In a previous post I speculated on how the disaffected voter could be both part of the UKIP story and also a factor behind the decline in the popularity of the LibDems. But what about UKIP’s two key policy areas: leaving Europe and stopping immigration?
As I noted last time, for most UKIP voters Europe itself is no big deal. It is an issue which will sit naturally with disaffected voters: if UK politicians seem remote to their interests, politicians in Europe will seem even more so. It is not an issue that a large number of voters will regard as all important in itself. Immigration is much more interesting. This post looks at what evidence we can get from surveys about voter attitudes towards immigration.
The first point to make is that a large majority of the UK public have always favoured tighter controls on immigration. (Interestingly, given SNP policies for an independent Scotland, a majority of Scottish voters also want less immigration!) What has changed over the last two decades has been the salience of the issue. (The charts in this post come from the three sources listed at the end.)
This chart is a little busy, but the green line is the number of people rating race and immigration as one of the top issues. The issue was nowhere until the end of the 1990s. Within the space of about four years its importance rose dramatically, and it has stayed as a key issue since around 2003.
The temporal link with actual levels of migration cannot be a complete coincidence.
Note that immigration from the EU only took off from 2004. So freedom of movement for labour within the EU, which is discussed so much in the media, is not the key to understanding voter concern about immigration.
Nor does concern about immigration appear to involve class. Any differences between the standard social classifications (A-E) and voter concern seems to be swamped by a common movement, as this chart shows.
There is, however, an understandable difference between income groups when they are asked why they are concerned about immigration. Those with low incomes tend to want to reduce immigration because of the perceived impact on jobs and housing, while those on higher incomes are more concerned about the impact on public services.
There are also two additional class related factors which do distinguish between voters attitudes towards the impact of immigration. The first is whether the voter has a university degree. For those that do, the majority believe that immigration has benefited the country both economically and culturally, while those without a degree think the opposite. Second, there is a clear correlation between concern about immigration and the newspaper people read. In addition, people seriously overestimate the extent of UK immigration, probably because of the impression they get from reading certain newspapers. To some extent this may be inevitable, as sensationalism like this or this may help sell newspapers to those who worry about immigration. However the fact that large sections of the UK press want us to leave the EU may mean that causality runs the other way, as I note below. (I do not see this as a simple right-left issue, as many on the right are against tight immigration controls.)
Location is also important. One widely reported result is that concern about immigration tends to be higher where actual levels of immigration are low. (An exception seems to be where asylum seekers are placed.) Many have noted that UKIP’s first MP is in a constituency where levels of immigration are very low. Chris Dillow mentions one poll that found that while 76% think immigration is a very or fairly big problem for Britain, only 18% think it is in their own area. Furthermore those with migrant friends were far more likely to be positive about the impact of immigration than those without.
So immigration for many is about a fear rather than perceived experience. The fear is fed not by official statistics but stories in the media. In that sense it is like crime. In the case of crime, the general perception is that crime is rising, even though for many years nearly every type of crime has been falling in the UK. This encourages politicians to focus on the appearance of action: most calculate that they are better off talking about 'cracking down' on crime than in celebrating its decline. With immigration, the political benefits of appearing to 'deal with the problem of immigration' are greater than arguing that, in average economic terms at least, immigration may not be a problem at all.
Two things make immigration particularly toxic as a political issue. The first is that economic issues (jobs, housing, public services) can so easily be linked to it. However the first chart should warn against a belief that immigration concerns will disappear if real wages begin to rise. The second is the link with EU membership. While it is clear that public concerns about immigration became important long before immigration from the EU rose substantially, it suits those that want us to leave the EU to suggest that EU immigration is critical to public perceptions on this issue. For that reason, it seems unlikely that the political 'problem of immigration' is going to go away as long as the UK remains in the EU.
If this last statement is true, there is an interesting implication. UKIP can continue to receive strong support by saying that they have the only certain way of 'tackling immigration', and this will be true whatever actually happens to the numbers (immigration is like crime). The question that then arises is whether the Conservative party can live with that. Promising a referendum and then staying in the EU may win the next election but it will not make UKIP go away. Instead the party may calculate that the only way of making the issue of immigration less toxic is to take the UK out of the EU.
Sources for charts: