Migration is a Social Imperative

The ‘debate’ – and this label is highly questionable – over immigration in the United Kingdom has come to establish a strong foothold in contemporary political discourse. But beyond the cheap populism which plays to the misguided perception of immigration being a negative phenomenon, migration represents a social imperative which we must defend earnestly.

The Conservatives have launched an all-out assault on immigration, seeking to curtail the right to free movement in the European Union, taking steps to combat the virtually nonexistent benefit and healthcare ‘tourism’, and aiming to reduce net migration to an arbitrary level. On the other side of the political divide, Labour has sought to apologise for New Labour’s stance on immigration, promising instead to in some way curtail low-skilled immigration, and to be more aware of the social impact of immigration on communities. Most senior figures in both parties recognise the myriad benefits of immigration, but have opted to embark upon the politically expedient path of immigrant-bashing, seemingly failing to recognise the immensely pernicious long-term effects of doing so.

The much more politically challenging, but ultimately just stance, is to defend migration as a social imperative. Migration is not merely economically beneficial, but also hugely culturally enriching as well. Moreover, migration has powerful philosophical and ethical groundings.

The economic justification for migration is a straightforward one – it greatly expands the range of individuals able to occupy vacant positions in the economy. The greater the number of people available, the greater the chance that vacancies in the economy will be taken by truly committed, proficient, and astute individuals. With proficient individuals driving the economy forward, the economy produces more advantageous and beneficial results for all in society.

Although rarely mentioned in contemporary political discourse, there are also manifold cultural benefits to society stemming from migration. Nigel Farage took many political observers by surprise when, in an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Farage suggested that ‘there is more to life than money… the social side of this matters more than pure market economics’. In the wake of this comment, some commentators have suggested that those in favour of migration simply cannot effectively counter those who oppose immigration from a sociocultural standpoint, as Farage has done. Quite to the contrary, the cultural dividends of migration are immense and hugely beneficial to society. The globalised nature of the modern world has made it such that many modern societies have evolved from being mostly monocultural, to being truly multicultural. These societies have been hugely enriched by the diversity of the many cultures that exist within them. Beyond the immediate cultural reward of multiculturalism which manifests itself in the proliferation of alternative ideas, lifestyles, art, and creativity, embraced multiculturalism also fosters much more tolerant, liberal, and open societies which are able to be much more aware of the world around them, and much more willing to engage with ideas which might otherwise be considered to be unusual or different.

Finally, the philosophical and ethical basis for migration is hugely powerful. Although the members of humanity are born into different societies and cultures, we are all fundamentally human and inhabitants of the same planet. Thus, it is difficult to justify from an ethical perspective strict border controls which curtail immigration and prevent people from migrating to other parts of the world to build a better life for themselves, their families, and ultimately the global citizenry. Indeed, in this light, the nation-state’s ability to in essence discriminate against individuals from other countries is deeply archaic and unreasonable. In the globalised economy, there also exists a disparity between capital and people – in a world where capital increasingly knows no borders, nor should people. The European Union is a bright beacon for progress in this sense with its right to free movement for all European citizens within the EU, which forms not just a central component of the Single Market, but also a central component of the EU’s constellation of social rights.

Taken together, these aspects of migration make a powerfully positive case for migration. The rise of nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, and anti-immigrant political movements was an inevitable byproduct of the global financial crisis, foreseeable as a distinct possibility by any student of history. It is notable that the United Kingdom has fared relatively well in its ability to eschew the sort of extremist politics which have come to threaten peace, safety, and order in some other European countries such as Greece. However, many mainstream politicians have found it politically expedient to appeal and provide succour to the reactionist anti-immigrant movement precipitated by the global financial crisis. In times of great economic hardship, the fear of ‘outsiders’ may be easily exploited by those seeking the most expedient path to power. While this may be politically advantageous in the short-term, such a course of action will be deeply pernicious in the long-term. Fundamentally, migration is a social imperative and to allow it to be strictly curtailed is to betray this imperative. Migration must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of short-term political expedience.

Credit: Karoly Lorentey - http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorentey/1438477358

An Encompassing Parliament

The UK Parliament, in its current form, is anachronistic, and needs to not merely reform, but transform entirely. Parliament needs to change from being composed of two separate chambers, to being composed of three distinct but collaborative representative bodies: national politicians, nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

The House of Commons is elected through an archaic, and in many regards arcane, electoral system which fails consistently to reflect the political and social fabric of the country. The system also makes it immensely difficult for political movements to produce substantial change outside the scope of the two primary parties.

