immigration sceptics” (because calling racists racist is worse than being a racist, in this view) is fundamentally flawed, for the reasons Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave when talking about convincing supporters of the Nazis:
But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have
come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what “the people” really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the person who thinks and acts responsibly
(This is also, incidentally, a good argument against the “people’s vote” which our Parliamentarians seem so keen on).
This is something that informs the whole paper, and which is fundamentally misguided. It takes as its top priority appeasing the fears of the racist seventy-five percent (going from the paper’s own numbers) of the population, rather than creating an actually humane system. It tries (or claims to try) to create a more humane system within those racist-appeasing boundaries, but the first priority is always making life more difficult for immigrants in order to win over the UKIP vote, rather than being liberal.
I’m by no means an expert on immigration, but I have a lot of experience of *parts* of that system. In particular, I am married to an immigrant from a non-EEA country, and so I know from very personal experience that the system around family immigration is more a form of torture than a coherent set of policies. So here I’m going to look at the bits of this paper that I have some experience or knowledge of — but I assume that there are similar hidden traps in all the other sections.
The paper says of the pre-2012 immigration system — under which my wife came over here:
“Liberal Democrats argued that the then-system was already one of the toughest in the world, not open to abuse and, if anything, already damaging to family life for some people.” (italics mine)
The paper then goes on to say:
“The Liberal Democrats would return the Immigration Rules for settlement visas for spouses/partners to the pre-July 2012 position with regard to income”
So, rather than go for a *good* system, the paper wishes to go for “one of the toughest in the world… damaging to family life”. Those are the words of the paper itself. The system it wants to go for is damaging.
It then goes on to say “There would continue to be restrictions on extra recourse to public funds until the migrant reaches indefinite leave to remain (permanent residence) after five years.”
To be clear, that is *not* the pre-July 2012 system. That is *worse* than the pre-July 2012 system, as up to July 2012 indefinite leave to remain was granted after *two* years.
To say it as plainly as possible:
The paper says that the pre-July 2012 system was “damaging to family life” — and I can attest to this. That was the system under which my wife moved to the UK, and the system as it stood then was so harmful to immigrants, and so punishing to those whose income became unstable (as mine did — I lost my job shortly after she moved here, and because of the “no recourse to public funds” rule which this paper thinks is such a fucking fantastic idea we had to survive with literally no income, pushing us into debt it took nearly a decade to get out of) that it caused my wife to suffer PTSD and put a strain on my own mental health so bad that neither of us have fully recovered twelve years on.
It then claims it’s going to restore this “harmful to family life” position.
It then goes on to contradict itself, and say that it will make things *worse* for immigrants than the pre-July 2012 position, though it never admits that this is what it’s doing.
And it calls this “more humane and efficient”!
Now, frankly, I’d argue that the paper should be voted down just for the fact that it deliberately attempts to mislead anyone reading it. It claims that what it’s proposing is the situation as of 2012, when in fact it’s not, and I would suggest that deliberately lying to Conference should be reason enough in itself to reject the paper.
But even if you disagree with that… who, exactly, is this policy meant to be *for*? The fact is, no-one actually knows the rules for family members coming to the UK except those who’ve been through the process. Without exception, *every single person* I’ve ever spoken to about what we actually went through to get Holly over here said “I thought you got citizenship just from marrying a British person!” — with the exception of a very small number of people who are also married to non-EEA citizens, most of whom just nodded, sadly, sharing an unspoken acknowedgement of a shared trauma.
The fact is, no changes to family immigration policy will actually get through to people anyway unless and until they try to marry someone from outside the UK. The policy everyone thinks is already in place is the liberal one, so we might as well just make our policy that one anyway — marry someone from outside the UK, they get citizenship automatically if they want it. Anything less than that is an ineffective attempt at appeasing racists — I’m sorry, “people with legitimate concerns that some people might actually be able to marry the person they love and live together, which they are right to be legitimately concerned about because it’s a legitimate concern because people like Andrew’s wife put pressure on public services with their *checks notes* years of working for the NHS and voluntary work improving services in the community”. It’s ineffective because they won’t believe it’s the policy anyway — racists don’t make their decisions based on facts, but on hatred, and on pushing at the limits of acceptable discourse. We need to push back, not believe that if we give in to them they’ll give up.
