Revisiting representation

It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.

Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.

But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.

In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.

Defending parliamentarism

So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.

Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and judged in their turn at an election.

A parliament of representatives?

But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.

By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.

Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?

That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.

Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.

Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.

What kind of reform?

Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.

The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.

This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.

Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.

Co-operative government

Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.

There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.

At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.

To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?

Mediating mandates

There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.

The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.

It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.

More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.

Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This post was originally published on on 13 March 2017.


Denial versus dread: how the Brexiters misread their neighbours

Britain’s government shows little sign of worrying what fellow EU members think of it. As a lukewarm Remainer, Theresa May kept her head below the parapet; as a born-again Leaver, she won’t be left behind by her hardliners. And so she’s placed them in (notional) charge of Brexit.

Domestically, it’s understandable. Remainers can’t agree on tactics. Leave leaders push for the most brutal Brexit possible, with plenty of support from the Tory back benches‘Liberal Leavers’ find themselves marginalised. May has no need to fear Jeremy Corbyn (whose heart isn’t in this fight anyway); for now, her greatest threats sit behind her. Whose agenda is she likely to back?

So Brexiters hope the EU-27 will simply roll over and offer Britain nearly all its preferred benefits with almost none of its perceived obligations. Mutual interest (defined in British terms) will win out, they say. They mistake the balance of power in the negotiations. They give needless offence and encourage partners to rally against us. Above all, they misunderstand the politics and psychology of the Union they want to leave.

First: ministers argue that as the UK has a trade deficit with the EU-27, the EU-27 has more interest than we do in making British trade no harder than it is now. Leave the mercantilist nonsense that trade is a zero-sum game to one side; just note that 44% of British exports go to the EU-27, while only 8% of EU-27 members’ exports go to us. Note, too, that not all EU members suffer equally from Brexit. And EU-27 trade matters more to other members (yes, including Ireland) than trade with the UK.

Second: some anger with Britain is inevitable. The EU-27 feel rejected; divorce is ugly; human nature and wounded pride conspire against easy goodwill. But because Tories are only talking to British voters and virtually ignoring the continent, we’re rubbing salt into the wounds. May’s stridently nationalist conference speech left the rest of Europe aghast. Calling free movement’s central status a ‘total myth’ and ‘bollocks’ is as offensive as it is inaccurate.

But third and above all, May makes a cardinal error in diplomacy: she assumes the rest of the EU thinks as Britain does. In the end, Britain always treats the EU as a transaction – a trade-off of sovereignty for pragmatic ends. Sure, it doesn’t just think it’s about the money (though let’s face it, it does mainly think it’s about the money). But with few exceptions, British ministers never bought into ‘Europe’ as an ideal. Cameron gloried in his refusal to do so.

It would be absurd to say other governments have no transactional interest in the EU. But it’s not the whole story. Other members believe in the European idea (or at least are invested in it) in a way Britain never really did. The original six members remember what three Franco-German wars in 70 years did to Europe. Spain, Portugal and Greece (yes – despite everything, it doesn’t want Grexit) remember military dictatorship and their journey to the EU afterwards. Eastern European countries remember the two vicious world wars and their communist past, from which they escaped only recently. A Polish foreign minister told his British audience so in no uncertain terms in 2012:

Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.

This shouldn’t be so hard to understand. Britain voted to leave the EU in the face of the economics. Anti-Europeans glory in Britain’s uniqueness. Leavers complained bitterly about ‘political union’. Why, then, can they not grasp that our partners see things differently and won’t put sales of prosecco above the integrity of the European project? How can they not see that Angela Merkel – the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who grew up in atheistic East Germany, who knows the terrible German history which gave birth to the EEC and understands what recently-won freedom means – will (rightly) put the EU above exporting Volkswagens?

British people often object at this point. Why, they ask, can’t a project built for peace and democracy survive without deterring people from leaving it? Well, saying countries which participate in EU projects need to follow the relevant rules is actually pretty reasonable. The EU also legitimately fears the unstitching of the single market if every country can unpick anything it dislikes. But more importantly, the critics are confusing belief in an ideal with blind faith in human nature.