The introduction of mixed member proportional representation (MMP) to the House of Commons would fundamentally alter and enhance the tenor and character of politics in Britain. It would empower every single voter, as currently millions are left essentially disenfranchised. This is owing to the nature of first-past-the-post elections and safe seat constituencies, wherein the votes of those who opt not to support the predominate political party within their constituency have virtually no effect on the wider national election result. MMP would also herald in coalition politics as a mainstay of our democracy, and in doing so ensure that a greater cross section of our society is represented in government than would be the case under a majoritarian electoral system. Majoritarian governments almost invariably represent a minority of the population, while coalition governments generally represent over half of all voters.

The House of Lords is, quite simply, not elected at all, and has virtually no substantial democratic mandate. While its nominal role as being a measured and nonpartisan collection of specialists, experts, and leading lights in all walks of life is an admirable and vital one, its composition must have democratic foundations which can only be achieved through democratic elections. The recent phenomenon by which governing political parties seek to, as it were, “pack” the Lords with partisan peers is also deeply disobliging in relation to the Lords’ aforementioned nominal role.

Owing to the immense dislocation in legitimacy experienced by the Lords, it should be abolished and its responsibilities assumed by two new representative bodies: nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

Civil society, in the form of charities, pressure groups, think tanks, and other similar organisations, have never been truly represented in the legislative process, and are often sidelined by governments. The transformation of Parliament would allow us to address this problem directly, with the most favourable solution being the creation of a representative body of civil society. This body would be elected nationally, preferably under the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, possibly with staggered elections, with each candidate being a nonpartisan organisation. It could potentially be the case that individuals, alongside organisations, could be elected, with a share of the seats being allocated to organisations, while another share is allocated to individuals; for instance, a 75/25 allocation of the seats between the two types (organisation, individual) of candidate. In the allocation of seats to individuals, decision makers would need to be acutely aware of the dangers of personality politics. The imperative should be to ensure that this body effectively represents civil society in a measured manner.

Devolution has established a seismic shift in British politics, placing much more power in the hands of regional representatives. Devolution will almost certainly be extended in the future to the remaining English regions which currently lack the same degree of regional representation that their fellow Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and London counterparts enjoy. However, there is no institutional representation of regional interests at the national level. This should be resolved by the creation of a representative body of regional envoys, each acting as a delegate for their regional government. This body of delegates would be similar to that of the Bundesrat of Germany.

Ultimately, the Commons would preserve its legislative supremacy, with the other two bodies scrutinising legislation emanating from the Commons, just as the Lords does currently. It could also be the case that legislation pertaining to devolution would require consent of the regional delegation body, though this is an area where discussion will be needed.

Significantly however, this model of Parliament would depart from the traditional concept of there being two bodies residing in two separate chambers. Instead, this model would establish ubiquitous and extensive interbody and intergovernmental collaboration. All three of the bodies would, for instance, attend Prime Minister’s Questions, rather than only the national politicians. Moreover, the bodies would often share the same chamber and debate. This would cultivate a much more fluid, flexible, and open legislative and deliberative process.

It is vital that we recognise that we have long passed the point of reform in Parliament. We cannot simply tinker around the edges in a piecemeal manner. We must tackle the issues and anachronisms of Parliament directly, in a cohesive and cogent manner. Anything short of a total transformation of Parliament will fail to produce the change in politics that is desperately needed in Britain.

(Featured Image Credit: Karoly Lorentey)

Labour is entertaining the concept of negative campaigning, a dangerous endeavour

Labour have released a political advertisement on their YouTube channel with the title “You can’t trust David Cameron with the NHS”. While I would agree with this title, the contents are wholly reprehensible and have the potential, if left unchallenged, to signify a dark turn in British politics and Labour campaign practise.

My discomfort with this advert stems from the fact that it is a form of negative campaigning. At no point does the advert outline Labour’s own policies in the health arena. It merely lists the failures of the coalition government. More than this though, it also teeters precariously close to being an attack ad. Government is not run by one person, it is run by a cabinet of ministers and supported by political parties, but this advert attacks David Cameron personally. The advert was likely created in response to the Conservatives having published a similarly distasteful advert of their own, which took aim at both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Clearly, though, stooping to the unscrupulous level of your opponents is never a positive campaign strategy.

