Immigration - the right thing to be talking about?

While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past.

Most British people want less immigration and support the government’s intention to reduce it. Many will say it is among the most important issues facing Britain (below the economy of course). But when we ask people about problems where they live, only 18 per cent say it is an issue. Keith Vaz kept the debate about immigration alive last weekend following speeches from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and a party political broadcast from Ed Miliband in recent weeks. Immigration is an issue the media and politicians talk about, but how important is it to the public? Do politicians lead or follow on immigration?

A truism of public opinion research is that in any focus group, on nearly any subject matter, you can guarantee that immigration will be raised. There is resentment towards migrants who many feel accept low pay and poor conditions, therefore undercutting Britons in the labour market. That feeling of unfairness comes about because they are seen to be avoiding 'contributing' to the system, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of living in Britain. The difficult economic climate and hardship that many Britons and Britain itself have fallen into only hardens those attitudes.

That resentment was underlined in a 2011 poll for the BBC's Future State of Welfare, which found that three quarters of British adults agreed that there are some groups of people that should have their benefits cut. It will come as no surprise that immigrants came top of the list of who to cut from, above those claiming over £400 a week in housing benefit, the long-term unemployed and those on incapacity benefit.

This suggests that David Cameron’s announcement that migrants will lose their benefits after six months unless they have a chance of finding work will attract popular support. There is more evidence to suggest it will go down well in an Ipsos MORI poll for the UK Border Agency from 2009 in which three in four Britons agreed that "migrants should not have full access to benefits until they become citizens", while the Transatlantic Trends series from 2011 shows that most Britons think it is very important for migrants with low education to be allowed into Britain on the condition that they do not use any social benefits. The fact that the figures since Cameron’s speech show that his cuts would affect a minimal number of migrants will matter less; the gesture is an important one, the detail will be heard less.

But why is immigration once again top of the political agenda? All three leaders have addressed the issue in the space of a few weeks. While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past. Ipsos MORI analysis covering the period from 2000 to 2006 showed that spikes in public concern about immigration were closely related to spikes in media coverage of immigration – as is often the case with other issues such as the NHS and crime. So are our politicians ahead of the curve on this occasion or are they simply trying to out-manoeuvre each other?

Immigration has been a strong suit for the Conservative Party, rated as the best party on immigration every time Ipsos MORI has asked the question. However, in September last year, their lead over Labour on immigration was only seven points, where previously they had enjoyed double digit leads (a record lead of 29 points in 1978). Ed Miliband’s admission that Labour did not do enough on immigration is surely an attempt to close that gap even further. David Cameron's focus on immigration, and benefits, will be seen as an attempt to counter recent unrest among his own supporters and he’s picked an issue important to Conservative and UKIP voters (many of whom used to be Conservatives).

Politicians are often accused of spending too much time talking about issues that do not matter to the public. While the economy is the main issue concerning voters, immigration, in different guises, does matter to people. Whether it is because they are struggling to get a job or because of the perceived strain on the welfare state and public services, for many it is also about fairness. It is not that the British public unanimously sees immigration as a bad thing, but many object to immigrants' perceived lack of contribution to the system and their undercutting of domestic workers. David Cameron, on this issue, has chimed with public opinion. 

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration in Ipswich on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.