Don’t know about you, but I’m worried. It looks as though we are in danger of breaking Katwala’s Law. Roadtested at party conferences this year, this is the Sunder Katwala’s brilliant observation that – when it comes to immigration – ‘make promises you can keep’.
Look, I can buy the idea that you can charge citizens of visa waiver countries a small amount and hypothecate it to Border Force staff. (Though that is in danger of simply subscribing to the primitive notion that numbers – whether teachers, nurses, police – are what matters, and not effectiveness.) But it is easy to say and relatively easy to do.
However, I am a whole lot more sceptical about barring migrants from accessing benefits for two years. To start with, it’s pretty clear that this won’t stand a challenge in court. At its most basic, if a migrant worker does a year in a job and pays their stamps but then is made redundant any attempt to bar them from contributory benefits will be direct discrimination. If they have children then I fail to see, in this case, how they can be barred from the benefits aimed at preventing child poverty. (Or are we saying that families should be separated from parents for two years?).
What about in-work benefits? A large part of them are paid to prevent poverty. (And please don’t give me the living wage spiel. I don’t want to hear reheated, patriarchal drivel about the Family Wage). What is the legal basis – let alone moral justification – for saying that some children should live in poverty because their parents are foreigners? Again, I predict a successful legal challenge.
How about Brits living and working abroad? If this ‘two-year rule’ is a habitual residence test then it applies to them. I look forward to the first nurse returning from Australia to care for his or her elderly mother being denied benefits. Which side will we be on then? The wrong side. Just as we are now. If voters want cruelty they are spoilt for choice. If, however, they want compassion the the market is empty.
Of course, we are being buffetted by populism. The two big winners in Rochester were the United Kingdom Independence party who won the seat and the Greens – who left the Liberal Democrats for dead. (And that latter point isn’t a figure of speech – it was the worst Liberal Democrat by-election in their history. So much for their superior ground war.)
This is a huge problem. Not, as we often think because we should have a better response to populism than we have. But because we shouldn’t need to be buffetted in the first place – the right analysis and an effective strategy give you the political ballast to pursue a steady course.
Well, in a brilliant new Policy Network pamphlet The Popular Centre: How Progressives Can Beat the Populist Challenge Hopi Sen sets out to provide just such an analysis for us and for progressives in Europe. For we are not alone – there is a challenge facing us in many countries. Different in form in each, but sharing family characteristics. Hopi’s prescription is simple – but then the best solutions often are, because they are elegant. He writes:
By combining focused, concrete, limited social policy changes with a passion for reform of a failing politics and governance, it once again becomes possible to construct a popular centre capable of beating the populisms of right and left on their own terms.
How good is this pamphlet, I hear you ask. So good you should read it yourself.
No really, how good, you ask. So good I wish I had written it.
As I said, it’s in the air this whole populism business.
Douglas Alexander is making a typically thoughtful contribution tonight in a speech in Scotland called ‘Changing Times, Changing Politics’. Douglas’s argument is that we misunderstand current politics if we only look at the headlines about Ukip. We are in what he calls ‘post-crash’ politics and that that is expressing itself not as apathy or disengagement but as an active force transforming our politics. Read it alongside Hopi’s pamphlet: www.douglasalexander.org.uk
John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan
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