The British electorate has been mostly shielded from the practise of negative campaigning, as political advertising on radio and television is strictly regulated, allowing only occasional time slots for party political broadcasts. The situation is manifestly different in the United States, where negative campaigning forms a central part of political campaigns, is essentially unregulated, involves billions of dollars, and cultivates a very dark and petty political culture.

The advent of the web, and its rapid ascent to the upper echelons of media consumption, while a positive thing for political discourse in many ways, has the potential to diminish the tempered and healthy state of political advertising enjoyed in Britain up to this point. General spending constraints are placed upon political parties and election candidates, but the legislation which regulates political advertising only does so for radio and television, leaving political advertising on the web essentially unregulated. Political parties, if they wish to do so and are able to raise the necessary funds, have the capacity to publish any type of political advertising on the web with no strings attached.

In order to prevent British political advertising from degrading into the obnoxious form present in the United States, the major political parties must come together to establish a cross-party consensus on how to move forward in adapting regulation in this area to respond to the innovations of new media. For instance, web-based political advertising could be limited in its quantity and restricted to only being displayed during particular periods of time. What is ultimately important, however, is that all parties recognise that the rise of negative campaigning in any significant quantity will considerably damage the tenor of debate, damaging all parties equally and substantially diminishing the quality of political discourse in Britain.

Credit: The Prime Minister's Office - http://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/4600963461/

The coalition has, inadvertently, made the case for proportional representation

If, for one moment, we divorce the coalition government from its oft-controversial policies, and assess the government’s political stability, we unearth a startling discovery. British politics, having had a modus operandi of two-party majority politics for the better part of a century, is fully capable of dealing with the complexities and shift in political culture that is intrinsic within coalition politics.

It’s very easy now, after three years of coalition politics, to forget the challenges faced by the coalition as they entered government in the summer of 2010. Coalitions are never easy, and there are innumerable examples of them crumbling and fracturing political systems throughout the life of Western democracy, such as Weimar Germany’s troubled fledgling democracy and the more recent difficulties in Greece and Italy. The coalition’s survival, and its apparent strengthening as time goes on, is remarkable. The last time Britain was governed by a coalition was during the Second World War, and to stack the odds against the coalition further still, the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, had not walked through the corridors of power since its predecessor’s (the Liberal Party) decline during the 1920s. The ideological chasm between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is also, arguably, notably greater than that between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Against the backdrop of such daunting odds, the coalition remains and has persevered through challenging episodes of disunity which would even be discomforting in political systems where coalitions form part of the status quo. The Liberal Democrats, lacking any experience of Downing Street prior to 2010, are now able to boast a showcase of truly ministerial personalities such as Vince Cable and Danny Alexander. And while not all elements of the coalition agreement have been achieved, the central tenets upon which the coalition was founded remain at the heart of government policy, with little prospect of this changing in the future. The coalition’s stability must also be seen as a crowning testament to the truly world-class nature of this country’s civil service, without the quality of which the coalition’s survival would have been much more tenuous.

In terms of the political reality of support for the coalition’s policies, the atmosphere is patently less rosy, and rightfully so. But the coalition’s political stability is hugely significant for British politics. Coalitions form a central part of proportionally-elected parliamentary systems in practise, and as a result the coalition’s political stability is a ringing endorsement for introducing proportional representation into British national politics.

(Featured Image Credit: The Prime Minister’s Office)

Economic growth is no longer enough

The growth rate of a nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP, has long been heralded as the automatic solution to all of society’s ills.

The concept is simple enough to grasp: employment usually increases in tandem with economic growth, with labour being required to drive such growth. With increased employment and a competitive labour market, wages increase, as do living standards.

This has largely proven true for nations transitioning to and developing industrialised economies, with relative affluence spreading amongst the population, establishing the exalted middle class.

However, for today’s most developed nations, economic growth is increasingly becoming a facile obsession for those who extol free market ideals with little substance. The standards of living that we, in the developed world, have rightfully come to expect, are no longer being met by the automatic effects of growth.

Instead, society is becoming stagnant. Wealth inequality shows no sign of receding from its horrendous level, the megre minimum wage leaves millions of workers earning less than the living wage, and dismal zero-hour contracts have proliferated in many sectors of the economy.

