One thing we’ve seen over the last few months is pressure groups commissioning helpful polls showing that, lo and behold, adopting the policy that they are campaigning for would be really fantastic for the electoral prospects of whatever party they are trying to twist to their end. So, the Electoral Reform Society has commissioned polling that showed how backing a referendum on PR would be really good for Labour’s electoral hopes. The League Against Cruel Sports has commissioned polling that shows that fox hunting is a really important issue that will affect loads of votes, and over the weekend Migration Watch published polling that shows that loads of votes are there for the Conservatives to take if they are more anti-immigration.

The finding that immigration was a major issue to voters was perfectly legitimate (and done using an unprompted question like MORI do – by far the best way of doing it). However, I’d recommend far more caution about the question showing 44% of people saying they are more likely to vote Tory if they adopted a particular immigration policy, or the general conclusion that it would be a politically advantageous thing for the Tories to do. I’ve been dismissive of questions asking “would you be more or less likely to vote x if they endorsed policy z” before, and I’ll do it again here. People tend to use the question to express support or opposition to the policy in question, regardless of whether they would actually switch their vote. More or less likely is a very low bar. Focusing on a single issue gives it artificial prominence, and often people are already voting for the party they say they would be more likely to vote for, or would never vote for the party anyway. All in all, I wouldn’t give it much credence.

The limitations of this particular question aside though, would going hard on immigration actually help the Conservatives? In many ways it is the Conservative equivalent to Labour’s quandary over whether to soak the rich. In both cases polls show the policies themselves to be very popular, the question is whether it would have a negative effect upon a party’s image.

In evaluating a policy there are actually at least three questions. The first is the straightforward one we are all used to seeing in polls – do people agree with it or not. In the case of immigration polls are consistent in showing that the majority of people want harsher restrictions upon immigration.

The second question is the salience of the issue, there are things that everyone agrees with, but that no one thinks is of much importance. For example, I linked to some polling for the League Against Cruel Sports earlier – a substantial majority of people think fox hunting is cruel, but aside from small numbers of very committed people at either extreme, for most people it is not a major issue at elections when compared to health, education or the economy: it is a low salience issue. This is sometimes slightly harder to measure – questions asking if people are worried about an issue give it false prominence. The correct method is the one used in this poll – an unprompted question on what issues are important, and it shows immigration is indeed a very salient issue, in this particular poll second only to the economy.

The third issue is the most nebulous and hard to measure. How do the issues and policies a party puts forward influence their broader party image? Does talking about a particular issue, or putting forward a particular policy make a party seem forward-looking, or caring, or negative, or bigoted or so on. This was the Conservative strategy for much of David Cameron’s early leadership. His early emphasis on the environment was not something that would directly win votes, climate change ranks a long way behind more concrete things like crime, education and taxes when people come to vote, and those who do prioritise it are probably the sort of people least likely to vote Tory. However, the Conservatives no doubt believed that by championing it Cameron made the Conservative party look more moderate, caring, modern and so on.

We don’t really have much direct polling evidence to judge this by, but the potential risk can easily be seen by looking back at 2005 and the exhaustive polling Michael Ashcroft privately commissioned in the run up to the election. Polling then was just as positive about a harsh immigration message as it is now. Questions showed anti-immigration policies met with overwhelming support and it was consistently rated as a very important issue. Presumably this influenced the Conservatives when choosing their 2005 strategy.

Every day during the campaign Populus asked 250 people what they recalled the Conservative party saying recently. Over 30% of people recalled the Conservative message on immigration after Michael Howard announcement at the end of January that the Conservatives would impose an annual limit on immigration. Apart from 3 days after the council tax announcement, it remained the most recalled message when people were asked about the Conservative party for the rest of January and February. In March it remained amongst the most recalled issues, but was topped for a while by opposing anti-terrorism legislation, sacking Howard Flight and cracking down on travellers. Once the election was actually called, on every single day throughout the whole of the campaign the most recalled Conservative message was anti-immigration. Immigration is indeed a very salient issue, and it completely swamped Conservative messages on health, taxes, policing and so on. At the end of the campaign Populus asked people to characterise this Conservative campaign which people had recalled as being almost wholly about immigration. The most popular options were negative and aggressive.

The polling now on immigration is almost identical to the immigration polling in 2004 and 2005. Back then one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that it made sense for the Conservatives to emphasise it. If nothing else, the 2005 campaign tested that hypothesis to its limit, and found it wanting. Put it this way. In 2004 a YouGov poll for the Economist found that 44% of respondents said they would be more likely to vote Conservative if they had “a harder policy on immigration”, compared to only 6% who said they would be less likely – almost exactly the same figures as the YouGov polling for Migrationwatch today. Subsequently the Conservatives did indeed go into the 2005 election with a campaign that, in the eyes of the public at least, was utterly dominated by the message of a harsher policy on immigration. This produced no obvious gain in the Conservative vote at all – they ended up with almost exactly the same level of support as they had when YouGov asked the question back in September 2004.

