Ed Miliband made a speech earlier today talking about immigration, saying Labour got Eastern European immigration wrong in the last Parliament and promising to introduce rules to deter firms from employing too many workers from overseas. I thought it a good opportunity to write about policies and their effect on public opinion.

I expect any poll asking directly about whether there should be changes to deter companies from employing too many foreigners would find it was extremely popular. However, a straight support/oppose question only really scratches the surface of public opinion on an issue. There are three (or possibly four) aspects to public opinion on any issue. The first is simple support or opposition – although even that needs to be seen in the context of party, the second salience, the third the effect on broader party image, perception and narrative, and the possible fourth, the impact on “elite” opinion (which you may or may not think counts depending on how you define public opinion!)

For immigration, almost all opinion polling suggests the public are broadly hostile towards immigration and, generally speaking, would support tighter restrictions upon it. Looking beyond that, Labour normally trail behind the Conservatives when it comes to which party people trust on immigration – it is a “Conservative issue” in much the same way that the NHS, for example, is a “Labour issue”. Generally speaking it is very difficult for parties to establish themselves as the preferred party on an issue that the other parties are strongly associated with. For example, for all his focus upon it in opposition the best David Cameron ever managed on the NHS was to drag the Conservatives to roughly equal with Labour in a handful of polls. Tony Blair made a supreme effort on the issue of crime and did manage to get Labour ahead on the issue for a while… but during the election campaign of 1997 there was still a meagre Conservative lead on the issue.

If Labour put enough effort in on immigration they could perhaps establish themselves as people’s preferred party on immigration, but they are hardly likely to want to make the issue their main focus in the years ahead, and in the absence of such a concerted effort it is likely to remain an issue of Conservative strength (I suspect it will remain so even given that the government are very unlikely to hit their own target of reducing immigration; hardly anyone expects the Conservatives to hit it anyway).

Secondly there is the effect on salience. Immigration is an issue is one that people do consider important to the country, but not necessarily towards their own lives. In questions asking what people think is the most important issue facing the country immigration has for the last few years come second or third. It does, however, tend to register lower down the scale when asked about what issues are important for people and their families. As an issue where people tend to favour the Conservatives moving it up the agenda however is not going to be particularly helpful to Labour.

Thirdly there is the effect on party perception and narrative. Unlike other angles this is almost impossible to objectively test in opinion polls, but just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t make it any less important. For example, the Conservatives tend to be cautious about the issue of immigration because talking about it too much risks reinforcing negative perceptions of the Conservative party as being racist, intolerant or stuck in the past, and would play to a narrative of the party “lurching to the right” or “playing the race card”. I suspect Labour do not have to worry about this to the same extent, as a party they are seen as far closer to ethnic minority Britons and don’t have the same baggage from the past. They can talk about immigration without risking some of the negative associations a Conservative politician would suffer – it takes a Nixon to go to China.

I suspect this angle also tells us why Ed Miliband is talking about immigration. It probably isn’t going to suddenly make immigration a strong issue for Labour, and it’s not an issue that would help Labour by being high on the political agenda. I suspect he is aiming more at tackling a negative perception of the last Labour government having become out-of-touch with the concerns and worries of its supporters.

The final angle one needs to consider is “elite” opinion – by which I mean the commentariat, columnists, party activists and so on. While the public tend to like anti-immigration policies or rhetoric, Labour supporters in the commentariat tend not to, so there has been a muted or sometimes quite negative reaction to his speech in places like the Guardian (though there have also been many voices welcoming it). This is rather beyond my remit – and going against the commentariat is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you want to look in touch with ordinary people, but it is certainly a factor that politicians need to consider.

61 Responses to “On immigration and public opinion”

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  1. I sometimes wonder whether we should have a component-based approach to “ordinary” exams (O levels, GCSEs, whatever. 16 year old exams).

    Perhaps all students should study the rudimentary elements and sit some sort of basic exam (“B” Level?) at 14. Those that do well could then undergo two years of additional teaching, which was more challenging and vigorous, to “covert” their B Level into an O Level. Those who struggled with their B Level at 14 could instead spend those extra two years being taught at the same level, and retake their B Level at 16.

    A decent pass in B Level would then be the basic entry level for employment / apprenticeship (the equivalent of Grade 1 CSE or Grade C GCSE) and the O Level would be a springboard for A Levels and/or Further education.

    This would be less divisive, I think.

  2. There’s been a lot of tension around building power stations where the GMB union have been very active in anti-foreigner pickets.

  3. Words of warning for those saying UK interest rates are low because of decisive government action – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/investing/9350743/Bond-savers-Get-ready-to-jump-ship.html

    Here is a bond seller saying get ready to sell bonds as they are overpriced.

    On GCSE/O levels – I commented on an earlier thread regarding my views on the exams, which aren’t really relevant to polling to be honest.

    What is interesting in my view though is what this non announcement announcement is the confusion and drift in government.

    I can’t recall any previous government of either shade where we would have an announcement, assumed to be of government policy, which the PM, DPM, all other cabinet ministers and even the ministers own department had no knowledge off.

    That’s pretty breathtaking stuff, and it really suggests that there is a severe lack of control of the direction of government, which isn’t restricted to the coalition element.

