It’s very disconcerting when you inspire a Daily Mail leader by publishing research. As with most Daily Mail leaders, the facts are squeezed to fit the frame and support the editorial line. So for the record, let’s be clear, there is nothing in the polling evidence published by Demos today to suggest that a cap on immigration is supported by the public.
What is does show is that immigration was a real concern for a small but significant number of voters who deserted Labour at the last election. More than a third (36%) of voters that Labour lost at the last election agreed that ‘Britain should limit the number of people coming from other countries to live and work here because, on balance, they damage our economy and society’, compared with just over one in four (28%) voters who stayed loyal to Labour.
While Labour lost voters because of immigration it’s important to stress that the poll also shows that voters remain moderate in their desire for border controls and are more concerned about immigrants making a fair contribution.
The poll suggests Labour failed to explain its ‘points based’ immigration policy. The majority (49%) of voters agree that immigrants should contribute before accessing the benefits of citizenship. But only one in three (34%) agreed that economic migrants ‘damage our economy and society’, while just one in ten (11%) voters said people should be allowed to come because they benefit the economy and British society. On this basis, Labour had the right policy but voters did not credit Labour for it.
Voters concerned about globalisation and Britain’s national pride were strongly correlated with attitudes to immigration. But moderate views on British national pride were the strongest of all, suggesting that Labour should think twice about toughening their stance and appearing closed to immigration or globalisation. The overwhelming majority of voters (66%) support globalisation if it doesn’t come at the expense of pride in Britain and think immigrants should be able to live and work in Britain but only be granted benefits if they have contributed.
Perhaps most importantly, the poll supports the suggestion that immigration is a “class issue” with social class showing the strongest correlation to concern over immigration. Voters in the lowest social class (E) were almost twice as likely as the highest (46% to 25%) to want restriction on economic migrants. The government is likely to find that the Tory policy of capping non-EU migration is not going to address the wider issues that are causing lower social class voters concern.
New Labour’s embrace of globalisation gave the impression that any opposition to it was heresy. Labour became disconnected from the insecurity felt by those on low wages and with fragile, casual and vulnerable employment status. Labour’s narrative on the advantages of a flexible labour market was insufficiently tempered by a story of how the most vulnerable could be protected. The perceived competition for benefits, social housing, jobs and downward pressure on low wages during the recession crystallised into immigration concerns.
Labour’s next leader must not duck this issue. While Labour need to address voters’ perceptions on immigration, that does not mean Labour needs stronger border control policies. Instead, Labour needs to make sure they position policies on housing, welfare, wages and employment rights in the context of the debates voters themselves are having about immigration. If immigration becomes a ‘no go area’ for Labour, they will remain disconnected from the electorate at large.
Richard Darlington is Head of the Open Left project at Demos.