165 Responses to “Would being more anti-immigration win votes?”

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  1. Anthony

    There’s a story in the Guardian about the Polling Council Meeting.

    “Statisticians from most of Britain’s main polling companies attended the session, organised jointly by the British Polling Council and the National Centre for Research Methods.

    Four of them were brave enough to come up with predicted vote shares for the main parties. Put together they average a shade under 40% for the Tories, just over 30% for Labour and 21% for the Liberal Democrats.

    In terms of seats, one estimate suggests those figures would leave Cameron 10 short of a majority. That would make Nick Clegg, with about 53 seats, the most powerful Liberal leader since Lloyd George. It would also leave the Tories – hoping for a majority – reeling. But Labour would have suffered most, with a loss of 105 seats on election night and just 251 surviving MPs, against 316 Conservatives.

    Most pollsters think the Tories will do better than that. Two stood apart from this consensus and skewed the overall average: Nick Moon, from GfK NOP, suggested the Tory lead would be a tight 8%. Ipsos Mori called an even closer result: 36% for the Conservatives and 32% for Labour – which if it happened would leave Gordon Brown clinging on as a minority prime minister.

    Everyone else – including statisticians from YouGov, Populus, ICM and Strathclyde University – thought Cameron will get his majority, but only just.”

    Are they all extrapolating polling figures to Parliamentary seats via UNS?

  2. Oldnat – I don’t think so, I think that’s Julian Glover translating into seats.

    The prediction all the speakers were asked for was just the Conservative lead (though actually everyone but Nick Moon guessed at the actual Lab and Con shares), not what the outcome would be in seats.

    Anyway – these were not sage predictions based on hours of careful comtemplation. It was a somewhat lighthearted pointing a figure at them and making each of them give a figure on the spot (for example, IIRC Martin Boon’s was “Lab 30%, Conservative one point higher than the highest anyone else says” )

  3. Anthony


  4. Oldnat

    “Fox hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland in 2002. I don’t think it’s ever been raised as a political issue here since.”

    What are the rural issues that are raised?

    Please also tell me: would you prefer SNP MP’s support a Conservative minority government in exchange for more reliable support in the SP, or would you prefer to support a minority Labour government in the UKP so that you could destabilise Labour in the SP?

    Neil A

    You are right to suggest that many of the issues are regional, and it is in the rural areas that the SNP and LibDems have displaced the parties of Westminster government.

    Actually I think it is the fish and their habitats that are different, not the fishermen, and the relative size of the industry and significance to local communities. As a townie, I don’t understand the detail either but there is strong feeling in rural local press.

    The minister in charge of rural issues is unknown to urban voters but he is responsible for a huge number of small initiatives many of them requiring quite trivial expense. Even if none of them are such as might change your vote it is the general impression of a government that is competent, industrious and determined to initiate long overdue changes that counts.

    The Protestantism is very different. In fact that’s the main thing.

    In Scotland the church was democratised, in Engand it was nationalised. On every issue of social progress in my lifetime from flogging, hanging and colonies to women and Homosexual men in the pulpit the CofS has been 30 years ahead of the CofE.

    I was the Treasurer of a small Scottish Health Board until I retired 20 years ago. Take it from me, contracting out cleaning is doctrinaire madness. It also has to be fiddled to justify it. Don’t believe any of the figures. Someone’s PRP depended on the result.

    AS went to Norway and he asked about hospital acquired infection. They told him that it wasn’t a problem, the staff were permanent members of the team, reasonably paid and had job satisfaction. He didn’t need to go to Norway to find that out he could have gone to any hospital in the country.

    The point is that the SNP have got rid of contract cleaning because they, and the structure of the SP itself are evidence-led not fashion-led. I have seen committees in action cross examining academics by the half dozen in pre-legislative scrutiny.

    Privatised cleaning was introduced for doctrinaire reasons and since there are no significant economies of scale, any savings must come from a reduction in pay or in quality.

    Notice that the argument that the bankers use about recruiting the best is never applied to low paid staff like hospital cleaners. If you job is picking up shit, and you are treated like shit, you are going to think your job and your employer are shit. Staff turnover and recruitment costs will go up. Administering the contract is an extra cost.

    There is an academic who specialises in health economics who has emigrated to Scotland. That may partly be because of targets. Do you remember the Russians five year plans?