The EU stems from memories of the old Europe, of how low nations and people could sink – from fear, at least in part, of the dark heart of man. Scepticism about human (or unconstrained nation-states’) nature and idealism about the European project are inextricably linked. It’s a precious achievement built not on faith in human civility, but on the need to curb human barbarism. The EU-27 fear for the survival of their project. That obviously stems partly from its many problems. But a nervousness, a belief that something so painstakingly built could easily fall apart, is a feature of European integration – not a bug.

As populist, xenophobic authoritarianism crashes over the West, the EU-27 will fear a return to the darkness all the more. I understand their fear, because I share it. Britain deludes itself if it thinks its faith in balance sheets will come out on top.

Why Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead

Jeremy Corbyn was elected in September 2015 with a decisive mandate. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Labour needs a new leader and that it faces disaster if it does not have one. Those of us who seek to overturn that mandate must make our case now.

In doing so, I want to address the electoral damage to Labour, but that is not my main focus here. Corbyn cannot win: but nor could he devise a workable platform for government, even if he did. Nor is such a platform his priority. As long as he leads, Labour cannot do its job as a serious opposition and an alternative government.

Campaigning efforts

To take electoral efforts first, however: it is evident that Corbyn’s Labour is far from forming a government. He is the first Opposition leader ever to lose seats in local elections in his first year in charge. The Opposition he leads is the first to lose seats in local elections since 1985. The average of polls has never once put Labour ahead of the Tories since Corbyn’s election. This all points to a defeat much worse than in 2015.

Policy and positions aside, Labour’s campaign under Corbyn was unfocused and poor. As a slogan, ‘Standing up, not standing by’ appealed only to the already-converted, who took Tory sins as articles of faith. It said nothing to anyone who wasn’t already convinced – indeed, it had no policy content at all. Our whole local election campaign focused on issues which councils couldn’t affect. Labour won in London – where Sadiq Khan spoke to the majority of Londoners, focused on their priorities and kept Corbyn off the leaflets.

But those problems pale in comparison to our EU referendum effort. We don’t know whether a sharper Labour effort would definitely have changed the outcome. But our leader skipped the launch of Labour In for Britain to attend a CND rally. Even in May, less than half of Labour voters knew their own party’s policy. Our leader constantly referred to the Party line when asked about his own views. He took a week’s holiday three weeks before polling day. I co-ordinated campaign efforts locally and knew I couldn’t go on holiday: clearly Corbyn took a different view. We now know the Leader’s Office consistently weakened pro-European speeches throughout the campaign. It is in genuine doubt how he actually voted himself.

On its own, Corbyn’s failure to campaign properly in the EU referendum is damning. His current position entails responsibility far beyond his own party. This was a crucial vote. It is hard to think of a Leader of the Opposition who has helped inflict more damage on his country.

Competence: credible policy

This isn’t just about whether people like Labour’s policies or how Corbyn campaigns. It is also about whether he can put any coherent platform together or show any kind of judgment on policy. I never thought he could, and events since September have given me no reason to change my mind.

Take the Tories’ Fiscal Charter, with its commitment to deliver an overall Budget surplus. Members and supporters voted for Corbyn to deliver a meaningful ‘anti-austerity’ policy. They got a Shadow Chancellor who first said he’d vote for the Tories’ fiscal charter as ‘little more than political game playing’, then decided he’d better vote against, and then produced a set of fiscal rules pretty similar to Ed Balls’. There’s a good case for a policy of balancing the current budget while borrowing to invest. But trashing that policy, seesawing from one extreme to another and then returning full circle – to general confusion – is no way to advocate it. Instead, McDonnell made Labour (defeated in 2015, to a large extent due to a lack of fiscal credibility) look like a party with no serious understanding of what it even wants, never mind how to achieve it.

