4 September 2015

How immigration could decide the EU referendum, one way or the other

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Immigration could decide the EU referendum, writes Sunder Katwala.

That is a nightmare scenario that keeps pro-EU campaign strategists awake at night.  With net migration at record levels, the government’s promise to reduce it in tatters, and Europe struggling to cope with a refugee crisis, it is a difficult time to be making the case for the free movement of people across a continent.

By contrast, for Nigel Farage, to have a referendum to leave the EU at such a moment could be the stuff that Eurosceptic political dreams are made of.  Today, the UKIP leader will set out his argument that immigration can and must be the central issue of the referendum and the case for leaving the EU.

There is a case to be made that immigration could dominate the campaign: immigration is the top reason that those committed to voting out usually cite for their choice. It is consistently near the top of the list of issues which those who are undecided hope will feature in David Cameron’s renegotiation too. Yet Farage is challenging not just his pro-European opponents, but several of his Eurosceptic allies, both beyond and within his own party, who worry that campaigning against immigration could prove less the trump card to Brexit – and instead the achilles’ heel of the ‘Out’ campaign too.

New public attitudes evidence published by British Future today (available here) demonstrates why Eurosceptics might be sensible to fear that campaigning too heavily on immigration could harm their cause. The referendum could certainly be won or lost on immigration – but the truth appears to be that it could prove a difficult and dangerous issue for both sides of the EU referendum debate.

As part of British Future’s forthcoming report on the politics of immigration, and the lessons of the 2015 general election campaign, pollsters Survation asked voters about their reactions to each party’s campaigning on immigration. The full report will be released later in September, and will cover the challenges on immigration facing politicians and parties across the political spectrum The findings illuminate the complexity of public opinion on immigration, showing how public attitudes are often more mixed and nuanced than many people think, particularly when it comes to the ‘anxious middle’ voters who can not accurately be categorised as straightforwardly part of the ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ immigration tribes.

Just under half of voters thought that Labour (46%) and the Liberal Democrats (46%) talked too little about immigration in the election campaign, while similar proportions thought they got the balance about right. Only one in ten thought the centre-left parties focused too much on immigration.

50% of voters thought the Conservatives got it about right in how much they talked about immigration, though one in three voters (34%) thought they needed to focus more on the issue, and 16% that they talked too much about it.

By contrast, most voters felt that UKIP talked too much about immigration, with 51% saying so, while a third of the electorate thought they got the balance right.

The Nigel Farage campaign was pretty much pitch perfect on immigration for those who voted UKIP – where 8 of 10 UKIP voters felt that the campaign struck the right balance, while 12% were dissatisfied that UKIP had said too little on immigration, and would have liked to see a still stronger focus.  However, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters all felt that UKIP had talked too much about immigration – and too little about the economy. Overall, 50% of voters thought UKIP talked too little in the campaign about the economy, while 41% thought they got the amount of focus on the economy about right.

Voters also worried about how UKIP talked about immigration – and a clear majority feared that they risked bringing prejudice into the immigration debate during the general election campaign.

UKIP has often been described as a ‘marmite party’ – perceived as providing a fresh and much-needed new voice by a segment of voters who feel ‘left behind’ by cultural and economic change, while being viewed as toxic by the most liberal, pro-diversity segments of the electorate.  However, a significant swathe of voters fall somewhere in between – both welcoming aspects of UKIP’s populist challenge to the political mainstream, particularly their insistence that difficult issues like immigration must form part of democratic political debate, while also worrying that Nigel Farage’s party could overstep the mark in their own contributions to that immigration debate.

Many voters do think both that the major parties have been too slow to get a grip on the scale and pace of immigration – yet its clear too that many voters who want to see lower immigration and who are open to the idea of leaving the EU disliked the tone of Nigel Farage’s election campaign on the immigration issue.

On balance, voters told Survation that they saw UKIP as ‘bravely outspoken’ by 51% to 34% and ‘willing to say things that others don’t have the courage to say’ – by 58% to 28%.

Yet majorities also felt that UKIP ‘says things they shouldn’t say’ by 50% to 28%, with a similar margin of 50% to 29% saying their view of UKIP was that the party was ‘dangerous and divisive’.

Those competing intuitions may explain why the public verdict was split on whether UKIP ‘should not change their approach even if some people think it goes too far’ – with 38% agreeing, 32% disagreeing, and many people on the fence. UKIP’s own voters consistently took a much more positive view of the populist party’s democratic contribution, rejecting concerns about the party’s approach by very large margins. However, a clear majority of UKIP voters did agree that the party should do more to make sure it did not field extreme candidates, while the general public felt that was true by 64% to 8%.

But the finding which might create most concern for both UKIP’s leading politicians and their Eurosceptic allies is that most people feared that UKIP ‘risk bringing prejudice into debates about immigration’. People felt that was a valid fear, by 58% to 22%, a margin of almost three to one.

