Thursday’s truly astonishing British general election result has left the media with plenty of straws to grasp at. As we now know, the Conservatives missed the threshold for a majority (326 seats) after calling for a snap election with the hopes of a windfall to consolidate their authority in time for Brexit talks. In the meantime, Labour, led by the embattled Jeremy Corbyn, gained over 30 seats but did not manage to secure a majority. UKIP failed to gain any seats, and the Irish DUP arrived in the dubious position of kingmaker for the Conservatives by virtue of their ten seats.
The success of Labour and surprising turnaround of the Conservatives and UKIP have many people asking:
Was this result a rebuke to parties who take a strong stance against immigration?
In our view, not necessarily.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), who has previously made a name for itself with strong opposition to immigration and the European Union, did extremely poorly in many of the districts where they had previously performed well, seeming to split their lost votes among Labour and Conservative candidates. For example, the chart below, based on official statistics reported by the BBC and the Guardian, shows how much UKIP lost in comparison to 2015 in the five districts that had the highest percentage of people voting to leave the EU.
In all of these districts, Conservatives won the most votes and the seat in parliament. However, Labour had strong gains in each, performing on average an additional 8% better than in 2015. Conservatives also did better, by an average of 12%. Considering UKIP lost an average of 20% in these districts, these numbers would appear to show people who formerly supported UKIP dividing their votes among Labour and Conservatives, favoring Conservatives, but not by much.
If voters had abandoned UKIP because they had changed their mind about Brexit, we would have expected to see surges in the parties promising to fight Brexit, particularly the Greens and the LibDems. This was not the case.
A possible interpretation is that UKIP, as a protest party standing strongly for Brexit, lost its appeal once Brexit was achieved. However, if the reasoning for wanting Brexit in the first place primarily lay with opposition to immigration, it would have been reasonable to expect the Conservatives, who took the harshest stance against immigration, sweeping up all or most of the UKIP votes so that the government could finish the job and make lasting changes to the immigration yste. Instead, a good chunk went to Labour as well- who were tepid on the subject of immigration reform, promising “fair rules and reasonable management of migration.”
We previously compared the Labour and Conservative positions on immigration as laid out in their manifestos and concluded that they could not be more different. While Conservatives promise to bring the number of people migrating to the UK from over 300,000 to in the tens of thousands, Labour does not have specific numeric targets for reduction. Conservatives would make it more difficult for family members to reunify, while Labour would make it easier (at first glance) by removing earnings requirements. Labour would ban indefinite detention, while Conservatives would change asylum rules to disfavor those who apply in-country. In addition, the parties differ significantly on international students and charges for employers who hire non-British workers.
The only place they come together in agreement over Brexit: it’s happening, and it’s going to change immigration from the EU and beyond.
So what conclusions can we draw from this baffling situation? There are a few possibilities.
Bored of Brexit
First, perhaps this outcome showed that while many people did want a change on immigration, they felt that change was already achieved by the vote to leave the European Union. If this were the case, it would be natural to turn their attention to other, more domestic priorities, such as employment, social services, health and education. These are areas that Labour spent a lot of time campaigning on, and perhaps this effort accounted for some of their success.
Not Convinced by the Conservatives
The promise to reduce numbers of people migrating to Britain is not a new one. David Cameron pledged to cap immigration in the tens of thousands back in 2010 and obviously did not, which may cast doubt for some on Theresa May’s pledge to do the same in 2017. Public opinion surveys, like one done by Ipsos, show that only 18% of British people think the goal of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands of achievable by the Conservatives, while 68% say its “either not at all likely or fairly unlikely that the Conservatives will be able to achieve this target”.
This would indicate not that people have changed their views on immigration, but that they are unconvinced that Conservatives can carry out their promises on reducing net numbers. By extension, the same applies to UKIP, who promised to reduce net migration to zero.
Cold Feet for Hard Brexit
A final possibility to consider is that the people who switched their votes were satisfied with the decision to leave the EU, but turned off by the hard-line approach favored by UKIP and the Conservatives. In terms of immigration, this could mean a desire for a measured approach to a changed system under Brexit rather than reduction by several hundred thousand or “net zero”. One of the difficulties of the hard-line approach favored by UKIP and the Tories is that people tend to differentiate between different kinds of immigrants- for instance, international students, doctors, and people rejoining their families, versus people seeking asylum or irregular migrants. An approach that puts all of these individuals in the same basket risks forcing people to prioritize efforts to reduce immigration over, for instance, having adequate doctors and nurses to staff the NHS. Perhaps some voters felt that Labour struck the better balance between leaving the EU while not totally changing the character of the country by advocating radical changes to the immigration system.
Of course, it’s possible that none of these possibilities encapsulate what voters were thinking when many abandoned UKIP and to a lesser extent Conservatives. (Perhaps UKIP voters simply abstained en masse!) The coming weeks may give us more opportunity to find out, as the fallout from the election impacts the Conservatives and their attempts to get Brexit negotiations underway with an almost hung parliament. For now, we assess that slashing numbers arbitrarily and not taking account of the migration needs of different industries and sectors is no longer a winning proposition. Judging from reports that May has promised to back away from some of her key immigration positions, the Tories would seem to agree.
Sources and Further Reading
Two of UK’s Top Leave Districts in Essex, BBC, June 2016
UK Election 2017: Full Results (Interactive), June 2017
Most think Theresa May will not achieve her target to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”, IPSOS Mori, May 2017
Theresa May buys time with apology to Tory MPs over election ‘mess’, The Guardian, June 2017
Header Image: UKIP Billboard, via Ian Burt on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2rl1aNj (CC by 2.0)