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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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories