Migrant voters could help swing the election result

The conventional wisdom is that the only electorally successful immigration policy is a hardline one. Ed Miliband has bent over backwards to find a position which reassures critical voters without compromising his progressive principles, but when it comes to Labour's election leaflets they might as well have been written by Tory backbenchers.

So party strategists might like to take a look at new research by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester and the Migrants' Rights Network. It shows foreign-born voters could prove decisive in several seats at the election if they turn out in sufficient numbers.

The migrant share of the electorate is twice as large as the majority of the incumbent in at least 70 seats, including several key outer London and Midlands marginal seats.

As Ruth Grove-White, co-author of the report, said:

"The electoral voice of migrants themselves has been largely overlooked. This new data shows just how important it is to speak to this constituency. The risk facing the parties today is that their current fierce rhetoric over immigration will have a lasting impact on the political orientations of the new migrant electorate.

"While we know that migrant voters do not form a voting bloc, voting patterns suggest that migrant voters are likely to prefer parties that they view as positive about race equality and immigration issues."

There's just under four million foreign-born voters in England and Wales who'll be eligible to vote in the May election, with the majority from large, established Commonwealth migrant communities such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and South Africa.

Parties have more to lose than they think they do by alienating these groups. Migrants feel strongly about the way they are labelled as workshy scroungers by the media and politicians while contributing more to the economy than the indigenous population. Politicians have for too long presumed that the blanket negativity about immigration on TV and in newspapers reflects the views of the public, but it is far more nuanced than that, especially when split across constituencies.

The Conservatives especially are the losers of this approach. Many people in the Asian communities are natural Tories. They believe in hard work, not relying on the state, and are socially conservative. The fact most would never dream of voting Tory is not about political values, but a sense the party dislikes them. It is not an unfounded one given some of the fierce rhetoric it engages in.

But the report shouldn't just be read by party strategists. Migrants themselves should read it and realise their power. If they don't like the way the debate has turned in recent years, they should get out there and do something about it. The temptation among many is to retreat, but only the vocal expression of anger with this toxic conversation can help turn it round. Like young people, they are much stronger than they realise.

The mystery of Chris Grayling's expenses

In 2009, Chris Grayling promised to sell his London flat and repay any profit to the taxpayer.

He wrote in the Epsom Guardian, his local paper:

"As a result of recent changes to the rules and the row over parliamentary expenses, I took a voluntary decision to give up claiming the allowance immediately, to sell the flat and to repay profit made from its sale to the taxpayer."

There is no record of this repayment. Numerous requests for information from Grayling's office have been met with a blank refusal to provide any further evidence.

It's quite possible the payment was made. The records we have are incomplete, having been destroyed under Commons rules. But his office's refusal to provide any evidence of it suggests the old arrogance of MPs is reasserting itself as memories of the expenses scandal fade.

There was good reason for Grayling to make the promise. He claimed for a London flat, even though his "imposing" constituency home with its "sweeping" drive was just 17 miles from the House of Commons, in the heart of the Surrey commuter belt. For that matter, he also owned two terraced houses in Wimbledon, which he was renting out.

When the Telegraph started publishing the explosive details of MP's expenses claims on a daily basis in May 2009, Grayling was one of the first they targeted. The newspaper reported that he'd bought the Pimlico flat in 2001, almost as soon as he was elected an MP, for £127,000. The next year he set up a rather unusual arrangement with the parliamentary fees office, with a £625 a month claim for mortgages on two different properties – the main constituency home and the London flat. After four years, he ended that arrangement.

In the meantime, he started doing up the flat. Just after the May 2005 general election he claimed £4,250 for redecorating and £1,561 for a new bathroom. The next month he claimed £1,341 for new kitchen units. The month after that he put in a claim for another £1,527 for plumbing and £1,950 for further work.

Ipsa was set up in the wake of the expenses scandal

The refurbishment would have been way over the amount set by the rules, even in the liberal golden era before the expenses scandal. But Grayling's claims were made over two years. In the financial year 2005/06, he claimed close to the maximum amount. Then in the next financial year, he continued to hand in receipts for the refurbishment work.

In June 2006, he submitted an invoice for £3,534 for service and maintenance of the flat. This included £1,148 service charge and then a further £1,956. A handwritten note informed the fees office: "Please note this has only just been issued, date notwithstanding."

The next month he handed in a £2,250 claim for further "remedial and refurbishment works". The Telegraph said he wrote on the claim form: "Decorator has been very ill & didn't invoice me until now." This statement is not found on the documents published by parliament, but this may be because large portions of it are redacted.

