"Faced with parties that will be raising it, the major parties must decide whether to ignore or engage with them, and, if the latter, on what terms..."One of Labour’s five election pledges – unveiled when the Prime Minister visited Nottingham University last weekend – was to ‘strengthen fairness in communities through controlled immigration’. And yet, despite persistently high levels of opposition to further immigration and evidence that it had a significant impact on voting in the 2005 election, immigration is unlikely to be one of the main issues on which the election is fought. Why?
First, because although people are overwhelmingly opposed to immigration, and opposition actually increased during the last decade, in recent years, it has become of less importance to voters as the economy has risen up the agenda. And whilst you might think that an economic downturn could coincide with increased concerns about immigration, for most people the predominant worry regarding immigration is less about economics and more about culture and security. Thus, trying to rally opposition to immigration to win enough votes to matter requires adopting more cultural/identity-based or security-related arguments, which none of the main parties seems likely to do.
Second, neither of the two largest parties wants to make immigration a key campaign issue. Labour has presided over the largest post-war rise in immigration ever witnessed – encouraging large-scale migration to help improve Britain’s economic performance and to run social services. It is unlikely to want to draw attention to this. And whilst evidence indicates that Conservatives—on balance—probably benefited from introducing the issue into the 2005 campaign it did not help them win that election; and as Smell the Coffee (a seminal document amongst Conservative modernisers) argued it dominated what people heard about the party and alienated liberal-minded voters amongst the upper and middle classes.
Matt Goodwin is ultimately doubtful about the prospects for the BNP in the election but argues that UKIP might perform better because it lacks the extremist baggage (or to be more specific, the racist baggage) of the BNP. Yet although support for these parties has risen in recent years, this support has come in elections which are ‘second order’—that is, elections which people tend to view as less important than national-level general elections. Although rising support for small parties like these via local and European Parliament elections cannot be completely discounted—this is, in fact, how the Front National began to mobilise large-scale support in France — the more interesting question is whether parties like the BNP and UKIP will force the more established parties to engage with the issue.
Faced with parties that will be raising it, the major parties must decide whether to ignore or engage with them, and, if the latter, on what terms. In countries like Sweden, the main parties have taken a consensus-building approach to this issue, developing cross-party agreements to address a growing concern about immigration, and the result has been that it has become almost an electoral non-issue. Hence Gordon Brown’s call yesterday for a united front’ amongst the major parties to address the immigration issue. Ignoring the issue entirely, though, is likely to backfire by pushing at least some voters to the BNP and other small parties, and perhaps worse, contributing to large-scale public resentment at a political class that is unwilling to address one of the issues that has been of major concern to the British public in the past decade.
Dr Lauren McLaren