Tuesday 21 October 2014

COMRES POLLWATCH: The impact of immigration on GE2015 strategies

The impact of immigration on GE2015 strategies
In last week’s Pollwatch we saw that voter concerns about immigration have increased in tandem with a prolonged downturn in household incomes, and that there is a greater readiness among UKIP and the Conservatives to appeal to those concerns. Given that this situation is unlikely to end soon, what can the parties do to turn the debate in their favour?
One of the classic political mistakes is to assume that what works for your opponent will work for you. In this Pollwatch we consider the different positions that are likely to help each party, both in winning votes at the next election, and looking longer term at implementing their policy agenda - an objective that is often overlooked.
UKIP diversifies
UKIP’s success has coincided with a switch to a more anti-immigration message, following the contemporary Eurosceptic archetype echoed by some of their continental counterparts: disgruntled, nostalgic, plausible.

A notable feature of the modern anti-EU party is that it has learnt how to gain support in a wider variety of seats than its predecessors – from sleepy seaside towns, to blue collar estates hit by the decline in manufacturing, and to even the metropolitan commuter belt.
UKIP's strategy is having the desired effect. Party strategists know that these issues are not disappearing any time soon, and that any party facing the prospect of Government (i.e. all three traditional parties) is either hamstrung in its response or will have to make false promises to compete.

Looking further ahead, though, UKIP needs to be aware of its toxicity among some voters. It has taken the Tories two decades to try and shift the 'nasty party' description and they have still not succeeded. Moreover, as long as UKIP continues to steal more votes from the Conservatives than from Labour, it may inadvertently keep pro-European parties in power.
Two takes on the Conservative Party
There are two perspectives on what is happening to the Conservative campaign.

One says that immigration has blindsided them. It points to the strategy of modernisation – which advocates a “centre ground” position in an effort to avoid further contaminating the Conservative Party brand – and says that the modernisers underestimated the UKIP threat.

Indeed there is some evidence to support the view that triangulation – reaching over the heads of your opponents to broaden your appeal – is not as effective as it once was. Seen through this prism, Mr Cameron’s moves last week on immigration are a desperate roll of the dice.
The alternative view is that this has been in the cooker for a while: As far back as last September, Lynton Crosby was reported to have briefed 180 Conservative MPs at a Chipping Norton away day that “the key to success in 2015 is to get its immigration message right”.
A quick look at other campaigns Mr Crosby has led suggests a pattern which could be replicated. The term “wedge issue” is often misused, but in this case is apt: it essentially means an issue on which your party can maintain a united front, but which splits your opponents roughly down the middle, causing them to turn in on themselves.

Immigration has long been Mr Crosby’s “go-to” means of setting the cat among the pigeons, for instance in the 2001 Australian federal election, when it caused mayhem in the Opposition Labor Party ranks.
When Mr Crosby tried the same tactics as adviser to Michael Howard’s general election campaign in 2005, Labour resisted the temptation to implode. They had been conditioned by Tony Blair and figures like David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid to maintain a compromise position which mixed a willingness to “talk tough” on immigration while also celebrating the benefits that different cultures had brought to Britain. This was also an easier sell in 2005: the economy was still thriving and EU immigration was not regarded as being so wholly out of control.
The post-recession electoral landscape is now more amenable to Mr Crosby’s approach, but it is not without its risks for Mr Cameron. Promises of EU renegotiation and tighter restrictions on non-EU migrants are not going to be easy to keep, and could also be seen as an admission that his modernisation agenda has been abandoned.

After a disciplined mix of social liberalism and fiscal prudence in the current parliament, a 2015-20 Conservative Government would govern on a manifesto of social conservatism and potentially unfunded tax cuts.
For the strategy to work, Mr Cameron needs to hold on to his existing support, win over Labour voters concerned about immigration, and convince UKIP supporters that they should treat the election as a two-horse race between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband.

There are two big risks in this strategy: one is that the swing voters and business audiences Mr Cameron worked so hard to woo in 2010 will be turned off by the change of focus; the other is that wavering Labour and UKIP voters might accept Mr Cameron’s new analysis on immigration, but will blame him for not doing enough about it over the past five years.
A test for Labour
Ed Miliband and Labour have so far avoided the same kind of public scuffle that finished off the Australian Labor Party in 2001. But there are hints of what is to come.

Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk has said that “too many people in the Labour Party think we should never raise the subject of immigration.” Veteran Labour MP Frank Field challenged Mr Miliband on the issue at last Monday’s meeting of the PLP, arguing that “the whole nature of England has changed.” On the other side, Diane Abbott has previously attacked Labour for “pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment.”
Criticism from the usual suspects on the backbenches may not cost Ed Miliband the election, but are a warning that trouble lies ahead. The challenge for the Labour leadership and election strategists is to understand that there has been a genuine attitudinal shift and to come up with a coherent, unified response to it – one that they can communicate persuasively to the different factions of the party, as well as their ordinary party members (who will be vital in getting out the vote in May 2015).
Labour will need to show that it has made the effort to listen to and understand concerns around immigration, without stigmatising all voters who hold these concerns – some may well be motivated by deeply held attitudes around nationality and identity, but the fact that concern has risen with the decline in household income suggests that a substantial proportion of voters are “soft” on the issue, motivated mainly by concern about living standards.
This ought to be an opportunity for a united Labour to turn the immigration debate on its head, arguing that most of the problems currently being blamed on immigrants – pay freezes, competition for jobs, and difficulty accessing public services – are of the Government’s own making and that David Cameron is passing the buck. However he chooses to tackle it, though, Mr Miliband must convince his party to speak with one voice on the issue, from Islington to Blackburn. That is where he is most likely to fall down.
The Lib Dems breathe easy
The one party which can breathe a big sigh of relief is the Liberal Democrats. An all-out war over immigration between the other major parties is unlikely to harm them, and may give Nick Clegg more room to claim the moderate centre as his turf. In the event of a hung parliament, it may also add to the Lib Dems’ appeal as a coalition partner – a chance to abandon a difficult manifesto commitment and blame it on the junior party.
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Andy White

Political & Media Team
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