The Telegraph found that in 2004/05 he claimed £12,738, in 2005/06 he claimed £20,616, in 2006/07 he claimed £19,618 and in 2007/08 he claimed £15,332.

Presumably all that refurbishment boosted the value of the flat. The Telegraph found a studio flat in the same block at the time on sale for £235,000. A local estate agent told the Mirror at the time that some properties in the block were selling for as much as £330,000.

Throughout this period, journalists failed to find much evidence of Grayling actually staying at the flat. One neighbour told the Mirror he'd never seen Grayling when shown a picture of him. Another said: "I don't know him at all. There is a light on occasionally, but he is not here very often." And a woman from a flat beneath the MP's said: "I have no idea who this man is." Journalists found his post box packed with unopened mail.

Former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith was criticsed for her expenses claims by Grayling

None of this looked good. After all, Grayling was shadow home secretary and the Conservative party's 'attack dog' against Labour. Days before the Telegraph published his expenses he was telling Labour's Jacqui Smith she had "questions to answer" after claiming towards her family home in Worcestershire.

So Grayling made a series of promises to his local paper. The flat was to be sold and the profit paid back. Furnishings bought in recent years would be bought back from the Fees Office. And he went further, saying:

"Since the House of Commons authorities made available past receipts to MPs in April, I have been through all the documentation carefully to identify any mistakes I might have made and rectify them.

"I have discovered a small number – as well as a couple of occasions when I think the Fees Office gave me the wrong advice – and so I have repaid the money involved.

"Over the summer, every expense claim by every MP will be audited and naturally if the auditors believe that any of my other claims are not correct I will refund the money."

But there's no record of a payment substantial enough to relate to the flat sale.

There are gaps in the records and it is possible Grayling's payment was made in one of these. We can't be sure, because Grayling's office refuses to provide any details. After numerous efforts to contact them, they have only made one statement:

"Mr Grayling kept this promise to his constituents."

The files detailing all payments made by MPs to the Fees Office between April 1st 2009 and December 18th 2009 show Grayling made two separate payments under 'service charge' - one for £756.06 and another for £957.33. He made another payment of £4,142.75 for 'food and furniture' claimed between 2004 and 2008. And there is a final payment of £368.88, for which there are no details supplied and where the year of the original claim is not specified.

The expenses scandal is credited with permanently tarnishing the reputation of MPs

What are these payments? It's possible the 'food and furniture' payment covers the furnishings made to the flat. Perhaps the service charge payments are mistakes he spotted going over his receipts. They surely can't refer to the profit from the flat sale, unless he got a very bad deal. Given the estimates of the time, he should have made somewhere between £100,000 and £200,000.

There is another document of payments to the Fees Office between December 19th 2009 and April 12th 2010. Grayling's name does not feature in it.

That's all the data we have available. The two documents cited above only exist because someone made freedom of information requests and the responses are still online. The original documentation has been destroyed. As the Fees Office said:

"In accordance with the House's records disposal policy, no records are held covering expenses repayments made by MPs before 2009 or between March 2010 and March 2011. The retention period for general financial data, of which members' expenses is a sub set, is three years after the relevant financial year finishes. For the period from April 2011, there is no record of any correspondence between the House and Mr Grayling relating to this matter."

Grayling's statement to the Epsom Guardian is in the past tense, although that could relate to the decision to sell the flat rather than the sale itself. Perhaps the payment appeared in pre-April 2009 documents, or ones dating between April 2010 and April 2011. After all, it takes a while to sell a flat.

We don't know, because Grayling refuses to release any information about the sale.

Now that the expenses scandal has started to fade into memory, you can sense a tentative retreat from the transparency it produced. At the heart of the scandal was not greed, but trust. It is simply not enough to make a promise on expenses and refuse to demonstrate it has been fulfilled. The lord chancellor owes his constituents and taxpayers proof that he stuck to his pledge.

Home Office clings to the raft as international drug consensus crumbles

Last October, there was a press conference which marked the most explosive change in international drug regulations for half a century. William Brownfield, head of the US' Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, sat down with reporters and told them the 1961 UN convention on drugs - the legal framework for their global criminality – actually allowed for the legalisation of "entire categories" of narcotics.

It was revolutionary. The UN convention had for years been used to beat any state around the head if it considered a liberal approach to drugs. Now, it was suddenly more a series of policy suggestions.

