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.