Voters no longer believe the Conservatives can, or really want to, control immigrationby Matthew Goodwin / October 2, 2015 / Leave a comment
As Conservatives gather for their conference in Manchester they have much to celebrate. Five months ago, David Cameron and his party increased their share of the national vote. Though a growth of less than 1 per cent, it was enough to deliver a majority government. Cameron’s strategists secured the largest number of seats for their party since 1992—an outcome that nearly every pollster and academic forecaster failed to predict. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership has ensured that his party will almost certainly fail to build a viable election coalition this side of 2020. The future looks incredibly bright for British Conservatism.
But it is not all good news. Cameron and his party have lost control of the number one issue in British politics: immigration. This is not just about the numbers, which in 2015 saw net migration surge past the 300,000 mark to become the highest figure on record. Rather, it is about the perceived competence and image of Cameron’s party on an issue that has not only surged to the top of the list of priorities for voters, but will also profoundly shape the upcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
In Britain, and Europe more widely, amid the refugee crisis and the lingering aftermath of the financial crash, there is a gathering storm of unresolved and intense public anxieties over migration and its effects, a feeling of cultural insecurity that often combines with harsh deprivation and inequality. These trends are fuelling a growing dissatisfaction with the perceived inability of established elites to demonstrate the most basic functions of government—to control.
Since Cameron’s victory, public concerns over immigration have risen to new and record heights. Over the past two months, pollsters have recorded how nearly three in five voters now rank migration as a top issue. Reflecting the changing terrain is the fact that concern over migration is now almost twice as high as concern over the economy. The Conservatives went to the country claiming that only they can competently manage the national finances. But now they need to convince people that they can manage migration.
Cameron lost his party’s historic ownership over this issue. Back in 2010, nearly 50 per cent of all voters thought the Conservative’s were the “best” party on this issue, more than twice the figure for their closest competitor, Labour. But the situation in 2015 follows a parliament that saw Cameron over-promise on net migration and then underdeliver. By 2015, a large majority of voters felt that Cameron’s Coalition government had handled immigration badly. The number of voters who prefer the Conservatives on immigration had almost halved. Only 8 per cent thought it had been handled well.
The British people not only blame Cameron and his party for the perceived problem, alongside past Labour governments, but many believe that the Conservative Party is neither interested in, nor willing to resolve, the actual issue. Data in the British Election Study tells us that, by 2015, only one in three voters thought that immigration was important to the Conservative Party. For the first time in British history, “other” parties—namely Ukip—had pushed ahead, assuming control over an issue that is at the very forefront of the public mindset. In the British Election Study data, nine in ten voters thought immigration was important for Ukip. less than one in five thought that Cameron and his party could actually achieve reductions, compared to three in five for Ukip. This new multi-party era will further erode the Conservative Party’s prospects for a repeated majority in 2020.
This will be a major challenge going forward. At first glance, entrenched and rising concerns over immigration and threats to identity are a major reason why, in the polls, Ukip has still not evaporated. Its average has remained above 10 per cent. In recent days YouGov put the party on 17 per cent, its highest rating by that pollster since March. This mirrors similar shifts in support for the radical right in Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden since the eruption of the refugee crisis. The Conservatives did not win their argument with Ukip. They won a majority despite ongoing support for the radical right, an outcome that few thought possible before the election.
But this is about so much more. The referendum is rapidly closing in and there is ample evidence in Britain and elsewhere that immigration concerns are a powerful driver of Euroscepticism. Cameron’s early talk about reforming free movement has been substituted for fairly minor changes to welfare provision that are unlikely to satisfy the public appetite for broader controls. His response to the refugee crisis will be endorsed by large numbers of voters but it will not dispel a growing association in their minds between the EU, unchecked migration and Brussels-imposed quotas. The risk facing Cameron is that Eurosceptics successfully frame the referendum, in moderate terms, as one that is not just about trade but national security, borders and identity –that amid an unprecedented crisis, it is a greater risk to stay than leave.
As he takes the stage in Manchester, Cameron can take comfort from the fact that he has reaffirmed his party’s long-held belief that it is the natural party of government. But, in many respects, his biggest challenge is yet to come.