Maybe we are a bunch of Little Britons

Have the tabloids made us less tolerant of immigration, or are they simply reflecting their readers’

The "'Transatlantic Trends" report appears to reveal that Brits are more worried about immigration than any other country surveyed – worse than five other nations with more immigrants in their population, says the BBC's Mark Easton.

What could be responsible? Is it because we're an island nation, fearful of "contamination" or "invasion" from overseas, without the free flow of people provided by a land border? There is no comparison in the figures with a similar island, so it's hard to be sure. According to the Financial Times (link requires registration), as reported by Primly Stable, "Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."

It's tempting, as one of those bloggers who has written so much about the anti-immigration language and stories of the tabloid press down the years, to conclude that Brits are more worried about immigration than we should be because we're told to be more worried than we should be.

Certainly, headlines such as "Keep out, Britain is full up" (Daily Express, in an uncanny parallel of the BNP slogan "Britain is full up"), "Migrants take all new jobs in Britain" (Daily Express), "White men to face jobs ban" (Daily Express), "Asylum – you're right to worry" (Daily Mail), "They've stolen all our jobs" (Daily Star), "One in five Britons will be ethnics" (Daily Express), "Muslim schools ban our culture" (Daily Express), "Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers" (Daily Express) and "Strangers in our own country" (Daily Express) would appear to lead to that conclusion.

There are also somewhat misleading stories about race, ethnicity and immigration that pop up almost daily in the tabloid press. Just this week we have seen the Express's story about the ethnicity of doctors, shown by Full Fact to be not the whole picture by any means; and anti-war politicians labelled as "Muslims" rather than anti-war by the Daily Mail when they refused to give a standing ovation to a British soldier (but called him a "hero" nevertheless), as reported by Angry Mob.

It's tempting to see all of this going on and conclude that it's the angry, scaremongering language of the tabloids ramping up the fear factor when it comes to immigration – but that doesn't mean that the screamsheets are the only ones tainting the issue, or that they are the main agents responsible for what appears at first glance to be a rather intolerant, angry Britain depicted in the Transatlantic Trends survey.

For one thing, it's not just newspapers doing this: our politicians of all hues are more than capable of using dog-whistles such as "British jobs for British workers", linking "crime and immigration" in election manifestos and demanding impractical immigration caps as a red line during coalition negotiations, for example. It's not just the odious BNP, and their vile little cousin the EDL, who are doing the yapping about immigration.

For another, it may simply be the case that we are more anti-immigration in this country than liberals like me might like to think; and that politicians and tabloids alike, rather than driving the people, are being driven by them. I'd like to hope not, and I prefer to think of this country as a warm, welcoming, rich and diverse place to live – but it would be wrong to rule out the idea that we're Little Britons who want to pull up the drawbridge. Maybe a lot of us are.

Mark Easton's conclusion is a little more hopeful: he says that Brits are more confused than anything else and we think immigration is a lot more of a problem than it really is. If that's the case, then the language and tone of some newspapers when it comes to immigration can hardly help, particularly when they don't give the full picture. Even if they are reflecting the views of their readerships rather than defining them, and simply confirming the prejudices that already exist, newspapers aren't helping people see the full picture – which is surely what they should be there for.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.