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Home Opinion What do voters want from leaders on immigration?

What do voters want from leaders on immigration?

Shamit Saggar - 13 December 2010

Tribalism and managerial competence agendas pulled UK Labour in opposite directions over immigration, harming the party’s reputation and hampering its ability to perform on its promises

Fifteen years ago, Jack Straw, then Labour’s shadow Home Affairs supremo, argued forcefully that his party’s policy on immigration should not be separated by anything more than a cigarette paper from their Conservative rivals. This claim became a hostage to fortune in subsequent New Labour years in office. For one thing, immigration emerged regularly as one of two or three issues that most troubled voters generally, and Labour sympathisers specifically. The issue has been blamed, alongside economic management, for the May 2010 defeat, and a significant electoral post mortem is currently under way on that basis.

Immigration politics, then and now

Labour’s implicit desire to be trusted on immigration has very deep roots. Academic analysis from the British Election Study has shown that the issue contributed directly to Labour’s electoral decline in 1979 and its subsequent routs in 1983 and 1987. The party’s reputation for weakness and liberal-mindedness also unsettled many voters in the 1960s and 1970s. The BES again demonstrated the reputational strength that the Tories enjoyed – often by default – on this issue, alongside welfare and trade union rights, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Straw dictum spoke to a leadership generation who had witnessed early on in their adult lives the spectacle of a Labour Government haemorrhaging votes – and trust – on immigration. Not surprisingly, the party’s leadership set out to resist further mass immigration, but it nevertheless failed to comprehend the drivers of labour migration, family reunification and asylum. The record in office between 1997 and 2010 quickly demonstrated how hard it was to keep numbers down and present to electors a credible picture of control.  

Controls and competence, alongside numbers

But set against this familiar account is another interpretation of what voters want of leaders, and what, therefore, the latter should better focus on. This is best encapsulated by Sir John Gieve, former Home Office Permanent Secretary. His observation was that the task of effective control over borders lay at the heart of the immigration issue. He continued that ministers remained intent on devoting limited political time and capital to the overall quantum of immigration, some of which was temporary and cyclical, and much of which from the late 1990s was driven by voracious employer demand egged on by a Labour administration basking in the nirvana of a non-inflationary path to growth.

Inevitably, there is much in both interpretations and it is wise to hold both thoughts in our heads at the same time. Certainly the scale of largely unanticipated and unplanned inward migration into the UK in the last decade has been unsettling in many communities. The impacts have been numerous and acute in GP surgeries, in school classrooms and playgrounds, in exacerbating housing shortages and overcrowding, and in fuelling unspoken worries about fairness of treatment between newcomers and natives. A very casual glance at attitudes among settled immigrant communities towards new wave immigrants quickly reveals the scale of the problem.

Describing it as a crisis would not be a great exaggeration in the sense that many existing communities have not just struggled to adjust to the new picture, but, crucially, also struggled to make sense of a Labour government’s position on the immigration issue. Tellingly, Matt Cavanagh, a former No10 special advisor, recently confirmed that as late as the start of 2009 the Labour Cabinet remained divided on whether the issue should be tackled in terms of raw numbers of migrants as opposed to addressing the impacts on local employment, housing markets and congestion in public services.

Yet, irrespective of the need to face immigration’s quantum and immediate impacts, the insight of Gieve is that voters are equally animated by questions of control and management. Charles Clarke, another former Home Secretary, at a Policy Network seminar in September 2010 was firm in his belief that voters sought evidence that borders were under control and that entry and settlement were closely correlated with earned entitlements and genuine skills shortages. Assertion alone on these fronts does not chime with voters. Indeed, it may make things worse by painting a picture of political elites who were winners from immigration but tin eared when it came to the grumbles of those feeling squeezed on the front line.

Immigration, the economy, schools, hospitals

It is useful to see the management and control of immigration not in stand alone terms but rather as an extension of the managerial competence that voters now seek of parties and leaders on the economy and many other issues.  This is the prism through which we now commonly think of voters’ evaluations of leaders and parties. It contrasts with earlier orthodoxies that laid weight on ideological division and the sense that electoral blocs existed and could be mobilised on behalf of broad, collective interests. The electorate’s general sense of confidence in the competence of parties to handle the economy, organise public services, control immigration, enhance school attainment and so on, is what matters today.

Therefore, it is profitable to probe what voters – in very rough terms for many – expect by way of competence on immigration. This probably means clearer selectivity on the skills needed to match both short and long term gaps. It also involves careful thought on reducing social impacts by avoiding sudden surges in settlement. Competency also implies that voters must be able to trust government claims about numbers (polling evidence shows they generally do not), and this suggests that there is a role for watchdogs to hold ministers and officials to account. For example, there is a strong rationale to bolster the use of objective criteria to weigh up asylum claims and to show demonstrable independence from government to identify who should be encouraged to settle (and who should not).

Restraining tribalism

But competency also derives from another, critical ingredient. That is the sense that a governing party is willing and able to restrain its own tribal instincts. This point has been very powerfully articulated by Matthew d’Ancona recently in relation to the Labour opposition’s chances of regaining a reputation for competency on the economy. The same insight has, incidentally, featured in another Policy Network seminar on progressive approaches to economic management.

Such tribal instincts are deeply rooted and highly pertinent in the case of Labour and immigration. The party’s rank and file quite rightly are moved and motivated by questions of social justice. There is nothing new in this. The leadership has often been a mixed story, having to balance entrenched values and sentiment of core supporters with the more sceptical leanings of the wider electorate. The worst possibility is that the latter admire in loose terms a leadership that seeks global economic justice – but punishes it for seeing national immigration policy as an instrument of such a cause.

The evidence on Labour Party members and activists shows that they both take a far more upbeat view on the intangible benefits of immigration than the electorate at large, and also, crucially, mistakenly assume that voters are more liberal than they really are. The evidence also demonstrates that the wider electorate are far from convinced that the economic benefits of immigration are clear cut or significant. They are also doubtful that the indirect costs in terms of disruption and hidden divisions have been properly acknowledged by government, let alone factored into the big equations shaping policy.

Reputations matter

Achieving success – or avoiding great failure – on immigration is ultimately about building, projecting and delivering a reputation for competence in the face of pressures that often cannot be controlled directly. Failure to pay attention to how reputations are made, and how they are squandered, lies full square at the heart of the lesson-learning exercise.  Half a generation ago, Jack Straw stood in the grey area between the tribal instincts of his party and the managerial competence agenda of his colleagues. The lesson may be that voters want only that leaders make credible claims on immigration and are able to deliver against these. They will certainly punish those that cannot and do not, and they will discount against false promises. In essence, they are accustomed to performance politics. This necessarily entails a very sober examination of what policies, institutions, levers and partnerships are needed to deliver credible control over immigration and the successful settlement and integration of immigrants themselves.

Reputations matter, nowhere more so than on immigration. The first lesson, therefore, for regaining a reputation for competence and balanced judgement is that tribalism and competence are pulling in opposite directions.

Shamit Saggar is professor of political science at the University of Sussex and formerly senior policy advisor at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. His new book, Pariah Politics: Understanding Western Radical Islamism and What Should be Done, is published this month in paperback by Oxford University Press.

This essay is a contribution to Policy Network's seminar on "Performance politics: Building public confidence in immigration policy"

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .


09 June 2012 02:12

I live in Los Angeles, CA and it's pretty much a ditto of what you have in Illinois. We are broke, bakunrpt, and yet the voters chose Jerry Brown over Meg Whitman and a host of other democrat-socialist pols.Depressing, but not surprising.

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