Immigration: Why May is in trouble

Peter KellnerPresident
November 14, 2011, 11:53 AM GMT+0

As Theresa May faces criticism over border controls, YouGov President Peter Kellner explains what immigration policy means to governments and voters

If Theresa May was hoping to rally public opinion behind her tough stance towards the UK Border Agency, YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times will come as a severe disappointment. Most people think she should take responsibility for the way border controls were relaxed, and not blame her officials. By more than two-to-one, voters think she should resign as Home Secretary.

She even fails to carry a majority of Conservative supporters: only half, 49%, think she should stay on. A worrying large minority, 38%, think she should quit.

At the same time, a large majority of Britons back the Government’s policy on immigration. Fully 78% support David Cameron’s election pledge to reduce net immigration into Britain from hundreds of thousands a year to ‘tens of thousands’. Not only do a near-unanimous 96% of Tory voters back this goal; so do 64% of Labour voters and 62% of Liberal Democrats. Just one voter in ten thinks the policy is wrong. Seldom have I seen a policy that arouses such controversy in the media and the political classes attract such support from the general public.

And yet, and yet…Here are three reasons why immigration policy may not be as big a vote-winner as these figures suggest, and why the Home Secretary’s current hard line seems to have backfired with public opinion.

  1. Few people regard immigration as central to their own lives. To be sure, they see it as a major NATIONAL problem: our latest tracker survey on national issues finds that 48% regard it as one of the top three (out of a list of 12). Only the economy concerns voters more. But when the same people are given the same list and asked to pick from the top three concerns ‘TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY’, the proportion falls to 14%.
  2. While an overwhelming majority supports the goal of cutting immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ a year, a mere 16% think it likely that this goal will be achieved. Even Tory voters say, by two-to-one, that it’s unlikely that immigration will be reduced to this level.
  3. Most people think that Theresa May has NOT been ‘honest and open’ in what she has said about the relaxation of border controls. She cannot even count on Tory voters to believe her truthfulness: they are evenly divided.

Put these three points together and a sobering conclusion emerges. On its own, immigration-cutting rhetoric cuts little ice. Most people see the issue less as one that impinges on their daily life than as a test of political honesty and competence. They would like the numbers to be reduced sharply, but they are just as sceptical about this government as they were about the last one as to whether this will actually happen. The result is disillusion. Cameron and May are discovering what politicians down the ages have known – or, at least, should have known: voters despise tough talk that they think is for show rather than for real.

One can go further. Most voters pay little attention to specific policies. What they look for in politicians and parties is competence, honesty and understanding. They prefer modest policies that work to extravagant promises that they don’t believe.

In an ideal world, they want political leaders who pursue popular goals, tell the truth and achieve what they vow. But when asked to choose between the right ambition and honest politics, it is clear what wins public respect: almost invariably, probity trumps policy. Which is why the Government is now in trouble over immigration, despite – indeed, partly because of – its commitment to cut numbers so sharply.

See the details and full results of our latest Sunday Times poll