The combination of a meagre minimum wage which is nowhere near the living wage and the ascendance of workfare policies which in essence force the unemployed out of the welfare state and into underpaid jobs produces a situation worryingly analogous to a modern, subtle, concealed and quasi-voluntary form of slavery.

I am aware that such an assertion, with all the very negative historical connotations of the term “slavery”, sounds strong. But, take a step back for a moment and think about the lives of the lowest paid in our society.

Their jobs often entail menial and demoralising tasks. They are paid well below the living wage. There is often minimal prospect for finding a higher paying job in the future. They suffer the stress and anxiety incurred as a result of high living costs for food and bills, the continuous spectre of overwhelming debt, and the disheartening position their life is placed in. Further, the state, stung by the misguided populist stigma of “scroungers and skivers”, has effectively abandoned them.

Clement Attlee’s welfare and public services consensus established following Allied victory in the Second World War has done much to counter many of the societal imbalances caused by dizzying wealth inequality. But, short of the state paying all citizens the living wage they deserve, there is little more the state can fiscally or institutionally do to offset the inequitable wage realities of millions of citizens.

While Ed Miliband’s concept of predistribution hardly struck a chord with people outside academic circles, it is highly apposite to the problems described previously which modern society faces. The idea of predistribution, put simply, is that fundamental changes can be made to the way in which the economy functions, which in turn builds a fairer society, even before redistribution provides more tangible effects such as public services and the welfare state.

We must maintain and continue to advance the idea of strong public services such as the National Health Service. Additional public services, such as trains and utilities, should also be integrated into the public sector. However, we must equally recognise that within a capitalist system, the capitalists must also play a role in improving the quality of people’s lives, as oxymoronic as such a proposition may sound. The state should not in effect subsidise and tacitly approve of people being underpaid for the labour they provide to businesses. Instead, government should be much firmer on the rights of employees and more statutorily active in ensuring not just the volume of jobs, but the quality.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna recently recognised the systemic issues of employment, by stating that “any old job won’t do“, in response to the government’s pursuit of raising employment regardless of the quality of employment.

The value of a job should not be seen from a purely macroeconomic standpoint, but rather from the perspective of the person occupying that job. In a developed society such as ours, the mere fact that someone is employed does not automatically translate into higher living standards for them, far from it.

Finally, we must also pay much greater attention to the happiness of the nation. In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that a distinct chasm exists between the economic productivity and happiness of the nation. This touches upon the need to transform not merely wages, but also the conditions in which people work, in order to reduce stress by building more relaxed and productive workspaces.

To summarise, while in the past economic growth has automatically led to an increase in living standards and the establishment of a burgeoning middle class which enjoy high living standards, in a developed nation such as ours it is no longer enough for growth to be the primary source of the reduction of wealth inequality and the advancement of people’s living standards. Instead, we must shift our attention as a society towards people’s wages, working conditions and happiness, and then act to combat the issues which arise from these metrics, rather than relying upon traditional conceptualisations of growth trumping all else and being the panacea for all of society’s ills.

Parties should be funded by the state

Ed Miliband’s recent foray into Labour’s funding by trade unions has brought the question of state funding of political parties to the foreground, once again highlighting the reluctance on the part of the political class to consider state funding, due to fear of public opinion.

While it is true to claim that money yields far lesser clout in British politics than the infamous multi-billion dollar campaigns of the United States, our current system of party funding is not ideal.

State funding of political parties is commonplace in countries like Sweden and Germany. The amount of funding that parties receive from the state is usually relative to the share of the popular vote which they receive in elections. State funding helps parties in these countries focus on reaching out to the electorate and crafting policy for the population, rather than spending time chasing around and attempting to entice and impress potential donors.

Some commentators strongly deplore the concept of state funding, as they believe that parties with public support should be capable of raising funds independently. As for the public’s apparent disdain for state funding, it is understandable. The idea that technically a small fraction of your taxes will be helping to fund a political party you do not support appears rather unfair and unpalatable.

Funds raised through membership fees and average member donations account for only a small fraction of the total expenditure of modern political parties. The shortfall is primarily made up for by wealthy donors such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Ashcroft, alongside funding from groups such as businesses and trade unions. While British politics is by no means corrupt, the current system of party funding could be said to be democratically disproportionate in some cases (the Conservatives have greater campaign funds than Labour, even during Labour’s time in government between 1997-2010), and to some degree exposes parties to minor influence from individuals and organisations with considerable sums of money.