Corbyn’s lack of judgment extends to foreign affairs. Reasonable people took different views on Syria, and there were plenty of good arguments against intervention in December. But reasonable disagreement differs from total failure to grasp the nature of the problem. Corbyn’s call for back channels to talk to Daesh fell into the latter category. Daesh is committed to an Islamic caliphate as a prelude to waging jihad on a global basis: striking a deal is literal anathema to its leaders. Syria and Iraq’s territory are not the West’s to negotiate over, and in any case we have nothing we could ever offer Daesh. Millenarian, theocratic totalitarianism cannot be appeased – as anyone with even a basic understanding should be able to grasp.

Corbyn’s positioning on Brexit since the EU referendum has been damningly inept. The morning after the referendum, he demanded the immediate triggering of Article 50, starting the two-year countdown to leaving. We had just fought a whole campaign, one where he had (notionally) been a key campaigner, in which Remain had emphasised the complexity of Brexit, the lack of any plan and the difficult trade-offs if Britain voted Leave. Anyone with even a passing interest in the debate should have known that to start the process immediately, with no permanent Prime Minister, no set of UK negotiating priorities and no discussion with devolved administrations, MPs and others would have been as disastrous as it was farcical.

Our new Brexit Secretary’s stated policy on negotiating with EU partners is either hubris or bluff; a stronger Labour Party could fight to ensure Remain voters’ interests are taken into account by a Government which currently risks sleepwalking into a hard Brexit. Having argued for a disastrous, precipitate negotiation, we have now spent a month supporting single market access while accepting an end to free movement, with no understanding of the contradiction. It is sadly typical that we only got any more clarity once Corbyn faced a leadership challenge and had to explain it to members rather than voters.

We are currently proposing to put Jeremy Corbyn to the country as our candidate for Prime Minister, making crucial decisions at short notice every day. Faced with such decisions as Leader of the Opposition, he has not shown the slightest ability to handle them. And for all his vaunted principles, he shows no interest in how to put them into practice – even if he won an election.

Competence: Parliament, party and country

MPs and peers have said a great deal about Corbyn’s performance as a leader in Parliament. He appointed, sacked and reappointed a Shadow Arts Minister without consulting or informing her while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer; his Shadow Health Secretary had to make camp outside his office to get a decision on NHS policy; his Shadow Transport Secretary found herself undermined on key issues where she had reached an agreement with him in person. He may have claimed credit for Lords victories over tax credits, trade unions and housing, but Labour’s leader in the Lords points out she didn’t even have a conversation with him about those votes: peers were getting on with the job themselves. It is hardly surprising that his MPs have no confidence in his ability to lead.

This partly points to simple incompetence – a theme running throughout Corbyn’s leadership. It also points to a fundamental lack of interest in Parliament itself and the business of Parliament – in government or in opposition. When explaining his refusal to step aside, it was not the country or the voters to whom Corbyn said he felt responsibility; it was the members. Whenever challenged about electoral success, he would cite a growing membership. MPs with concerns are instructed to respect the membership. And so on.

Of course, Labour members and activists are vital. But they cannot be the sole – or even, if I am honest, the primary – focus of accountability for Labour MPs. It’s not just that you can’t be elected without appealing to voters at large: it is a point of principle. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The route from an individual citizen to Number 10 is stewarded by their local MP. It is fundamentally wrong to subordinate that link to a small, though dedicated, subset of activists. MPs should of course listen to their members: but citizens must come first.

The poor management of MPs, the lack of interest in parliamentary change and the refusal to prioritise winning elections point to a fundamental failure to understand that priority – and a rejection of the purpose of the Labour Party. As set out in Clause One of our Constitution, that purpose is to elect Labour representatives to Parliament. We don’t exist for our own benefit: we exist to build a better country.


Like Corbyn, I want a more equal Britain. I want poverty reduced; I want investment in public services; I want the rich to pay a larger share. But I would be lying if I pretended not to have fundamental differences with him, too.

