Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 15 December 2023


This article makes for very interesting reading and reflections. The reasons why immigration may understandably matter less to British constituencies are not difficult to devine. Once the percentage of migrants has reached a certain proportion of the overall population, then a negative feedback or vicious circle sets in. 

1. New migrants wish to attract more of their ethnicity.

2. They are reluctant to object to more migrants, especially from their own provenance.

3. Modern advances in travel and communication mean that they feel like they never left home and their new country does not belong to them or that they don't belong.

4. The citizenry, like boiling frogs, becomes inured to lower living standards...

I could go on. The point is: this is how nations fail - gradually, then suddenly! You could call it "collective suicide".

The great immigration miscalculation

John Burn-Murdoch · Dec 16, 2023

The past 12 months have provided a fascinating experiment in the effectiveness of different conservative strategies on immigration.

Canada and Britain are large English-speaking countries whose conservative parties each appointed a new, young leader in late 2022, just as immigration levels were surging to record highs amid cost of living crises.

The parties — one in opposition, the other in government — faced a choice: weaponise the rising numbers in the hope of supplanting voters’ other concerns? Or meet the electorate where they already are?

In Canada, Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives have stuck firmly to campaigning on the cost of living and the housing crisis, carefully avoiding attempts to stir up concern over the record immigration numbers. His party has opened up a 15-point polling lead.

In Britain, Rishi Sunak’s Tories have given disproportionate airtime to small boats and the Rwanda policy relative to the cost of living and housing affordability. His party has endured 14 months of polling deficits of about 20 points.

It’s worth asking why the Tories believed this would be such a votewinner, and exploring why it has not. There were always some obvious dangers. Drawing attention to a problem happening on your own watch is never the best idea; pursuing an unworkable solution that risks dividing your party may have more downsides than up; and emphasising an issue that the vast majority of voters considers a secondary (or even tertiary) concern runs the risk that they think you don’t care about their primary one.

But there is a more fundamental point here: if Britons were still as concerned about immigration today as they were a few years ago, this could have been a vote-winning strategy. The fact is they aren’t.

The Leave campaign’s victory in the EU referendum was the quintessential example of a campaign won on immigration. But in using that playbook again the Conservatives have failed to realise quite how exceptional that wave of concern was.

In the run-up to the 2016 vote, the European migrant crisis pushed immigration to the top of the agenda. More Britons named it as one of the biggest issues facing the country in September 2015 than named inflation in the middle of 2022. Crucially it was the top issue for not only Tory voters but also Labour and Lib Dem supporters.

This time, most voters simply aren’t persuaded the issue is nearly as pressing. An analysis of 15 years of the Ipsos Issues Index shows where concern with immigration used to rise in lockstep among supporters of all stripes, the recent increase in salience has come exclusively among the shrinking band of diehard conservatives.

This suggests concern over immigration today is not an organic response to rising numbers, but is being refracted through media and political messaging, making the depth of feeling both narrower and weaker than it was in the past. But it’s not just about salience. Both the Tories and the electorate have shifted their positions on immigration.

The thermostatic model of public opinion holds that the public sets its desired temperature on any given issue, and politicians respond with policies that match that preference. In the years immediately following the EU referendum, the Tories performed this function expertly, shifting to the right on immigration to align with the immigration-sceptic median British voter.

But the thermostat has developed a fault. Since 2019, the Tories have veered sharply to the right on immigration while the electorate has become increasingly liberal, with a wide gap opening up between the party and the electorate. Even if the salience of immigration can be increased, it doesn’t pull the average Briton in the same direction as it once did.

And this shift has been doubly damaging to the Conservatives, producing significant losses on their more liberal flank while also bleeding votes to the right among the most anti-immigrant voters who feel the rising salience but see no solutions.

Viewed next to the Canadian Conservatives’ successes, this feels like an unforced error. Where Poilievre’s party has become a broad church, Britain’s Tories have become dominated by a narrow band of increasingly frustrated ideologues. It didn’t have to be this way.

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