Pollsters may struggle to call close political battles but their data on the top voter issues which show a clear trend over time presents a compelling case for where politicians should focus their efforts. As the economy usually features in the top five issues, it is useful to consider this as a benchmark and look at those issues that voters consistently rate as a greater concern. The latest survey from YouGov places Brexit (60 per cent), health (42 per cent) and immigration (31 per cent) above the economy (29 per cent). Housing sits just behind at 25 per cent. The respective percentages have moved up and down through 2017/18 but these same issues nearly always top the economy as a concern, while housing has been rising as an issue.
Immigration is the most interesting since it receives relatively little political attention in comparison to the other issues. The Conservative Party home page currently leads on Brexit, the NHS and housing. Labour’s leads on the economy/jobs, education, Brexit, health and housing. The Lib Dems do not offer any immediate policy focus; delving into ‘Our Plan’, immigration is not obviously addressed as a concern.
This mismatch is especially interesting because immigration connects with the other issues. Immigration was a key driver behind Brexit, in a year Germany struggled to cope with an open-door immigration policy that would have made Blair and Mandelson blush. The relationship between immigration and the economy is complex but one of the features can be wage suppression and job competition especially at the lower end of the market. Immigration can be great for Britain, and foreign doctors and nurses may be essential for the NHS, but public perception of immigration’s impact on the NHS is especially negative. Housing is a supply and demand market but the relationship is complex and can be counter-intuitive, with immigration driving down prices in some cases. There is also some evidence that immigration in some areas drives existing residents to seek property elsewhere, possibly increasing overall prices.
This interconnection explains why immigration matters to so many different voter categories. Ipsos MORI’s latest headline data and supporting tables break these down by sex, age, social class, geographic region and voter base. In every category Immigration rates above the economy – male/female, young/old, rich/poor. The pattern breaks only in Table 3 where Labour voters rate the economy higher. Conservative voters rate Immigration much higher than Labour, 33 per cent to 17 per cent on Ipsos MORI’s headline presentation.
Labour’s position is the more understandable. The 2017 General Election data https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2017-election shows that Labour took 73 per cent of the ethnic minority vote, compared with only 47 per cent of the lowest socio-economic class. It is becoming more appropriate to regard Labour as the party of the ethnic minority, not of the working class. It is not difficult to see why Labour would have a vested interest in not engaging in an immigration debate that would antagonise the BME voter category, or else in framing the debate in terms of ‘racism’ such that it may appeal to the BME voter. Note to the Tories – the working class vote is very much up for grabs. Instead, the Conservatives appear fixated on erasing the ‘nasty party’ image. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Theresa May led on the need to correct ‘burning injustices’ which she followed with a Race Disparity Audit. This the Guardian saw as evidence of white privilege. Its high moral aspirations (despite its flawed methodology and therefore conclusions) came across as castigating the nation and especially white people for underlying racism. In this context, the immigration debate may appear toxic to the Tories.
Yet the Conservative position on immigration and asylum is still puzzling because it seems so obviously self-defeating, given that the Tory voter base is much more concerned about immigration (recall the 33 per cent – 17 per cent split noted above). I believe the reason is a misidentification of the ‘nasty party’ image that emerged under John Major’s government. The ‘nasty’ label was apposite but for reasons of sleaze and corruption amongst Tory MPs, not because of a failure to adopt hardcore liberal notions of social justice, mass migration and human rights as Mrs May has it. More a rejection of David Mellor’s toe sucking and the Cash for Questions scandal; less a yearning for a shift away from socially conservative values.
Immigration and asylum is a difficult subject to debate in today’s frenzy of identity politics. I don’t envy the politicians who must front this. It is a debate where the detail remained all but unexplored by politicians until the Casey Review of 2016, which in view of the unprecedented rate of immigration since the late nineties and its implications, documented by Professor David Coleman here and here, is particularly shocking – even a dereliction of duty.
In many of the nations that have taken a lot of non-western migrants – Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Austria and Italy – politically significant parties have emerged with radical immigration agendas which are not necessarily bounded by the liberal values that have held sway these past decades. In an environment where the research is patchy or actively suppressed by government (Sweden, for example, has banned the release of crime data categorised by immigrant nation), a mix of identity politics and uninformed anger seems likely to drive increased tribalism across Europe in the years ahead, with the violence and division this implies. It is hard to see why Britain, where the public is losing faith in Government to manage migration, let alone openly explore the genuine concerns about it, would be exempt from this trend.
If the Government hopes that its ‘integrated communities strategy’ consultation unveiled by Sajid Javid last week – a policy of managed integration through diversity requirements – alone will be sufficient to restore public trust, it is set for disappointment.
Surely it is better for everyone that the political mainstream leads with honesty and competence on this issue. Of the current high-profile British politicians, Jacob Rees-Mogg appears the best placed to lead on what is needed urgently – a socially conservative immigration agenda.