Above all, I reject his anti-Western worldview. It is possible to do this while opposing some recent interventions in the Middle East. I marched against the 2003 Iraq war myself, more than once. But I believe interest and principle point to a UK anchored in Europe and in the Atlantic world. I do not see the European Union as a bosses’ club to be regarded with suspicion: I see it, for all its faults, as the greatest attempt to govern the relations between European states by law rather than power ever seen. To me, the United States is not a country to be held at arm’s length – though of course we can disagree with its leaders – but a liberal democracy and a friend, far more benign than any other plausible world hegemon and essential to our security. I do not share Corbyn’s hostility to Israel: it has done some terrible things, and it should change its policies for its own sake as well as the Palestinians’, but it remains a broadly free, open society in the Middle East and a guarantor to Jews everywhere that, after millennia of persecution, there will always be somewhere to offer refuge.

Corbyn’s worldview has led to some terrible associations and decisions. Rob Francis has said more or less everything that needs to be said about the first: I’ll focus on the second. It leads him, for instance, to want to leave NATO. In fairness, he hasn’t said anything much about NATO since becoming leader (though he did appoint Ken Livingstone to co-chair a defence review, who did), but we have no reason to believe his views have changed. Corbyn refers to a policy based on international law and peace: no one denies these are good things, but Britain has to have an ‘if all else fails’ policy in a supreme national crisis. At present, that policy is based on the NATO alliance. Corbyn wishes to get rid of our current policy, with no alternative in mind. Even if he does compromise on NATO, how are our allies meant to have any confidence in him? Britain already looks like it is considering withdrawing from the world: how would this help?

The assumption that we are always wrong, that the West is always to blame and that the answer must always be for Britain to give ground puts Corbyn at odds with the British people on some of the most fundamental issues of all. Arguing the UK should find an accommodation with Argentina over the Falklands – never mind the views of the people who live there – was a case in point. The public may not think much about the Falklands, but the idea that British people living on British territory should be defended from invasion and have their rights protected by Britain is a red line for them. And they are quite right. A man who seems to place his own country in the wrong in every circumstance is not a man who will ever enter 10 Downing Street.

Finally, I just can’t ignore the minimising, tolerating and denying of anti-Semitism under Corbyn. I’m sorry: I can’t stomach his record. Associating with people any decent politician should shun, failing to take a single step to address anti-Semitic incidents unless forced, refusing to condemn anti-Semitism without qualification: this is not how the leader of a mainstream party should be. If Labour cannot recognise one of history’s most vicious, most insidious prejudices, what are we for? There are few things more shaming than one of our Jewish MPs, attending the launch of a report into anti-Semitism in Labour, finding herself accused of ‘colluding with the media’ – a classic anti-Semitic trope. Worse, she saw her Party leader do nothing and then found he apologised to the man who abused her.


Corbyn’s record exposes the essential unseriousness of Corbynism. Our current leadership has no interest in working out how to sell ‘anti-austerity’ or even what it actually looks like. If we keep a leader the British people will never elect, who we know could never be Prime Minister even if he won, who is incapable of responding to the problems the country faces and who doesn’t even see any of this as his priority, we fail in our basic purpose. Worse, we leave everyone in this country who needs a Labour Government to the mercy of the Conservatives.

Electing Owen Smith as Labour leader won’t fix all the deep problems Labour faces. How to keep enough middle-class liberals and traditional working-class voters in the same tent, make Britain more equal in economic circumstances far more difficult than those of the late 1990s, repair our shattered place in the world, appeal to older voters and speak to all the nations of the UK: all of these problems will remain, and some or all of them will still have to be tackled. But without a new leadership, we can’t even begin to do that.

That is why we need to remove Corbyn. Not to solve our problems, but to start to try and solve them. Not as a quick route to victory, but as the first step towards working out how we can deliver our values in government and persuade our fellow citizens. Not for a quick fix, but for a long, hard slog – gruelling, but the only way to help build the more equal, better country we all want.

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, please do sign up to volunteer.

Brexit, borders, smoke and mirrors

It’s a truism, but very probably correct: if voters prioritise jobs, growth and the economy, Remain will win the EU referendum; if they put immigration and borders first, Leave will triumph.

