Immigration and the cost of broken promises

Immigration and the cost of broken promises

James Hampshire (University of Sussex)


Political scientists studying voting behaviour have long debated the relative importance for re-election of candidates’ records compared to their campaign promises. Put simply, when deciding how to cast their ballot, do voters look mainly at what candidates have said and done in the past or what they say they will do in the future? The answer, unsurprisingly, is almost certainly both: election promises and the way in which they are made matter, but not even the most adroit campaigner can induce collective amnesia in the electorate (though many have tried). Indeed, the two things are interconnected since voters’ evaluation of past behaviour shapes their estimation of future performance. If a candidate promised to do something at the last election, and failed, why believe them this time round? Of course, a lot of promises get forgotten between elections, but when it comes to public commitments on high salience issues failure can cost votes.

If this is correct, then the Conservatives should be worried, for they have failed – and failed spectacularly – to redeem a central promise of their 2010 campaign: David Cameron’s commitment to reduce net migration from ‘hundreds to tens of thousands’ over the course of the parliament. When the Coalition Government was formed in May 2010, net migration was running at about 253,000. After a dip in the first two years of the parliament, which saw net migration fall to a low of 153,000 in the year to September 2012, it began to increase again and by the year to September 2014 – which are the last figures that will be released by the Office for National Statistics before the election – the figure stood at 298,000. So not only has the target been missed, but the Conservatives have overseen an increase in net migration – to its highest level since 2005.

Setting a target for net migration was, and remains, a fool’s errand. Leaving aside its economic, social and moral implications (and that’s a lot to leave aside), purely in terms of political calculation it was a risky gambit. A numerical target provides a clear metric for success or failure and thus an easy political target for opponents. Of course, the allure of controlling migration – an issue on which the Conservatives enjoyed a lead over Labour at the last election – while avoiding the ‘nasty party’ image through a technocratic sounding target, was what made the idea attractive in the first place. Now, however, the Conservatives must somehow gloss over their failure to deliver a flagship policy on what several polls tell us is the second most important issue of the 2015 election, and one on which the UKIP insurgency largely rests.

What makes the Conservative’s hostage to fortune even more remarkable was that it didn’t ever look achievable (as pointed out by many migration researchers at the time, including this author). The net migration figure is a simple calculation of immigration minus emigration. The first problem is that in a liberal democracy, emigration is largely outside government control, thus even if immigration is reduced the effects on net migration can be cancelled out if fewer people leave. This is not, however, the main reason for the increase in net migration in Britain since 2012. Rather, it is because immigration of non-EU and especially EU citizens has increased. EU immigration is, like emigration, not something the government can do much about so long as Britain remains in the EU. Over the last ten years, EU free movers have made up betweeen approximately one third to just under a half of immigrants to Britain. It is therefore surprising, to put it mildly, that the Conservatives apparently failed to recognise the near impossibility of their self-imposed task. To make matters worse for them, both the absolute and relative size of EU migration to Britain has increased since 2012, as a result of the relative strength of the UK’s post-crisis economy, especially compared to southern Eurozone countries. As thousands of young Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians and Greeks have come to Britain in search of jobs that no longer exist in their austerity-ravaged economies, the hope of meeting the target has receded further still.

While no one could have guaranteed economic recovery in 2010, what was clear was that the Conservatives had set themselves up to fail on one or the other of the two most important issues of the day: they could enter the next election either with a strong economy or a sub-100,000 net migration figure; they almost certainly couldn’t have both. Cameron belatedly realised the problem of EU migration for the target – and for his political prospects more broadly – and put it at the heart of his European renegotiation strategy, but even if he is successful in persuading other leaders to tighten benefits for EU migrants this will have little effect on overall numbers.

With EU migration out of the equation, the government has had to bear down on non-EU immigration: tightening policy on students, family migrants, and, to a lesser extent, non-EU work migrants. But it has largely failed by its own measure here too. The economic recovery has attracted overseas workers and attempts to restrict them have met with effective opposition from businesses which point out that immigration caps are the kind of ‘red tape’ that business-friendly Conservatives are supposed to oppose. And despite raising the income and English language requirements for family migrants, numbers have crept up here as well. Conservatives often blame the gap between rhetoric and reality on the Liberal Democrats, especially Vince Cable who has fought a running battle with Teresa May on migration policy. Cable’s role is not unimportant, but the failure to meet the target has less to do with the recalcitrant Business Secretary than the functional needs of a liberal capitalist economy, which rarely tally with the populist tendency of immigration politics.

What are the implications of these developments for the election? At the time of writing, the party manifestos are not published and we don’t know exactly how the parties will campaign on immigration. Some things are clear, however. Immigration is now one of the main issues in British politics and given how close the election is likely to be, it certainly has the potential to affect the outcome. An important mechanism for this is UKIP, who under Nigel Farage have morphed from a fringe anti-EU party into a populist anti-immigrant (and anti-EU) party. Indeed, Farage has managed to fuse immigration and Europe into a potent vote-winning pitch. UKIP are currently polling around 14 per cent, and though they are likely to win only a few seats, loss of votes to UKIP from either Conservatives or Labour could affect the outcome in numerous tight marginal seats.

What of the net migration target? In a November 2014 speech on immigration, Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to it, presumably calculating that reneging would do more damage than redefining it as work in progress. The target is still Conservative party policy, though whether it will be restated in the manifesto remains to be seen. Labour unsurprisingly attacked the Conservative’s failure, and they have refused to adopt a target themselves, but they’ve not made that much of the issue since they have their own problems with immigration and would prefer to campaign on issues where they enjoy an advantage. For his part, Nigel Farage recently announced that UKIP would also not adopt an immigration cap, but rather a points-based system to reduce immigration to around 27,000. As he put it, ‘there has been an obsession with caps, floors, ceilings, targets all through British politics. I don’t think the public are interested or believe any of it.’ This is typical Farage: with a large lead over all the other parties on immigration he has spotted the political leverage to be gained by depicting the target as yet another ruse by a duplicitous and out-of-touch elite.

Whatever happens on 7 May, it is hard to imagine that the target will survive much longer. If the Conservatives find themselves in opposition it will surely be consigned to the dustbin of failed Tory immigration policy ideas (lying atop the 2005 manifesto promise to leave the Refugee Convention, perhaps?). Alternatively, if the Conservatives do form a government, they may use coalition negotiations as an opportunity to drop the problematic target (a reversal of what the Liberal Democrats did with many of their more progressive immigration policies back in May 2010). Retaining the target seems the least likely option. It would almost certainly not be achieved in the next parliament – whether or not the UK remains in the EU – and the longer-term effect could only be to further disaffection among those parts of the electorate tempted by the UKIP message. In short, what was always a bad, if politically expedient, policy, no longer even looks expedient; and such policies rarely last long in politics.


James Hampshire is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex and Deputy Editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. His latest book is The Politics of Immigration: Contradictions of the Liberal State (Polity, 2013).