The perilous politics of immigration

Peter KellnerPresident
December 17, 2012, 9:06 AM GMT+0

Peter Kellner's latest commentary focusses on the perilous politics of immigration

Beware. Interpreting public opinion on immigration can be a tricky business. Knowing what POLICIES the public want is straightforward enough; the tough bit is making sense of the POLITICAL IMPACT of the issue.

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Consider policy first. YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times produced some emphatic results:

The thrust of these results is consistent with other YouGov findings since the last election. For example:

The message could not be clearer. We don’t like immigration. It has been bad for Britain, we don’t have the room, our culture is suffering and we want it drastically reduced. That mood is common to majorities in all political parties. Conservatives would vote to reduce net immigration to zero, by 79-15%; so would most Labour voters, by 64-27% and most Liberal democrats, by 54-38%.

Those figures would suggest that any party wanting to win power must take a hard line on immigration. Any other approach would surely lose votes.

I am not so sure. Other findings suggest a more complex relationship between immigration and the battle for votes.

First, there is a huge gulf between people’s perception of immigration as a national issue, and one that affects their own lives. Every fortnight we show respondents a list of 12 issues and ask them which two or three ‘are the most important facing the country at this time’. Every poll this year has placed the economy first, cited by around 80%; but immigration has always come a clear second with 40-50%; the figure in our latest survey is 45%.

But when we show people the same list and ask which two or three matter most to ‘you and your family’, the answers are very different. The economy still leads by a mile (currently 66%); but immigration tumbles to just 12%. This time more people cite pensions, health, tax, family life and education.

An even starker sign of immigration’s limited saliency emerges in a survey we have conducted for the January 2013 issue of Prospect. Instead of a normal poll, asking people whether they were for or against different policies, we staged a ‘policy knock-out’ contest. We started with 16 policy proposals and grouped them into eight pairs. We asked people to say which policy, if either, in each pair they thought would be better for Britain. We then paired the eight ‘winners’ into four round two contests, and so on, until we found an outright winner.

In round one, one of the pairs was ‘end all immigration’ versus ‘leave the European Union’. Ending immigration defeated quitting the EU by 33-29% - but more than one-third of the public rejected both. However, the really telling result came in round two. Reducing overseas aid defeated an end to immigration by 44-34%.

Now it’s too simple to say that only one person in three wants to end immigration. In both cases, the contest was between two nationalist policies: many people would support both options on offer. Nevertheless, it is striking that overseas aid, which impinges very little on life here in Britain, is a more popular target than immigration. And this was not just a flash-in-the-pan. In the next round – the semi-final – cutting overseas aid easily defeated taking steps to improve the NHS by as much as 57-34%. A cause at the fringes of political debate seems to resonate more widely than the enhancement of Britain’s most popular public service.

It was only in the final round that cutting overseas aid lost – and to another highly specific, if currently controversial, cause: cracking down on international firms that avoid paying tax in Britain on the profits they make here.

What these (and other) results in this policy knock-out contest suggest is that millions of voters have lost faith in the capacity of our politicians to tackle the big issues. Cutting overseas aid looks fairly simple to achieve – and would contribute to the strategy of cutting our deficit without taking money from any of our domestic public services or requiring taxes to go up.

Immigration is different. Most of us would like net immigration to be reduced sharply, or ended altogether – but we regard this more as a desirable dream than practical politics. We see this in our latest Sunday Times poll:

Again, those figures are fairly stable: most of us have always thought the Government would fail to reach its goal. And it’s not just Labour and Lib Dem supporters bridling at the mention of David Cameron: just 29% of Conservatives think it likely that their party will honour its election pledge.

This in turn helps to explain why the Tories are struggling to turn immigration into a decisive vote-winner, despite their tough language and the firm stance adopted by Theresa May, the Home Secretary. Consider these figures:

In the first flush of enthusiasm for the coalition government, when Mr Cameron seemed like a fresh and honest leader who could and would do what he said, immigration was emphatically a Tory issue. Since then, millions of voters have become disillusioned with the Government’s performance. Today, the proportion that rates the Tories best on immigration is barely half what it was during their post-election honeymoon with the electorate.