Remain has by far the stronger economic case: the likely effects on economic growth, the public finances and trading relationships are very clear, and Leave hasn’t really even tried to explain them away. Inevitably, they’re starting to major on migration; and depressingly but unsurprisingly, many leading Leavers are doing so in a profoundly unpleasant fashion.

The evidence on migration’s impact is mixed. Economically, most agree it makes for more growth. Immigrants create demand and thus jobs as well as filling vacancies. Most people’s wages seem very marginally affected, if at all. That said, those at the bottom of the income distribution may lose slightly – although the impact is dwarfed by the economic self-harm Brexit represents, or for that matter the Conservatives’ cuts to welfare, any ‘marginal’ loss will undoubtedly affect them far more than their fellow citizens. Undoubtedly, public services have come under real pressure in areas where migration has been most rapid (though immigrants also play a large role in staffing many of those services).

So it’s completely fair to raise immigration as an issue for wages, public services and indeed a source of anxiety about the pace of change. But it’s not OK to peddle promises you can’t or won’t keep in order to score a point: and Leave has been doing exactly that.

Single market membership means free movement

There is one country in the European Economic Area which has membership of the single market without being required to accept free movement (at least for now): Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein has a population of around 37,000 and a very high proportion of people born abroad. Every other country with single market membership has to accept free movement as part of the deal.

The UK is a relatively large European country. Its net migration rate isn’t exceptionally high by the standards of western Europe. And immigrants contribute more to its public purse than they take out. There is no good reason for it to argue that it and Liechtenstein are the only two countries in the EEA who merit special exemption from free movement, and no reason to believe the rest of the EU will see fit to grant it one anyway.

Global free trade? Get in the queue

As a result, the Leave campaign has talked itself into an economic corner, tacitly arguing for leaving the single market outright. The vast majority of economists are clear this would be immensely damaging for the economy, and thus for British jobs and wages. It would hurt the real incomes of the poorest far more than immigration from EU member states ever could.

At the very least, you might expect Leavers to have some semblance of an economic alternative for the UK once it leaves the single market covering 44% of its trade and the trade deals covering more again. So far, the strategy seems to be ‘strike a free trade deal with the EU and a whole host of other countries and then be a hyper-liberal, hyper-open economy afterwards.’

This relies on other states, many either profoundly alienated or utterly bemused by Britain’s presumed decision to walk out on its neighbours, moving the UK to the front of the queue for special trade deals – a willingness which the US, WTO and others have made clear does not exist. Brexiteers often seem to think it also involves torching EU-protected workers’ rights: centre-left Leavers should think hard before lending their names to it.

Open economies have porous borders

How does all this relate to the immigration debate? Let’s look at the 2015 estimated net migration rates per 1,000 of population for the main developed economies (microstates aside) outside the EEA and Switzerland, by comparison with the UK.

UN Population Department CIA World Factbook
Singapore 14.90 14.05
Canada 6.71 5.66
Australia 8.87 5.65
Hong Kong 4.20 1.68
United States 3.17 3.86
United Kingdom 2.83 2.54
Israel 2.24 0.50
South Korea 1.27 0.00
Japan 0.55 0.00
New Zealand 0.33 2.21
Taiwan —– 0.89

Note that the free-market entrepôts (Singapore, Hong Kong) have pretty high migration levels. That’s unsurprising: they’re open to cash from abroad, trade with abroad, investment from abroad – and thus, generally, people from abroad. Multinational companies want to bring people in; relatively open labour markets attract people looking for work, and employers can find it hard to fill gaps; aggressively anti-immigration policy/rhetoric may deter investment. The US, Canada and Australia have notably higher immigration levels than ours (New Zealand’s rate has fluctuated over the years). The exceptions are the East Asian countries, and they all face severe demographic crunches. Japan, in particular, has had sluggish growth for decades and has been trying to tackle its labour market problems without more immigration – without much success.

