Voters are warming to the idea of a Labour government

Lord Ashcroft poll shows that 56 per cent of voters would like to see a Labour-led government after the next election.

Lord Ashcroft's giant poll of 8,000 voters for ConservativeHome contains much that is worrying for Labour and Ed Miliband. More than half of those surveyed (52 per cent) say "Labour have not yet learned the right lessons from what went wrong during their time in government, and cannot yet be trusted to run the country again". In addition, even after a double-dip recession, David Cameron and George Osborne are still more trusted to manage the economy than Miliband and Ed Balls (by 53 per cent to 47 per cent), and Cameron has a 12-point lead over Miliband as the best prime minister (56 per cent to 44 per cent).

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority.

However, it's still worth highlighting one finding which should give Labour heart. Asked which party they would like to see in power in 2015 (see table below), rather than merely which they would vote for in an election tomorrow (a subtle but important distinction), 56 per cent say they would like to see a Labour-led government (36 per cent favour a Labour government and 20 per cent a Labour-Lib Dem coalition), while only 44 per cent say they would like to see a Conservative-led government, with 31 per cent favouring a Conservative government and 13 per cent a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

Ninety three per cent of Labour joiners - those who did not vote for the party at the last election but say they would do so tomorrow - would like to see the party in power in some form after the next election. Even among Labour considerers, those who did not vote Labour in 2010 and would not do so in an election tomorrow, but say they would consider the party in the future, the figure is 72 per cent.

This is significant because it suggests that voters increasingly view Labour as an alternative government, rather than merely a receptacle for protest votes. For those Tories who console themselves with the thought that voters will drift back them before 2015 (and that new ones will join them), it is a worrying development.

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on 19 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.