However a rise in general distrust explains only a part of the decline in the Conservatives’ immigration rating. Here are the figures for June 2010 and this month, showing the proportion that thinks the Tories would handle the problem best:

No other issue has seen anything like the massive 22-point decline in the percentage that the Conservatives have suffered over immigration.

Now, around one-third of that 22-point decline has taken place since early November, with ‘some other party’ (in practice, mainly UKIP) doubling its score since then from 8 to 16 points. But even before last month, the Tories’ rating had fallen significantly further on immigration than on any other issue. Even though the statistics show fewer immigrants arriving in Britain in the past year or two, and even though the Government – Mrs May in particular – have supplied ever tougher policies to address the issue, the public appears unimpressed. If anything, the more headlines that are generated by the immigration debate, the more the Conservatives suffer.

What, then, does all this add up to? Here’s my take. Around 10-15% of the electorate regard immigration as a curse that has blighted their own lives. It will play a big role in how they will vote at the next election. Many of them had high hopes for the present Government, but feel those hopes have been betrayed. Many will vote UKIP at the next election. A handful will vote for the rapidly-shrinking BNP. Some won’t vote at all. Those who vote Tory will do so reluctantly, in order to avoid the – to them – worse fate of a Labour government.

At the other end of the scale are perhaps a similar number who are passionately pro-immigration. Many, though by no means all, have immigrant roots themselves. They think immigration has made Britain a far better and more prosperous society, with a richer and more varied culture. They accuse politicians who seek to reduce immigration sharply of pandering to racism. A few will vote Conservative at the next election; the rest will vote Labour or Lib Dem – or, to a lesser extent, Green, Respect or SNP (in Scotland) or Plaid Cymru (in Wales).

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In between are the great majority of the public who have views about immigration, but for whom it is an issue that does not, directly, cause them to switch parties. Rather, its effect is indirect. Most people – and the overwhelming majority of those whose party loyalties are not fixed – decide who to vote for on the basis of a bundle of qualities that political scientists call ‘valence’ and normal people call character. When viewing politicians and parties, such voters ask themselves such questions as: ‘are they competent?’; ‘are they honest?’; ‘will they keep their promises?’; ‘do they understand the problems faced by people like me?’; ‘do they care?’; ‘will they work for the people as a whole, or only a favoured minority?’

The problem with immigration is that its impact on such questions is not that simple. On the one hand, politicians who are strongly pro-immigration can seem out-of-touch and uncaring – hence the spasmodic success of the BNP in local elections a few years ago. On the other hand, politicians who go on about immigration risk sounding extreme and obsessed. Worse, if parties stress immigration for effect and not because they really care, then an anti-immigration stance can be counter-productive, for it is apt to be regarded as self-serving and uncaring. This is precisely what happened to the Conservatives with their ‘dog-whistle’ campaigning on immigration in the 2005 general election.

Something similar may be happening now. Most voters like what the Government says it wants to do, but they don’t think it is keeping its promise. Every reminder of the issue provokes criticism of failure more than praise of intent. And each commitment to do better risks sounding more like a confidence trick than a genuine pledge.

Here, then, is a novel suggestion. All three main parties should stop worrying about what voters think about immigration. Instead, they should work out what is right for Britain: for its economy and its society. They should do this honestly and openly, admitting that the task is complex, and that the problems are real and will take time to solve. They should stop chasing voters who hold fierce and simple views on the issue, on either side. Their votes are either locked up or lost. What the voters who have yet to make up their minds are looking for are parties and leaders with the right character. On this, as on so many other things, authenticity and moral courage tends to be more attractive than cowardice and self-cynical populism.

Which is not a bad lesson for our leaders to ponder in the run-up to Christmas.

See th full Sunday Times results and details here

See the full Prospect results for the January 2013 issue here

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