Also, and separately, the “no recourse to public funds” rule which this paper thinks is so fucking kind and generous is *massively* discriminatory — I can say from experience that it discriminates against disabled people like myself and my wife, who have more difficulty getting and keeping jobs than abled people and who also have additional expenses which the government acknowledges should be paid for — for everyone except people who had the absolute temerity to be born somewhere other than the UK (not that being born in the UK is any help — we don’t have birthright citizenship here, and the Windrush scandal has seen people born in Britain, to parents who at the time had British citizenship, threatened with deportation to countries they’ve never been to before). I’m sure that it also discriminates against other protected classes, but the authors of this policy paper would clearly rather shit on disabled people than ever tell a racist — I’m sorry, “person who has absolutely legitimate reasons to think that the trauma Holly and Andrew went through for daring to fall in love should be worsened, legitimately” — that they’re in the wrong.
Onto some other areas:
Liberal Democrats agree that illegal immigration must be properly dealt with, otherwise support for legal immigration and even asylum seekers will also be questioned.
I don’t agree with this. Partly because it sounds like a threat (turn over the illegal immigrant or the asylum seeker gets it), partly because I don’t think the aim of a policy in one area should be to stop people from questioning another policy in a related area — I have a crazy belief that policy effects should be an end in themselves, not distorted in order to shape public opinion on other policies — and mostly because, again, I don’t believe that immigration policy actually has any effect on public perception whatsoever.
And that’s because I don’t believe anti-immigrant bigotry is a rational opinion based on well-founded beliefs. It’s based on knee-jerk prejudices.
Liberal Democrats would end the “hostile environment” and create new fairer employer checks that will involve employers checking employment status of workers with Immigration Enforcement and an assumption of a right to work until they direct otherwise.
Another example of the policy paper saying it will do one thing and then immediately contradicting itself and saying it’ll do something worse. Employer checks are literally part of the hostile environment, and this proposal still makes every single employer in the country responsible for being an unpaid immigration officer. An assumption of a right to work is no good if employers are still forced to check that right.
To combat illegal entry at Britain’s borders, Liberal Democrats would invest heavily in more Border Force officers, additional training and enhanced technology.
Just to be clear about this, the Border Force is the agency which, in the UK, has much the same powers and responsibilities as ICE (and which takes a similar attitude towards anyone who they think they can safely abuse). This proposal is to expand the UK version of ICE. The Border Force is a branch of the Home Office set up by Theresa May, whose wannabe-Gestapo thugs (almost all ex-military — the ex-military criterion for them in job ads was only dropped earlier this year in Northern Ireland, and I believe it’s still in effect when advertising the jobs in the rest of the UK) take a sadistic pleasure in making life hell for anyone who “looks a bit foreign”.
The authors of this paper really need to read the room. While the rallying cry for progressives in the USA recently has been “abolish ICE” — to the point where I’ve now seen people say “abolish ICE is the centrist position, and prosecute ICE is the leftist one”, these people are claiming to be liberal while saying “Make UK-ICE Great Again!”
They want to give *at least* an extra hundred million pounds to Theresa May’s pet agency (the amount they say will be saved elsewhere, which they say will go to UK-ICE — they’ll also give an unspecified amount more on top of that), while keeping it in the Home Office (an organisation which is itself institutionally hostile and abusive to immigrants in a way which no-one without personal experience of them can believe) so they can carry on abusing immigrants but with even more weapons and body armour than at present.
