Immigration was a factor, but it did not cost Labour the election

As the government announces its new immigration cap today, some in Labour may be tempted to re-visit the thesis that a tougher policy on immigration could have saved the party from electoral defeat in 2010. The idea that immigration played a critical and negative role for Labour in the general election is now well established; the evidence, however, simply does not support such a position.

Will Somerville is a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC

As the government announces its new immigration cap today, some in Labour may be tempted to re-visit the thesis that a tougher policy on immigration could have saved the party from electoral defeat in 2010. The idea that immigration played a critical and negative role for Labour in the general election is now well established; the evidence, however, simply does not support such a position.

Rob Ford of Manchester University and I recently analysed data from the British Electoral Survey (BES), the gold standard of electoral research, to establish the real role that immigration played in how people cast their votes in the General Election.

Our analysis, published today in an ippr/Prospect pamphlet, ‘Immigration under Labour‘, suggests the view that immigration cost Labour the 2010 election does not stack up, or at least it stacks up in a very different way. The picture from the BES suggests that immigration concerns were, as many have suggested, concentrated among white working class voters with traditional affinities for Labour, whose support was critical to winning a fourth term.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that voters who were annoyed about immigration were more likely to defect from Labour. We conducted a range of regression analysis to test whether immigration was a significant influence on 2010 voting patterns, building models of Labour voting and vote-switching from Labour to the right-wing parties, and assessments of the three main parties’ leaders.

The findings from all the models are fairly consistent: Labour’s performance on immigration was a significant factor in vote choice decisions, particularly a decision to switch from Labour to a right-wing party and in assessments of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. In this sense the commentators are right.

Critically, however, immigration did not decide the election: in our models of overall Labour voting and voters’ judgements about Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, assessments of Labour’s economic performance loomed much larger. Immigration may have influenced some voters, but it is clear that this election was a referendum on Labour’s performance in the economic crisis.

Nearly half of all voters volunteered economic concerns as the top priority facing the country, while another eight per cent named the related issues of unemployment and consumer debt.  Immigration was clearly an issue concerning the electorate, gaining the second-most mentions at 14 per cent among voters, but it ran a very distant second to all-encompassing economic concerns.

Labour might have won some voters back had it adopted a more restrictive or populist line on immigration, but it would have won back far more by convincing the electorate that its economic policies were the best available.

Another important finding emerged from our research. Voters who prioritised immigration did not desert Labour, nor did voters with the most negative emotional reactions to immigration. Instead, voters switched when they prioritised immigration and felt Labour had mismanaged the issue.

Our evidence suggests that voters did not desert Labour because they were angry about immigration, they switched because they were angry about immigration and they believed Labour had failed to address their concerns. In short, our view is that immigration as an issue was symptomatic of a wider breakdown in communication between Labour’s elite and its base, a problem unlikely to be resolved by more restrictive immigration policies, however well they are communicated.

One Response to “Immigration was a factor, but it did not cost Labour the election”

  1. Max Dunbar

    Did immigration cost Labour the election? Why this is a Great Historical Question: //tinyurl.com/37fvhh9

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