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Labour’s lost voters and attitudes to immigration

Written by Paula Surridge.

At the weekend, Tony Blair expressed his belief that new tougher immigration rules could be a way to satisfy voters without requiring the ‘sledgehammer’ of Brexit. Whilst being met with disdain by many within the current Labour party it appears to be more in tune with those voters who have stopped supporting the party at general elections since Labour last won power and particularly with those previous Labour voters who voted for the Conservatives on June 8th 2017.  Using data from the British Election Internet Panel Study, we can identify those who either voted Labour in 2017 or had previously voted Labour in 2005 but failed to do so in 2017. Data are included for England only and excludes those too young to vote in 2005.  The groups identified and their sample sizes are

  • ‘Lost’ voters: Those who did not vote Labour in 2017 but who were Labour voters in 2005
    • Lost to non-voting (n=314)
    • Lost to Conservatives (n=933)
    • Lost to others (n=519)
  • ‘Kept’ voters: Those who voted Labour in 2017 and in 2005 (n=2616)
  • ‘Gained’ voters: those who did not vote Labour in 2005 but who did so in 2017
    • Gained from non-voting (n=928)
    • Gained from others (n=1780)

Figure 1 shows the positions of each group of voters giving ‘positive’ responses about immigration as measured by two 7-point scales of the impact of immigration culturally and economically. There are very clear and distinct patterns of responses to these question by the type of voter. Those that voted Conservative or who did not vote in 2017, having voted Labour in 2005 are much less likely to hold a positive view of immigration, either culturally or economically whilst the majority of those who voted Labour in 2017 having either voted Labour; not voting or voting for another party in 2005 held positive views of immigration. Less than 1 in 4 of the ‘lost to Conservative’ voters viewed immigration as enriching cultural life; compared with more than 1 in 2 among voters who had remained with Labour in 2017.

Using a scale from 0 – 10 where 0 was ‘many fewer’ immigrants should be allowed to come to the UK and 10 was ‘many more’, we identify the position of voters and the distance voters perceived between themselves and the two main parties on this issue. Positive scores indicate the voter perceives the party as more pro- immigration than their own position, negative scores indicate the voter perceives the party as have a more restrictive view on immigration than their own position.

Figure 2 also shows those who had supported Labour in 2005 but who moved to the Conservatives or to non-voting in 2017 held more restrictive views about immigration than the other groups. It is not surprising then to see, that these voters perceived the Labour party as being relatively distant to their views on immigration (with an average distance of 3.43 for those who did not vote and 5.37 for those who voted Conservative), and the Conservative position as being somewhat closer. In both cases, the parties are perceived as being more pro-immigration than the voters see themselves.  More surprising is that those who had not voted Labour in 2005 but did so in 2017 see the parties as almost equidistant from their own position on this issue, albeit with Labour seen as having a more pro-immigration position than the voter and the Conservatives having a more restrictive view.

Whether these positions and perceptions matter for party competition can be assessed by the salience of immigration as an issue for voters. When asked to give the ‘single most important issue facing the country’ in 2017, responses are dominated by ‘Brexit’ and to a lesser extent by ‘Terrorism’ (in response to the attacks which took place during the campaign). But even in 2017, there is a clear pattern in the proportion of each group who gave ‘immigration’ as the most important issue. This is more pronounced in 2015, when ‘Brexit’ and ‘Terrorism’ do not feature as important issues. Among voters who were Conservative in 2017 but had been Labour voters in 2005, almost half (45%) gave immigration as the most important issue facing the country at that time, whilst among other groups of former Labour voters the level was lower, in each case this was the most commonly mentioned issue. In contrast among the voters Labour retained from 2005, the NHS was the most important issue at the time of 2015 election.

Taken together this paints a picture of lost Labour voters with a high level of anti-immigration sentiment and for whom this is an important issue. While voters gained from elsewhere are more pro-immigration generally they also perceive themselves as almost equidistant between Labour and Conservatives on this issue, in 2017 the issue of immigration was not a priority for these voters though the party may find its stance on this issue more problematic should the salience of the issue rise again.

In understanding how the Labour vote has evolved over the last decade, I have written elsewhere that it is becoming young(er), more educated and more liberal. Another dimension to this is that voters that have turned away from the party have distinctive attitudes to immigration. In this sense, Blair’s intervention may offer an effective strategy for winning back lost voters essential to the fortunes of the Labour party in future elections without undermining its current coalition of voters.

Paula Surridge is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol.Ideas in this piece were originally presented at the EPOP 2017 conference hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations between 8-10th September 2017. Image credit: CC by Chatham House/Flickr.

Published inBritish PoliticsLabour

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