Sleaze, trust and immigration

Peter KellnerPresident
June 04, 2013, 6:00 AM GMT+0

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, on the issues of sleaze, trust and immigration

The latest cash-for-questions and cash-for-lobbying allegations will do nothing to restore the battered image of our Parliamentarians. However, I doubt whether tightening up the rules on lobbying will be nearly enough to revive their reputation. For the scandal both reflects and reinforces a far deeper problem: that millions of voters have stopped thinking that politicians tell the truth.

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YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times provides a stark demonstration of the devastating impact of voters’ unwillingness to believe what the political classes tell us. It concerns immigration. As usual, big majorities want the rules to be tightened – 69% in the case of immigrants from the rest of the European Union, 73% for people from outside the EU. Although support for tougher measures is overwhelming among UKIP and Conservative supporters, it is also backed by a majority of Labour voters and around half of Liberal Democrats.

When people are asked which party they trust most to handle immigration, UKIP comes top, chosen by 25% of the public as a whole, followed by the Tories (18%), Labour (14%) and the Lib Dems (6%). However, as many as 29% trust none of the four parties.

Put another way, 18 million Britons pick one of the three traditional parties, but as many as 24 million reject all three by saying UKIP or ‘none of them’. No wonder David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are all trying to find ways of talking about immigration that reassure their traditional supporters.

What, though, is the best way to do this? Increasingly, mainstream politicians are offering apologies for the past: we have been letting in too many people and will admit fewer people in the future. Ministers say the coalition’s policies are working. Just last month Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, said that by cracking down on abuse, the rate of immigration last year fell dramatically. Net immigration fell from 242,000 in 2011 to 153,000 in 2012.

Yet this news has done nothing to stem the tide of defections to UKIP – mainly from the Tories but now, increasingly, from Labour and the Lib Dems. YouGov’s latest survey helps to explain this.

Bluntly, the news that immigration is falling has not been noticed or, if noticed, believed. We asked people what they think had happened to immigration ‘in the last year or two’. Fully 59% think it has increased, while a further 17% think it continued at around the same level. A mere 15% think it has fallen at all. And almost all of them think it fell by just a little. A mere 2% of the public (included in the 15%) think that immigration has ‘fallen a lot’ – a description that would seem to be justified by the one-third reduction in the net flow.

The story is much the same with the economy. Most studies suggest that immigration in recent years has helped growth and reduced the government’s deficit. Immigrants often supply skills that employers need, and pay in more in taxes than they and their families receive in welfare benefits and public services such as health and education. Those who make this point include Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary; Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research; and researchers at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.

Even Migration Watch, a think tank that argues for much tighter controls, does not say that immigration overall harms the economy; a report it updated last year says the economic impact is ‘essentially negligible’.

Yet 57% of the public say that immigration in recent years has been bad for Britain’s economy. Just 19% share Migration Watch’s view that its impact has been broadly neutral, while a further 19% side with those who say that immigration has been good for Britain’s economy.

This is not the first time that public attitudes have been at odds with official statistics, the weight of academic analysis and the claims of politicians. Every time YouGov has tested the issue, we have found that people think the crime rate is rising when, in fact, it has fallen very significantly over the past 20 years. Most of us think that state schools are teaching pupils less effectively than they used to, even though the available evidence – and not just the much-criticised GCSE and A-level statistics – indicates that standards have risen, slowly but more-or-less continuously. And most of us also think that a high proportion of welfare benefits goes to people who lie about their circumstances, even though hard evidence suggests that the proportion of cheats is actually fairly small.

This matters, because the popularity of different policies tends to be linked closely to public beliefs about the way things are. If current policies are thought to be failing, voters will demand far bigger changes than if they think those policies are working. With immigration from outside the EU, 92% of those who think Britain’s economy has suffered want the rules tightened up. In polling terms, that’s about as near to unanimity as you ever get. Among those who think that immigration has helped the economy, the proportion wanting tougher controls tumbles to 35%.

The obvious lesson for those politicians in all the main parties who reject the anti-immigration policies of UKIP and the British National Party is to stop apologising for letting in so many immigrants in the past, for that defensiveness reinforces the view that it has harmed the economy, and encourages demands for much tougher action.

However, for a more confidently liberal stance on immigration (or anything else) to work, the politicians who adopt it need to be trusted. If voters think that Parliamentarians are people who will (a) say anything to win votes and (b) do anything to line their pockets, then measured policy debates fly out of the window. Politicians who dissent from the populist agenda in order to make sensible, evidence-based statements about the benefits of immigration, the rise in school standards, the rarity of welfare cheats and the fall in crime are unlikely to be heard or, if heard, believed.

Moreover, as our latest results show, it doesn’t help to say that immigration numbers used to be too high and are now coming down. That is not believed either. No wonder UKIP is doing so well. It chimes with the public mood, about both the damage immigration is thought to do, and the lies politicians are thought to tell.

That is why the latest allegations about cash-for-lobbying are so damaging not just to the reputation of mainstream politicians, but to something much larger: the prospects of winning public approval for rational policies that tackle Britain’s real problems, rather than supplying knee-jerk policies to fend off popular outrage and fringe political parties.

See the full YouGov / Sunday Times survey results here

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