  4. ALEC.
    I agree with all your post here.

    My personal take on the GCSE debacle is that it shows that Ministers may not actually understand what the CSE thing was like, so in terms of polling it may impact, due to perceptions of ‘shambles’ and ‘being out of touch’

    Nevertheless, Labour needs an educational philosophy and policies…. I note Kevin Brennan MP said in The House that 3 out of ten = 60% !

  5. @wolf – ” …anti-foreigner pickets”

    Can you elaborate?

    One dispute involved Italian sub contractors Somi at the Staythorpe Power Station. Somi asserted that they were paying their workers in line with the national engineering construction agreements, GMB suspected they were undercutting UK labour by underpaying and exploiting migrant labour.

    An audit resulted in Somi agreeing to make back-payments averaging 1,300 euros a month per employee.

    At Drax and Ferrybridge GMB have questioned the recruitment of 100 welders from the Far East because the “category of welders has been removed from the most recent official Skills Shortage list for the UK”, therefore the jobs should not be offered to non-EU nationals.

    At Runcorn 1000 workers walked out after a protest by thirty unemployed people about the breaking of an agreement to employ 80% of the workforce from within Merseyside and Cheshire… as a result jobs were found for more than 140 local people.

  6. Poll prediction:

    Con 32.9
    Lab 43.0
    LD 8.3

  7. Michael E

    How perspicacious you are. I do hope you are correct as I have not remembered your previous accuracy as a soothsayer.

  8. The Independent:

    A calculation based on six wards fought both times by all three major parties gives a line-up of Lab 39.2%, C 30.7%, Lib Dem 15.2%.


    Carlisle City – Harrowby: Lab 637, C 180, Ukip 90, Lib Dem 71, Green 31. (May 2012 – Lab 961, C 299, Ukip 130, Green 61, Lib Dem 60). Lab hold. Swing 0.7% C to Lab.

    Dacorum District – Woodhall Farm: C 566, Lab 406, Lib Dem 70, English Democrats 47, Ukip 43, Green 24. (May 2011 – Two seats C961, 912, Lab 365, 322, Lib Dem 145, 111). C hold. Swing 14.1% C to Lab.

    Dudley Borough – Norton: C 1375, Lab 633, Lib Dem 259, Ukip 229, Green 143, National Front 47. (May 2012 – C 1570, Lab 801, Ukip 441, Lib Dem 237, Green 215). C hold. Swing 2% Lab to C.

    Durham County – Peterlee West: Lab 767, Ind 181, Lib Dem 99, C 47. (May 2008 – Two seats Lib Dem 857, 833, Lab 685, 664). Lab gain from Lib Dem. Swing 36.1% Lib Dem to Lab.

    Elmbridge Borough – Esher: C 711, Residents 665, Lab 91, Ukip 30. (May 2011 – C 1179, Esher Residents Association 920, Lab 114). C hold. Swing 3.4% C to Lab.

    Hertfordshire County – Hemel Hempstead Town C 1413, Lab 693, Lib Dem 456, Green 180, Ukip 151, Ind 61. (June 2009 – C 2264, Lib Dem 944, Lab 655, Green 590). C hold. Swing 5.9% C to Lab.

    Huntingdonshire District – Earith: C 524, Ukip 437, Lab 96, Lib Dem 92, Monster Raving Loony 56. (May 2011 – C 1410, Lab 335, Lib Dem 323, Ukip 217). C hold. Swing 22.5% C to Ukip.

    West Devon Borough – Tavistock North: C 349, Ind 206, Lab 196, Lib Dem 187. (May 2011 – Three seats C 706, 592, 584, Ind 583, 576, Lib Dem 490, 406, Ind 369, Lab 367, Lib Dem 248. March 22 2012 by-election – Ind 407, C 256, Lib Dem 225, Lab 125, Ukip 78, Ind 57). C hold. Swing 1.2% Lab to C.

  9. My earlier challenge to the lefty press is answered.

    I suppose it was a no-brainer really.


  10. ALEC

    @”hat’s pretty breathtaking stuff, and it really suggests that there is a severe lack of control of the direction of government, which isn’t restricted to the coalition element.”

    I realise that this is your default position on any policy.

    In this instance , however I strongly suggest that you have not dug deeply enough by a mile.

    The “coalition element” aka the “yellow basta*ds” were, I think very much in M G’s mind as he read the “leaked” announcement………in the Daily Mail :-) :-)

  11. @Anthon Wells, fair enough, but in my defence I am neither a Labour or a BNP supporter. I was merly trying to figure out how Ed Millibands speech may have played with that voting block which is well known to contain many disaffected Labour voters (along with other parties), but as this was Milliband’s speech, that is where the focus was.

    I shouldn’t have responded regarding BNP being left or right, but to be fair I was only responding to another posters assertion that the BNP were a right wing party so it was a bit below the belt on your part to single me out.

    To the poster who said we should ignore the BNP, that is totally wrong, we need to fight them head on. You never fight racism unless you acknowledge it. I think the fact that most BNP support has returned to other parties like Labour, UKIP, Tories is proof that many of their voters were not actually believers in the core BNP message.

    I find it amazing that I was singled out for questioning where some Labour support groweth could come from considering the amount of partisan nonsense I have to scroll through to get to comments regarding polls, voters, and where those votes might go. Perhaps you need to do a better job at keeping the discussion on track.

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