So is Leave’s plan for Britain to assert itself as a detached, trading nation, dealing with the whole world as openly as possible and pursuing a free trade strategy with the wider world? If so, it’s singing siren songs of pulling the drawbridge up, while its economic ‘strategy’ implies throwing it down. The tenor of its campaign is ‘Stop the world, I want to get off’; the logic of its economics is ‘Ride the world at breakneck speed.’

Perhaps immigration levels would be a bit lower outside the single market; perhaps a somewhat lower share of immigrants would be unskilled workers. But Brexit wouldn’t change the fundamentals: we would still have substantial net immigration, and the ‘tens of thousands’ target would remain a chimera. (People who say Brexit would allow more liberal Commonwealth migration know this perfectly well: net migration from outside the EU is 188,000.) Being ejected from the single market we helped create, helping set off a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, losing security co-operation, undermining a leading actor on climate change and losing influence in the world is a very high price to pay for some tweaks at the margin.

Brexit and the excluded middle

The Leave campaign has spent plenty of time, at least until recently, assuring us we can have the best of all worlds. If you believe them, Britain’s clout will be enough to secure single market access, an end of free movement, no need to accept EU rules and more besides. We will, apparently, be free from all Europe’s supposed downsides and keep all its benefits.

This is pure fantasy, for reasons ably outlined elsewhere. The rest of the EU won’t offer a deal where the UK gets full market access, including services, without taking on EU rules and accepting freedom of movement. The UK may be larger than Norway, and a major partner for the rest of the EU, but they account for 44% of our trade and we account for 8% of theirs: it’s quite clear who needs whom more. Anyway, we’re not going to be allowed to be a member of the single market with no obligation to implement EU rules as a matter of principle. A 64-million strong loophole in the rules of the single market will, reasonably, be seen as flagrant social dumping, and if the purpose isn’t to allow the UK to have lower social and regulatory standards than the EU, then why would we be trying to opt out in the first place? Above all, it would set a baleful precedent for future exits: if Britain could leave, keep everything it liked about the EU and drop everything it didn’t, why couldn’t anyone else? And how long would the EU itself last in such circumstances? The whole project is built on compromise and tradeoffs: Europe can’t afford to unpick the whole bargain thread by thread. So if we leave, the question will be how many trade-offs we choose to make to keep some of what we have now as an EU member.

But it’s worse than that: the very terms of the referendum debate could make even a least-worst Brexit deal impossible. Vote Leave and Leave.EU are currently fighting campaigns where immigration and (narrowly defined) sovereignty take centre stage. How could a post-Brexit Britain, having rejected the very principle of common rules it played a major part in making, then accept common rules on which it didn’t even get a vote? How, having voted against free movement, could it then accept its continuation in return for less influence in Europe and more imperfect access to its markets than before? How on earth could the Leave side defend such an outcome, and how on earth could Britain see it as an acceptable relationship with the EU after Brexit?

The answer, surely, is that it couldn’t. The victorious Brexiteers couldn’t be seen to accept such terms: their own side would tear them apart, and they wouldn’t want to anyway. Many of them have dedicated their lives to tearing down supranational cooperation: why would they readopt it immediately after their greatest victory? People in Vote Leave don’t really think they would: why else are they happy to cite the Canadian free trade agreement (which doesn’t include services) as a favourable model?

Brexiteers’ claims and their stated aims lead inexorably to outright rejection of the single market and a loss of full access. In time, that means a return of barrier after barrier to half our trade, or a slew of standards set by others which we’ll have to meet (again, for less access than we’d have in the EU or EEA), or a bit of both. There’s a destructive dynamic to this campaign on the Leavers’ side: their ideological hostility to the European institutions forces them into ever more uncompromising degrees of separation. The consequence is that abstract sovereignty takes precedence over concrete jobs; marginally reduced immigration trumps the end of single market access.

If you’re voting Leave to secure some middle ground, don’t: not only the preservation of the EU but also the logic of the Brexiteers’ own arguments make it a mirage. Rightly or wrongly, Britain already has a middle ground – outside the euro and Schengen, granted an opt-in on justice and home affairs, but still a major player in the European institutions. We secured that status because we had a seat at the table and a vote on the rules. If we walk away from the table and throw our vote away, don’t expect us to pull it off a second time.

