It’s fair game to have a go at politicians at present. You can criticise them for everything from MPs’ expenses to not giving full and honest answers. But there’s a missing element in all this.
The public needs to play its part too. If it wants honest politics, it must be willing to recognise it when it sees it, and give it its due.
Nowhere has this been more clearly on display than over the role immigration is playing in this election.
We in the Liberal Democrats have been aware for a long time about people’s concerns about immigration. I personally don’t feel it’s as much of a threat as others do, and I feel some of the sensationalist media have whipped up a frenzy about foreigners claiming excessive benefits that bears little relation to reality. But sometimes the perception is as important as the reality, so it was something that had to be tackled.
So we tackled it. We set out to assess the current situation, to find out what the extent of the black market – some of it controlled by extremely nasty gangs – really is, and to work out a policy that is fair and makes sense.
What we’ve come up with is a proposal to be stricter with our border controls, and to make permission to come to this country conditional on whether the skills an immigrant can offer are needed in the area he/she wants to work in.
That has gone down very well, but the message has been distorted by how another aspect of our policy has been hijacked by those looking to score cheap points and discredit our ideas. I’m talking about what’s become known as our proposed ‘amnesty’.
We recognise that there are several hundred thousand people in this country who arrived illegally and are working in a shady underworld, often being paid by gangs, frequently in poor and threatening conditions. We’re saying that any of those who have been here for 10 years, speak good English and have no criminal record can apply to become legalised. Even then they wouldn’t have access to benefits for two years. That would mean we find out who a lot of these people are, and they'd start paying tax and contributing to the community.
I share the reservations of many that we’re retrospectively condoning something that was illegal – yes, that goes against the grain. But we have to start from where we are, not where we’d like to be, and our proposals are fair, constructive and make sense.
But now we have people screaming it’s an ‘amnesty’, that it’ll increase our rate of immigration (this has happened in some countries where they have had similar ‘amnesties’ but wouldn’t happen here because of our stricter border controls), and that we’re not listening to people. Instead, people are falling for David Cameron’s unspecified and unrealistic ‘cap’ on immigration, and the threats by both parties to deport immigrants. How can they deport people when they don’t even know where many of them are!
People must make up their own minds about which party best reflects what they stand for. But anyone pining for a better politics must also be willing to accept common sense solutions when presented to them, and not take refuge in a few carefully crafted sound bites that appeal to the heart but have little or no bearing on reality.