Had the US suddenly had a change of heart? No, but some of its states had. Washington and Colorado were experimenting with legal cannabis. The drug was being freely sold in the heart of government in a country which had nominated itself the world's policeman. Residents of Oregon and Alaska recently voted to join them. Uruguay was doing the same. Countries like Mexico and Guatemala were demanding an end to the drug war altogether. Suddenly the UN convention was looking like it might fall apart.

So the US did what smart rulers always do when it looks like their opponents have reached critical mass: they bended. The UN convention was much more flexible than it first appeared, Brownfield claimed. He went on:

"How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalisation of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?

"We are all required to abide by the conventions that we ourselves have ratified. But the conventions are not rigid. The conventions were written more than 50 years ago. We are allowed to interpret them so long as our interpretation is still consistent with our universal desire to reduce the misuse and abuse of harmful products throughout the world."

This intervention, now known as the Brownfield Doctrine, instantly raised questions all over the world. If the world's drug policeman was suddenly taking a new approach, what did that mean for the countries which always followed its lead?

Brownfield speaks during a press conference with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in 2012

Good luck asking those questions to the Home Office. Their answers are so opaque as to defy meaning. A parliamentary question recently asked the department what the "implications for UK policy" were of the Brownfield doctrine and whether the "government plans to support the policy position expressed in those comments".

This is the Home Office response, from Lynne Featherstone:

"The coalition government promotes a balanced and evidence-based approach to drug policy within the UN drug control conventions. As Ambassador Brownfield made clear, it is important that the international community respects the integrity of UN conventions in this area. We will continue to champion our balanced drug strategy, which since 2010 has focused on reducing demand, restricting supply, and building recovery. This includes at international forums, including the forthcoming UN general assembly special session on drugs in 2016."

As banal and jargon-filled as it is, it is at least superior to the answer Theresa May gave when she was in front of a Commons committee. The video of the debate (from 1:28:20 onwards) shows Lib Dem committee member Julian Huppert ask the home secretary about the statement. It's an extremely irritating video, not least because the home secretary, committee chair and other members seem to view Huppert's rather important question as a dotty eccentricity.

May's response is to answer a completely separate question. Quite possibly she doesn’t know what Huppert is talking about. It's also possible that she knows precisely what he is talking about and is basically stalling for time by banging on about her views on drugs, which are quite beside the point. But there is something telling in her response, because she repeatedly accepts it's up to individual countries to decide their drug laws.

She may think that's plainly true. It certainly should be. But it is not. Whichever country you're reading this in, your drug laws almost certainly come from the UN convention. It is the legal mechanism the US (and now increasingly Russia) hide behind while they use the war on drugs to plant themselves in regions in which they have no business. The drug war was the new imperialism and the UN convention was its founding document. May is either unaware of its significance, or extremely accomplished at appearing simple-minded.

A drug siezure photographed by the Met police. Tories and Labour refuse to discuss a new approach to drugs.

The American government is now trying to pretend the convention is flexible enough to include these liberal experiments sweeping the world and its own territories. It is intent on protecting the integrity of the convention even as its details change. The British government is clearly unable to support the US stance of actually saying that countries are free to legalise drugs, but is also unwilling to publicly oppose the US. Both countries, in their own way, are tied in the straightjacket of drug prohibition as the world changes around them. The US' position is at least more realistic and responsible.

Or is it? One of the problems with the new doctrine is that it creates an entirely relative political response to the various contraventions of the convention. While Washington state is plainly allowed to experiment however it likes, Bolivia is penalised by the US for allowing the traditional use of the coca leaf among indigenous communities. This isn’t even an actual breach. Bolivia has a reservation. But it still gets penalised while the US cites flexibility on its own states' decisions.

But overall the new interpretation is a satisfying development. Fifty years of global drug policy does not fall apart overnight. The frantic attempt to pretend the convention survives in any meaningful form is like Basil Fawlty dressing Polly up like Sybil and leaving her in the dark for her friends to greet from afar. It’s funny, but eventually people will figure out what's happened.

Whatever its negative effects, this is an example of the politics trying to catch up with where the world is, rather than imposing its will on it. And the world is in a more sensible place than the policy is.

From a UK perspective, we are unlikely to see any change under the Conservatives or Labour. But it is not unthinkable that drug policy could be an area of concession in a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats or the Greens – particularly when the US has shown itself willing to countenance that thought itself.

The Home Office's opaque response to the Brownfield doctrine may be frustrating, but it is ultimately a sign of weakness.

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