That concern was rejected by most of those who are certain they will vote to leave the EU – but those who are ‘leaning out’ on the referendum thought it was true by a margin of 44% to 34%. Those who are ‘leaning in’ but think they may change their minds thought UKIP risked bringing prejudice into the migration debate by a margin of 74% to 12%. There could be no majority for Brexit without securing almost all of the ‘leaning out’ voters and competing to convert a decent share of those currently ‘leaning in’.

Immigration was the central cause of both UKIP’s successes and its failures in May 2015. It was a big reason why the party won almost 4 million votes – but the polarised response to UKIP also provided a significant barrier to its winning more seats in the election.

The findings demonstrate that UKIP had a potent appeal to a minority of voters but their campaigning on immigration also put most voters off.  So UKIP hit a ‘purple ceiling’ of one in three votes everywhere except Clacton, where Douglas Carswell ran his own highly distinctive, optimistic and locally rooted UKIP campaign, endorsing the call for the UK to control its borders by leaving the EU, while engaging on a considerably broader set of issues of democratic reform.

The new findings again highlight a central strategic dilemma about immigration for those Eurosceptics who want to take the challenge of winning the referendum seriously.

The UKIP election message was pitch perfect for most of the voters who are certain they want to vote to leave the EU, whatever David Cameron’s renegotiation contains. But many of the voters who are yet to make up their minds about the in/out question thought Nigel Farage did bang on about immigration a bit too much – and had too little to say about the economy. UKIP has a much higher profile than three years ago –  but growing support for the party has not translated into growing support for leaving the EU. In fact, the Farage paradox is that the rise of UKIP has coincided with “out” losing the lead which it had two or three years ago – ‘out’ was 16 points ahead on average in 2013 – with a swing towards staying in the EU as UKIP’s profile and support has grown.

Talking too much about immigration could do the out campaign more harm than good. These findings suggest that if the Out campaign looks like it is a single-issue anti-immigration campaign, that will enthuse the UKIP base, but leave them well short of the 50% winning post. The main lesson for the Out campaigners seems crystal clear: competing for a referendum majority will require a different tone of voice on immigration from the UKIP general election campaign.

Striking the right balance will not be easy. The UKIP core vote will form part of the support that an Out campaign needs, and may provide many of the campaigners and footsoldiers for a national campaign, but they can not provide most of the votes for a successful campaign.

Nigel Farage has said that UKIP voters could provide 60% of the support that the Out side would need to win the referendum. But those numbers don’t add up to a winning campaign.

UKIP won 3.8 million votes in the 2015 general election, so Farage’s suggestion is that the referendum could be won with just 6 or 7 million votes. That would be a recipe for defeat. The Yes to AV campaign on the voting system won over 6 million votes – but lost decisively by a 2 to 1 margin on a 42% turnout.

It will almost certainly take well over 10 million votes for either side to win the EU referendum – unless turnout were to fall so disastrously low as to call the value and legitimacy of the exercise into question.

If there is a 50% turnout in the EU referendum, the winning post would be around 11.5 million votes. Were 65% of the electorate to take part, as in the 1975 referendum or the 2015 general election, then the winning side would need over 15 million votes.

The maths of the referendum make one thing clear: ‘out’ can not hope to win the referendum without winning most of its support from people who have never voted UKIP. The UKIP vote will make a substantial contribution: depending on turnout, it may get the Out campaign about a third of the way around the track, but victory or defeat will certainly depend on reaching beyond that committed Eurosceptic core vote.

These significant Eurosceptic dilemmas about how to campaign on immigration do not diminish the challenge for the pro-Europeans on the issue. Campaigners to stay in the EU will also struggle to connect with undecided voters if it seems that they just want to change the subject, and talk about anything except immigration, or if they just talk about the benefits of immigration in a way that only preaches to the converted. Pro-EU campaigners do have arguments for free movement – that migrants make a net fiscal contribution, and that free movement means that Brits get to study, work and live abroad too – that will often work particularly well for the young, the educated, and the confident cosmopolitans, who are mostly pretty certain that they would vote to stay in the EU anyway. Until pro-Europeans work out how to engage more confidently with those who are sceptical about the scale and pace of immigration, they may find their traditional arguments for free movement might risk securing votes for their referendum opponents.

By contrast, campaigners for Out are likely to have the committed support of the most stridently anti-immigration voters, but have a lot more work to do if they want to persuade undecided voters that they have a real world plan for either the economy or immigration outside the EU.

Voters will certainly want to hear the debate about immigration – as well as about the economy and jobs, identity and democracy, and Britain’s place in the world. They will want to know how those defending free movement could reform it – or handle the high levels of immigration we currently have. They will want to know what, if anything, would change if Britain left the EU – and whether it is possible to end free movement without giving up on free trade. So when the referendum comes, both sides will have big questions to answer – and neither side will be able to duck arguments about immigration. But both sides of the in or out debate have a lot more work to do to find the arguments about immigration and Europe that would be sure to help, rather than hinder, their respective referendum causes.

Survation questioned 3977 GB residents for British Future. Fieldwork, 8th – 15th May 2015.

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