Personally I think a liberal policy should *at a minimum* abolish unaccountable paramilitary organisations under the direct control of the Home Secretary whose primary role is hositilty to immigrants, but what would I know? I am, after all, only someone who has been repeatedly on the receiving end of their hostility for daring to have a black curly beard that might make me look like a Muslim. My concerns — that I should be able to travel without threat of physical violence for daring to have a beard — are not as legitimate as those of people who once went to the big city and got scared because they saw a Polski Sklep.
These are the two areas — border enforcement and family immigration — which I have personal experience of. I don’t know as much about other aspects of immigration, but I can’t imagine that the other sections of the paper are any better — as a general rule of thumb, where all the bits of something I know about are vile, the bits I don’t know about will turn out to be vile too.
And this is precisely what I’d expect from a working group led by a Clegg-era SPAD who thinks that the most important thing about immigration policy is that we must not, under any circumstances, ever say that a racist is racist (the paper does not even refer to the hard-core 25% of people it claims want significantly more hostility to immigrants as racist — rather it calls them “migration sceptics”, this being the use of the word “sceptic” that has recently become popular, which means “gullible and impervious to reason” rather than the more usual meaning of someone who interrogates the basis for their own beliefs).
This whole thing reeks of the centrist managerialism which pervades the party at the moment, which is also shown in things like the pusillanimous attitude of Brian Paddick towards trans people, the recent statements by both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable that they want a “brake on free movement from Europe” — going against our party constitution and policy and sabotaging our flagship campaigns just because they are so pathologically determined that they can win the votes of people who hate them, or indeed the whole second referendum policy the leadership love so much that they’re now trying to drag us into a referendum with no deal at all as an option (which *will* lead to “no deal” winning and *will* lead to people dying in significant numbers).
In all these cases the managerial centrists’ response to the rise of fascism has been to believe that there *must* be some compromise between the fascists and their victims — “YOU just want to be able to live in the same country as your husband, or to be able to use a public toilet, while YOU want to gas all the Muslims and trans people. You’re both sensible people, I’m sure we can work something out that will make you BOTH happy”. Except it’s worse than that — in the case of immigration, because the victims can’t vote and the bullies and bigots can, the starting point is that any policy must make the bullies happy *first*, and then making the victims happy as well would be a nice-to-have optional extra.
It’s fucking asinine. The West is currently in a culture war between freedom and fascism, and fascism is winning by default because the parties that are supposed to defend freedom *refuse to pick a fucking side*. And so we end up with policies like “Make UK-ICE Great Again” and “let’s do something we state ourselves is damaging to family life”, while still patting ourselves on the back for how fucking generous we’re being to those poor immigrants. It’s sickening, and it’s everything the Lib Dems’ opponents accuse us of being.
If the Lib Dems are really on the side of freedom, as we like to think, we’ll throw this out, go back to the drawing board, and come back with something whose starting point is not appeasing racists, but standing up for liberal principles.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Sympathise totally with your argument. Though I guess that the policy makers are more interested in winning elections than being ethically pure. This is the problem with all modern politics, Politicians are too keen to pander to the perceived opinions of voters, rather than declaring their own views and offering leadership.
This isn’t even “the politicians” though – in the Liberal Democrats, the policy makers are the membership. If this guff was coming from an unaccountable authoritarian like Lord Carlisle or Lord Paddick or someone it’d be one thing; if it was an MP in a Leave constituency like Norman Lamb trying to save his own skin by pandering, it’d be another.
But this is some random ex-SPAD who fundamentally has no fucking idea what it means to be liberal, trying to write a policy paper for a liberal party. I can only pray that with the post-Brexit influx the membership is still liberal enough to throw out this pile of sub-UKIP, fascist-appeasing bullshit.
JHSB you are right. Policy s made by the membership, but unfortunately someone has to write it down, and I think that they are often rather too anxious to follow what is perceived to be public opinion, rather than Liberal member’s opinions. Hopefully we will one day get back to stating a principle and sticking to it, and letting the electorate decide whether they like Liberal principles better than those of the other parties. Following opinion polls just clouds the issues, and ensures that small parties will remain small.