Parties are a pivotal and essential component of functional democracy. They organise broad but similar standpoints into cohesive groupings with clear agendas. The modern political party is in a near-constant state of campaigning, participating in elections for public office and also supporting local movements and issues. They mobilise activists, hire advisors and political staff, craft comprehensive policy, and commission and conduct opinion polls and studies. These are all crucial aspects of any liberal democracy, but all come with a hefty price which must be paid for by someone.

Of course, smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP would receive minimal state funding due to the fact that our national electoral system is majoritarian, rather than because of state funding itself. Within a proportional system, smaller parties would enjoy greater representation in Parliament and subsequently receive proportionate state funding.

To conclude, in the grand scheme of things, no other scheme rivals state funding in its ability to tackle, and depending upon the extent of the funding provided, eliminate the role of monetary influence in the political process. There really are only two options when it comes to party funding: either continue to have parties rely upon wealthy donors, or have the state support electorally-successful parties, thus establishing a neutral revenue stream and greater transparency in policy-making.

Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare

The debate over the future of welfare has intensified over the past year or so, with Labour being placed under increasing pressure to declare its vision, and the right of the party and especially the “Blue Labour” faction advocating a downsizing of the welfare state which would be tantamount to a new consensus, abandoning the settlement established by the Attlee government following the Second World War which established uniformity and more importantly equality of treatment when it comes to welfare.

In it’s simplest form, welfare exists to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. It combats the inherent weaknesses of capitalism by preventing members of our society from slipping into regressive cycles of poverty where generations would otherwise be presented with a very limited scope of opportunities and the inability to escape poverty. More than this though, it builds a sense of societal solidarity where we, as a group, recognise that life does not always go to plan and that we all need support at times in our lives due to no fault of our own. In these situations, people deserve to be treated with respect and helped to return to some sense of normality in order to get back on their feet. Significantly, this support does not exist for society to give itself a pat on the back, but due to the fact that at a fundamental level all humans are equal with a common set of rights which should not be subject to upbringing, life choices or wealth.

The basic goal of Labour is not to have a big state or to centralise government. Instead, it is simply to build a society in which every person has equal opportunities and a pleasant quality of life. For this reason, some in Labour have mooted the concept of contributory welfare. The idea is a rather adventurous reimagination of welfare which would see people ‘pay’ into the system. The more someone ‘pays’ in, the more they get out in times of need. Professor Heinz Wolff recently aired a similar idea for elderly care on Daily Politics. In both cases, ‘paying’ into the system does not refer to money, but rather to volunteer work helping your local community or elderly relatives. At the core of this concept is the desire to nurture a much more philanthropic, caring, and communally active and aware society.

However, while it is perfectly noble and valid to pursue such a vision for a caring society, doing so through welfare reforms would be both unfair and heavy-handed. Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare which is to offset inequalities and to treat everyone at the same equitable level. In many ways, it’s an oxymoron as welfare based on contributions would essentially introduce inequalities into a system which is supposed to dampen inequalities through a sense of solidarity and equality of treatment. However much we would like to expand the philanthropic sector and build a more volunteer and community centric society, we cannot do so through treating some people better than others in their time of need.

Additionally, it is unclear how you would gauge the level of contribution to society, whether disabilities would be factored into the equation, as well as the time consumed by people who have jobs and thus have no time to volunteer, or the skills required to care for people with complex illnesses. These issues would make it  likely that the realities of contributory welfare would spawn a greater bureaucracy than is currently the case. On top of this, large sections of the population would need to be exempted from the contributory system due to the fact that their lives simply permit them precious few opportunities to contribute as much as others.

Expanding the philanthropic sector is a key responsibility for any future government, but doing so by introducing overt inequalities into the welfare system would be a poor course of action and would ultimately prove to be a regressive, rather than progressive, measure, harming those in need while at the same time failing to achieve a real philanthropic society. Government-led schemes to organise, provide a framework for, and to encourage a more philanthropic society are needed, but they must be optional with those taking part doing so in an altruistic manner to help others rather than themselves. Any reform to welfare must not sacrifice equality or be heavy-handed.