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28 November 2023

Why are voters so relaxed about record immigration?

As long as the cost of living dominates, immigration will not regain its previous political status.

By Ben Walker

Why is Labour’s poll lead so stubborn? Normally by this point of the parliamentary cycle there has been some movement back towards the governing party. But the numbers – a Labour lead of between 17 and 20 percentage points – still point to a landslide defeat for the Conservatives.

One of the reasons is how divorced the Tories sometimes appear from the issues that matter most to voters. Among the subjects that dominated the Conservative Party conference in October were immigration, trans rights and the scrapping of HS2’s northern arm. Anyone can work out what the strategy is here. The focus on immigration, in particular “small boats”, is an attempt to draw attention away from the cost of living. The focus on trans rights is an attempt to ignite a culture war that harms Labour. And the focus on HS2 was an attempt to recast Sunak as a “change” prime minister who is making decisions rather than merely having them made to him.

The strategy went down rather badly. Or rather it didn’t go at all. Few voters changed their minds and few paid much attention. Why? The answer has much to do with the reality that, for voters in all corners of the country, it is the cost of living that is king – not immigration, not trans rights, not HS2.

A new 38 Degrees/Survation survey using MRP calculations helpfully confirms this. We now have the data we need to map the number one issue for voters by parliamentary constituency (using the new boundaries for the next election). And at a glance, there are few surprises.

It’s a landslide. The cost of living is king in the Blue Wall, the Red Wall, London, the north, England and Scotland. In the latter, it matters most to unionists and nationalists alike.

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Concern for the NHS trumps cost of living in more than enough seats to warrant a mention. It doesn’t correlate with income or deprivation but it should be noted that the clear number two issue of concern for most voters is the health service.

In saying all this, I shouldn’t ignore that immigration, while not the number one issue for most voters, is far from irrelevant. Sixty per cent of people, according to a recent YouGov poll, believe that immigration has been too high over the last decade. But the issue does not hold the political status it once did. Had this map been drawn ten years ago, I’m confident that immigration would have been the dominant subject in more than half of the seats. Those days are long gone.

Despite net migration levels (745,000 last year) that would make any former Ukip strategist jump for joy, the issue isn’t as electorally pivotal as it was during David Cameron’s premiership. But as the below map shows, immigration is still among the three issues that matter most to voters in 170 constituencies.

It’s a fascinating visual in so many ways. The most obvious for political junkies is that in many areas it mirrors Ukip’s old heartlands (my choice of colour wasn’t an accident). The Yorkshire coalfields, the Essex estuary and the parts of Kent and the Midlands where voters elected Ukip councillors all feature prominently. In Stoke South and North, immigration is one of the most important issues for 41 per cent and 29 per cent of voters respectively. In Barnsley North, where the Brexit Party performed impressively in the corresponding constituency at the 2019 general election and came within a few thousand voters of toppling a Labour MP, immigration was an important issue to 45 per cent of voters.

Until angst over the cost of living dissipates, it is prices and wages that will dictate the electoral shifts since the last election. But this isn’t to say that immigration is not an issue – and that it couldn’t yet reshape politics in unexpected ways.

[See also: The Tories' secret workforce: record immigration]

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