    Anybody who knows about things like PFI and contracting out would welcome the changes but my main point is that with the NHS there are many people who know the truth. Few of them expect ever to work for any other organisation than the one that employs most of those who do the kind of jobs they do, and there is a lot of committment and job satisfaction even among non-clinical staff such as wages clerks and the like.

    So a lot of people in the NHS talk about the daft things that governments do and they care.

    That’s why I think the NHS is a big plus for the SNP though it has nothing to do with this election. I can’t say I remember every health minister in both systems since 1964 when I joined the NHS, and the Lab/LibDem coalition had three outstanding ones but I have no doubt that Nicola Sturgeon is by a clear margin the best health minister in either system and one of the most committed to its principles since Barbara Castle.

    It would be a sad day for the NHS if she replaced AS.

    Finally, since this page was once about immigration, did you know that failed asylum seekers children get free tertiary education in Scotland and that they are allowed to stay to finish their education?

    In Kenny MacAskill’s words “colourful threads in the tartan that is modern Scotland.”

  5. Interesting that the pollsters are being very cautious about the idea of the Tories winning a decent majority.

  6. Anthony- I know that it is off subject but is the next ipsos poll due soon?

  7. “Interesting that the pollsters are being very cautious about the idea of the Tories winning a decent majority.”

    Everyone is assuming that the Tories would see a bare majority as something of a setback for the Tories. I’m not so sure. A bare majority would put Cameron in a strong position to face down his right wing and stick to broad consensus policies in the first term. He could also dare Labour and the LDs to block “emergency” legislation designed to cut the deficit, while avoiding the temptation to get too radical. In short, he could portray himself as doing the best in a difficult situation, while appealing to the public over the heads of his own back benchers and the opposition front bench.

    Furthermore, a small defeat for Labour would encourage the continuing infighting between Blairites and Brownites, with the former arguing that the New Labour message is still right but just needs better presentation (i.e. get rid of Brown) while the Brownites would argue for “one more push” to the Left .

    Cameron would be in a strong position to call for a stronger mandate in a second term after three or four years – if he was really Machiavellian he would manufacture a defeat on an unimportant bill and portray this as a need to strengthen his mandate.


  8. Seems a long time since we have had an opinion poll.

  9. @CHRIS
    You will doubtless be aware that Labour romped to a very comfortable win in Wakefield with the Tories in forth place.
    The Tories hung on in Erewash but there was was a massive 1.2% swing C to L. I think, what with fox hunting we can see the way the wind is blowing.

    I thought exactly the same thing Andy when I read the article by Julien Glover. However, its a very misleading headline. It seems that 2 pollsters stand against a reasonable Tory majority. The other 6 predict just that. Of the 2 “unbelievers” one goes so far as to predict a tiny Labour largest single party win based on C36% L34%. So, it is a bit of a suprise but the main players are ignoring Chris and going for the Tories.

  11. Vivisection has gone up under Labour have the Tories brought this up enough to show the inconsistency of Labour supposive animal friendly policies. When in fact animal cruelty has increased under Labour with monkeys being one of there main victims.

  12. The hunting ban was a bit too watered down as well. Hunting is still not illegal only certain ways of hunting have been outlawed.

  13. @John B Dick,

    Thanks a lot for that view of contracted cleaning, John. Its always good to hear from someone with direct experience and with both good analytical and communication skills. It has definitely helped me form my own view of a subject about which I don’t know very much personally.

    Surely the same sensible policy could be introduced in other parts of the UK though? Ultimately if contracting is ineffective both practically and economically then a policy to scrap it is pure common sense. I suppose the answer is that the Tories and Labour got into something of a “management-guru” arms-race and it takes someone a little detached, like the SNP, to be the little boy that points out the nakedness of the Emperor. But is it really anything to do with Scottishness, or just the consequence of fresh eyes looking at the problem?

    As for PFI I have always thought that it is tantamount to fraud. A way to borrow money without admitting that you’ve borrowed money.

  14. I agree that most people don’t give a toss about hunting.
    But they might think its a bit weird that grown ups dress up and go around killing animals for fun.
    And is there still a tradition where, after the fox has been torn apart, hunt novices are smeard wih its blood?

  15. Here’s five minutes of brainstorming on Scottish rural issues:

    RET (promoted by the SNP for 25+years and ignored by the other parties have no solution of their own)
    Black fish
    Set aside zones
    Wildlife crime
    Post Offices (the problem is of a different order)
    CFP representation
    Pig welfare standards & marketing
    Community buy outs (that’s very Scottish)

    OldNat: please add what I’ve left out.

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