23 September 2015

How all parties got it wrong on immigration in the General Election

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Immigration remains a prominent theme in the headlines and has been for some time, writes Steve Ballinger – yet during the General Election, when voters wanted to hear what parties had to say about the issue, most politicians went quiet.

So finds a new report from British Future, The Politics of Immigration – The surprising lessons of the 2015 General Election and what they mean for new party leaders ,  which draws on post-election polling by Survation and new analysis of public attitudes and voting behaviour, including among a large sample of ethnic minority voters, to highlight challenges for all political parties and other advocates on this key issue for voters.

The public wanted a ‘Goldilocks’ debate on immigration in election – not too hot to stir up prejudice and division, but not so cold that their concerns were ignored. Instead they heard little from the main parties, who didn’t seem willing to engage with voters’ concerns about the pace of change and its impacts. The loudest voice was that of Nigel Farage’s UKIP – whose tone and intensive focus on immigration was too hot for most voters.

David Cameron did not win the election on immigration, with only 3% believing that people voted Conservative because it had the best policies on the issue. Among the challenges for the Conservative Party is the need to restore public trust in the Government’s ability to get a grip after the failure to meet its net migration target. The report also takes a longer view to the Conservatives after Cameron, as new contenders to lead the party and the country seek to set out their own vision for how we manage immigration in modern Britain.

For Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham, a key challenge is to find an authentically Labour voice in which to engage voters’ legitimate concerns about the impacts of immigration. 45% of people thought the Labour Party should have said more about immigration in the General Election campaign, including a third of Labour voters.

Labour politicians and party activists on the doorstep risked appearing to try and change the subject, onto issues like fairness in the workplace, when voters raised questions about immigration during the campaign. Only 10% of voters thought Labour talked too much about immigration in the election.

New findings on perceptions of UKIP will place pressure on leader Nigel Farage to ensure that the party’s tone on immigration, and the views of its candidates, do not cross the line into prejudice. The poll finds that most ethnic minority voters (55%)  feel that the party can fairly be described as ‘racist’, while just 21% disagree.

While the research also finds that 15% of ethnic minority voters say that they considered or would consider voting for UKIP, two-thirds of non-white Britons still say they would never vote for the party.

Across voters of all ethnicities, 43% said it was unfair to describe UKIP as ‘racist’, while 40% say this is a fair description of the party.While it is neither fair or accurate to write-off UKIP as racist in the way we would the BNP, it is clear that extreme outbursts from a minority of candidates have done serious damage to the party’s reputation. There is a consensus, between those who voted UKIP as well as those who did not, that the party needs to do more to root out candidates with extreme views.

For the Liberal Democrats, the report identifies a need to find a liberal approach to immigration that still engages voters’ worries about the impacts of rapid change in towns and cities across Britain.  The ‘un-nuanced’, positive approach to immigration suggested so far by leader Tim Farron may have less appeal with many potential supporters than a more measured message

The report also features detailed analysis of attitudes among ethnic minority voters in the election. It finds that ethnic minority votes are more ‘up for grabs’ than ever before, following the Conservative Party’s strongest showing yet with minority voters. While Labour remains ahead on 52% to the Conservatives’ 33%, the authors conclude that the decades of certain Labour dominance of the minority vote have come to an end.

This should be no cause for Conservative complacency, however: more than a third (36%) of non-white Britons say the Conservative Party has not yet done enough to reach out to ethnic minority voters, while only 16% say this about Labour.

Like other voters, ethnic minorities do not think there was too much talk about immigration in the General Election. Given an opportunity to engage voters on this key issue, and offer their own proposals and solutions, most politicians ducked the issue, fearing it would be ‘all pain and no gain’.  This new research suggests that this was a missed opportunity  –  that most voters would welcome fair and sensible proposals to manage the impacts of immigration while securing its benefits.


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