Slipping behind: with benefit reform, keep an eye on the index

Historians generally agree that cutting back public spending is difficult in a modern democracy.  Losers shout louder than winners; the most expensive programmes are generally the ones with the most interests behind them; radical cuts are more likely to provoke strong reactions.  (Similar objections apply to tax rises, of course.)  The current cuts are striking, not just in their sheer unprecedented scale, but in the extent to which they cut back on services on which a lot of people rely in a very visible way.

So governments have always tended to fiddle with the small print of tax and spending rules – it’s hard to twig exactly what’s going on, the consequences aren’t immediately clear and by the time the full impact is clear the deed will already be done.  Freezing the basic-rate limit (or, in days gone by, the personal allowance) for income tax is a classic example.  So, too, with changing the rules for calculating benefit increases.

Of course, the Government’s already played this game.  Nearly £6bn of its £18bn of planned welfare savings come from changing the measure of inflation used in uprating benefits from RPI/the Rossi Index, depending on the benefit, to CPI (see p40 of the Emergency Budget).  This is simply because small changes, repeated each year, add up.  If you look at the chart here, the impact over a long period becomes very clear.  Whether Gordon Brown specialised in stealth taxes or not, George Osborne certainly has a fondness for stealth cuts.

The exception to the rule is the Coalition’s ‘triple guarantee’ on state pensions, guaranteeing annual increases of the highest of an increase in earnings, prices or 2%.  Of course, this will start undoing the work of the last Conservative Government, when it broke the link between pensions and earnings.  The (clearly documented) consequence was that the basic state pension fell further and further as a share of earnings – from 20% in 1978 to under 15% by 1998; it has carried on falling ever since.  That trend will now reverse over time; but note how differently a large, vocal, Conservative-inclined group is being treated from people on low incomes, with disabilities or in need of housing.

We need to spell it out: the decision to uprate benefits by CPI rather than RPI is a straightforward decision to make the very poorest people in Britain poorer.  It hits people on Income Support, on Jobseeker’s Allowance, on Incapacity Benefit or ESA.  As the Government are even cutting the link between Local Housing Allowance and rent levels, it will drive more and more people out of their homes: eventually, given long enough, it will make people out and out homeless.  (This holds even if we ignore the effect of all the other LHA cuts.)  The single biggest policy change, fiscally speaking, in the Emergency Budget and the Spending Review combined is a plain and simple cut to the incomes of Britain’s most disadvantaged inhabitants – one which will be repeated every year, until it changes.

That’s quite bad enough as it is, and it makes the Government’s claim that it’s determined “not [to] balance the books on the backs of the poor” look pretty hollow already.  This September, the difference between CPI (5.2%) and RPI (5.6%) was fairly small, but the long-term effect will be dramatic.  So for the Government to even consider ways of reducing the annual rise again, even for one year only, is a particularly nasty attack on the living standards of a lot of very vulnerable people.  The reason inflation is high is that the cost of living is going up: a lot of that is to do with global food prices, which (as a relatively fixed cost) will bear especially hard on the poorest.  When the IFS says that £1.4bn (out of £1.8bn) could be saved by averaging out six months’ worth of inflation figures, they mean that most of a badly needed boost to incomes for the very poorest people in the country could be removed.

If the Government want to argue that that’s justified, then I’d disagree, but it’s a point for debate.  But they cannot then claim that they’re not “balancing the books on the backs of the poor”.  As a matter of cold, hard, statistical fact – whether they go ahead with this one-off change or not – they already are.

Lords in limbo: apply the Salisbury Convention in spirit as well as letter, please

Lords reform has been fairly heavily trailed for some time now, and we’ve had a bit more confirmation that the White Paper is on the way in the past couple of days.  I’ll be glad to see the Government make headway on this: despite the outcome of the AV referendum, Lords reform has been a longstanding commitment from politicians of all parties and the evidence has always been pretty clear that a majority of the public believe our second chamber should be (at least predominantly) elected.

