Friday 17 October 2014

COMRES POLLWATCH: Has immigration caught Westminster off guard?

Has immigration caught Westminster off guard?
It is a myth that the political classes do not talk about immigration.
Whether it is Home Secretary Theresa May sending billboard vans around the country asking immigrants to “go home”, former Home Secretary David Blunkett talking about “earned entitlements”, or Business Secretary Vince Cable arguing for fewer restrictions on high skilled migrants, it is simply not true to say that the issue is taboo in the Westminster bubble.
But in the last few weeks there has been a real sense that old assumptions about immigration are being questioned.
The received wisdom
In the past it has been convincingly argued (particularly by Tory modernisers) that immigration was a Siren call luring desperate leaders into treacherous waters. Both Michael Howard and to some extent William Hague tried to make headway in 2001 and 2005 with campaigns focusing on immigration. Both were beaten back by an unimpressed electorate.
The question is whether that logic still holds, or whether we are now experiencing something different.
So what has happened?
The obvious starting point is the pound in the pocket: UK household income has (in real terms) declined year-on-year since its 2007/08 peak. The economy as a whole may be out of recession, but ComRes surveys still show an electorate deeply concerned about their personal finances: just 17% of British adults say their personal finances have improved in recent months.  Indeed, this is in line with adjusted income data from the Office of National Statistics:

Source: ONS
ComRes research also shows that nearly three quarters of adults (72%) say, “despite the economy growing, I don’t feel better off” (ComRes/ITV News, October 2014). For the average British person, the recession began in 2008 and is still being felt six years later.
Politics and recessions
What tends to happen in the immediate aftermath of a recession is that the political status quo more or less holds together. The recessions indicated in the ONS chart above coincided with elections featuring relatively small swings between the two major parties: Harold Wilson’s wins in 1964 and 1974, and John Major’s in 1992.
Macroeconomic (GDP) recession does not necessarily cause the sands to shift significantly. A prolonged downturn in take-home pay, however, does tend to shake up the party system. The big landslides came in 1979 (Thatcher) and 1997 (Blair), in both cases after household income had dwindled for at least five years.
So the 2015 election is the one that has all the makings of a “seismic shift” moment in British political history. Although we did see a change of government in 2010, David Cameron has largely continued along the social and international policy framework laid down by Tony Blair, while George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy has ended up looking very similar to Alistair Darling’s original proposals. Any shift is not, however, likely to produce a landslide victory but instead create a completely new electoral scenario with the rise of a 4th political party.
Two levels of concern
The fact that immigration has progressed up the ranking of voter concerns in today’s high pressure environment shows that it has become a real concern for voters. For an issue to rank in the top five during a period of apathy and contentment is one thing; for it to continue placing there in a time of wide ranging economic and social concerns is more significant.
Q. Which of the following do you think should be the biggest priorities for the Government at the present time?
% choosing
Controlling immigration
Managing the NHS
Keeping down the cost of everyday items
Making the welfare system fairer
Promoting UK economic growth
Base: 2,052 GB adults (Fieldwork 12th to 14th September 2014)
Supplies of housing, hospital beds, school places, and jobs are all under pressure, and it is easy for an anti-immigration link to be drawn. Where this link used to be drawn by Conservative MPs tainted by Government or an overtly racist British National Party, the case is now made by an insurgent UKIP, mixing viable (if at times controversial) policy proposals with the language of the ordinary voter.
Understanding what ‘immigration’ means
Immigration is a catch-all term for a range of different phenomena, actual and perceived. Looking at the different constituencies in which UKIP’s message has taken hold, we can see that fear of immigration can mean different things in different places. In Clacton, for example, immigration barely exists with 96% of the local population being white and from the British Isles. Thanet South is over 90% White English, and the largest minority group in Rochester & Strood (Asian Indian) accounts for just 2.8% of the local population.
In these seats it is a feeling of detachment from the centre of power that UKIP has harnessed. When the Government says that the economy is growing or that EU membership and immigration have been good for Britain, voters do not see that reflected in their personal situation. Indeed, it may be the very lack of immigration and multiculturalism in these seats – a world away from central London – that has made them key UKIP targets.
On the other hand, in Rochdale, where one of Ed Miliband’s staunchest critics on immigration (Simon Danczuk) is MP, immigration has clearly changed the character of the constituency. Over a fifth (21.4%) of Rochdale’s local community was of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin in 2011, up from 16.2% in 2001. A lack of community cohesion was blamed for failures to prevent the sexual abuse of children, with similar issues raised over the Pennines in Rotherham. But this is a long-running issue, not a sudden “explosion” or “tidal wave”.
ComRes research shows that most people (72%) say that the current level of immigration from within the European Union – one of the major issues raised in recent weeks – has been bad for Britain. Yet neither Clacton’s nor Rochdale’s changes have much to do with freedom of movement within the European Union.
A wedge issue?
The sudden emergence of immigration as a serious election issue followed by David Cameron’s announcement of emergency policy measures has echoes of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s 2001 federal election campaign. Throughout much of 2001, John Howard’s right wing Coalition had been trailing the Australian Labor Party in the polls.
This all changed with the introduction of an emergency bill called the Border Protection Bill 2001. While the bill did not make it through the upper house of Parliament, it had the desired effect: revealing clear splits in the Opposition Labor Party over the issue of immigration.  It is perhaps significant that the Tories’ campaign consultant, Lynton Crosby, was also advising John Howard back in 2001.
What to do about it?
In our next Pollwatch, we will look at what immigration means for David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage ahead of the 2015 General Election.
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Andy White

Political & Media Team
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