Personally, I think this really should be a fairly cut-and-dried issue.  Members of the House of Lords are not primarily independent experts, sources of warnings or nods to tradition.  These are all understandable things to want, and we ought to think much harder about how we integrate expertise into our legislative process, but they are not the primary role of the people who vote in the second chamber.  They are, first and foremost, legislators – and legislators whose record of changing Bills and therefore policy is significant and growing.  If we want expertise, we should make sure we have it in the right committees and the right debates for the right issues.  (Could some experts even sit on Select Committees, in the Commons and in a new second chamber, as non-voting, co-opted members?)

The people who actually do make our laws should be democratically accountable.  In an ideal world, therefore, we should finish up with nothing less than a 100% elected second chamber.  I’m relatively relaxed about the finer points of STV versus open lists (lists where you can choose a candidate within a party list rather than just opting for a party): so long as it’s a proportional system where voters don’t just have to tick a party box, I’ll settle for it.

With regard to the likely plans to come from the Government: I’m not ecstatic about the idea of 15-year terms and I have fairly serious reservations about single terms – I think it’s an important principle that legislators should have to at least consider the possibility that they might want to face the electorate again, and if we’re serious about democracy then we have to accept that that requires accountability.  Electing by thirds (or halves, or quarters) is sensible, though: our new Senate should be a more continuous body than the House of Commons, and a combination of PR and staggered elections would help to make sure it fits the bill.  In terms of dealing with the current members of the Lords, I think an arrangement along the lines of the Cranborne deal might make sense – which would mean that we’d have 200 left in 2015, 100 left in 2020 and none by 2025 (when the full complement of Senators would have been elected).

But I’m enough of a pragmatist to understand that, if you want Lords reform at all, you can’t let the best be the enemy of the good.  The fact that people haven’t recognised that is exactly why Lords reform hasn’t happened, even with a Labour government who said they wanted it in charge for 13 years.  So if Nick Clegg can even secure an 80% elected second chamber, even with twelve voting bishops (though the latter will cause me real pain …) and even with all the other peers staying until 2025, then I’ll see that as a major step forwards and a real achievement.  Of course, that depends on his Coalition partners voting it through.  Whether the Conservatives will choose to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Coalition Agreement remains to be seen: if they choose not to, no doubt Liberal Democrats will feel even more betrayed than many of them do already.

The other question is how fiercely the House of Lords will resist being reformed.  Everyone seems to agree that they will fight tooth and nail against reform.  I do appreciate that, when people find themselves on the red benches, they have an uncanny knack of seeing the wisdom of allowing the nation to carry on benefiting from their wisdom.  The Cross Benches’ reluctance is understandable, given that there would undoubtedly be pretty few (if any) of them in a 100% elected second chamber and that their role would inevitably be questioned in an 80% elected one.  In any case, the difficulties the Lords could cause for reform, and for large areas of Government business, are very substantial indeed.

It’ll eventually be a question of whether the Coalition has the political will to push change through, whether peers like it or not.  But one thing I really don’t understand is: on what basis do the Lords think they have any right to derail this legislation at all?  All three main party manifestos called for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.  All parties have been reasonably clear, with some wobbling from the Conservatives in the past, that the second chamber would need to be elected by some sort of proportional system.  In 2005, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also called for a wholly or majority elected second chamber too.

It seems to me that, if a pledge won the support of both parties in the Coalition when they went to the country (as well as the Opposition and a number of the smaller parties), we have a pretty clear case of the Salisbury Convention in action.  I can see why the Lords might query some Coalition compromises in that regard: no one got to vote for the Coalition Agreement.  But on this one, I just can’t see where the ambiguity lies.  It was proposed: it was in the manifestos: it’s now in the process of being turned into a White Paper, and hopefully a Bill.  If there’s any defence, it’s surely of the most technical kind.  Where exactly did the Salisbury Convention include a bit saying the Lords didn’t have to apply it to their own seats?