01/28/2014 07:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Immigration, British Political Establishment Can't Satisfy A Hostile Public

Steve Parsons/PA Wire

LONDON -- Even as evidence mounts that immigration is bolstering the British economy, the political consensus seems to be that bashing immigration boosts electoral fortunes.

You can see this disconnect in the rise of the once-fringe UK Independence Party (Ukip). Under the leadership of right-wing populist Nigel Farage, Ukip has focused on immigration and, specifically, the supposed threat migrants from Eastern Europe pose to local U.K. communities. In one recent speech, Farage said the government "should not welcome foreign criminal gangs" from Romania.

The strategy seems to be paying dividends. In February 2013, Ukip shocked the political establishment when it was runner-up in a parliamentary by-election in Eastleigh, a town along the southern coast, pushing the governing Conservatives into third place. The party is expected to outperform all of its mainstream rivals in the European parliament elections in May.

If implemented, however, the policies advocated by Ukip -- including a call for a five-year ban on immigrants settling in the U.K. -- would greatly damage the British economy, according to independent forecasters and academic studies. The vast majority of the empirical evidence, both at home and abroad, suggests immigration and growth go hand in hand. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent body set up by the coalition government to provide economic forecasts, has said that Britain needs to maintain a steady flow of immigrants if public borrowing and the national debt are to be kept at manageable levels.

Several studies show that migrants -- especially from Eastern Europe -- put more money into the U.K. economy through taxation than they take out in benefits. In December, the Centre For Economic and Business Research forecast that the U.K. would be Europe's biggest economy by 2030 -- but only because of the "positive demographics" associated with "continuing immigration."

Yet the economic arguments in favor of more open borders do not seem to have made an impact on voters. A clear majority of British adults (55 percent) say that immigration is a bad thing for the country, compared to less than a third (28 percent) who say it is a good thing, according to a Jan. 7 survey by the market research firm Populus. The gap between the percentage of voters who cite the economy as their top concern compared to immigration has also narrowed from 33 percentage points (55 percent economy, 22 percent immigration) in December 2012 to just 2 percentage points (39 percent economy, 37 percent immigration) a year later, a poll by Ipsos MORI found.

ipsos mori poll graph

And here’s the seemingly insoluble conundrum for British politicians, and for elected supporters of immigration in particular: No matter how hard they crack down, no matter how many new caps are imposed, public anxiety over immigration continues to increase. Voters continue to arrive at focus group meetings in droves to complain about migrants coming to the U.K. to steal jobs, claim benefits and commit crimes.

Consider the past 12 months or so. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party have, among other things, announced new measures to tackle so-called "health tourism" and "benefit tourism" by migrants -- despite economists questioning whether these things even exist. The maximum fine for companies that employ undocumented workers has been doubled to about $27,000, while the Home Office, which handles immigration in the U.K., sent vans into multi-ethnic London boroughs last summer telling undocumented immigrants to "go home."

immigration van go home

The controversial Home Office van in action on the streets of London.

The opposition Labour Party, stung by criticisms from some of its supporters that an "open door" immigration policy led to its defeat in the 2010 election, hasn’t missed an opportunity to jump on the anti-immigration bandwagon. Party leader Ed Miliband has repeatedly apologized for Labour's record on immigration in government and said he believes low-skilled immigration is "too high." He also said he would end the U.K.'s "chronic dependency" on cheap foreign labor and increase the number of public sector jobs that require proficiency in English.

So why, despite these anti-immigration stances, have public attitudes hardened? For starters, the constant discussion of immigration seems to feed into a general sense that it is "out of control." This, in turn, helps bolster the narrative and credibility of parties such as Ukip, which is the biggest beneficiary of anti-immigration anxiety. Campaigning against mass immigration, instead of campaigning to withdraw from the EU, has become Ukip's chief cause and rallying cry.

nigel farage

Ukip leader Nigel Farage has made opposition to immigration the centerpiece of his election strategy.

"Ukip has sifted the electorate very effectively and clearly pulled those most concerned about immigration towards them," Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos MORI's Social Research Institute, told The WorldPost. "This has encouraged all parties, but particularly the Conservatives who’ve lost most to Ukip, to increase their focus on reducing immigration and reassuring people that they can control immigration better than it was in the early 2000s."

The second problem for mainstream politicians is that there appears to be a "pox all on their houses" phenomenon with regard to immigration. "People have little faith in the governing classes to deal with it well, whichever side of the debate they’re on," Duffy said.

Finally, and crucially, cultural insecurity might be the source of much of the British concern over immigration. "Survey data can tell us that opposition to migration in the U.K. is more common among older, U.K.-born, white, and less educated groups, and is more common when people are thinking about migration from poorer and ethnically or culturally distant nations of origin," according to researchers at Oxford University's Migration Observatory. Ukip's Farage, for his part, is quite happy to declare: "I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer, and I’d rather we had communities that were united."

There may be a middle ground in immigration views that simply aren't voiced in the public sphere. Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, believes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, "the majority of the public hold nuanced views and is neither straightforwardly 'pro' nor 'anti' migration." Citing a recent poll conducted for British Future by ICM Research, he said that by 52 percent to 24 percent, the public believes Polish migrants since 2004 have made a positive contribution to the U.K.

The "moderate majority doesn't think the choice should be between open borders or slamming them shut," he said. "Most people lack confidence that the immigration system works fairly or effectively, but believe it is important to manage the pressures to secure the benefits."

But will the voice of this moderate majority ever come out on top, amid misinformation from a right-wing press and constant immigration crackdowns from politicians? There is no sign that immigration is going to be anything other than a hugely polarizing issue in British politics in the coming years.

“The emergence of Ukip," Duffy argues, "the timing of the European parliament elections [in May] and a more general shift in the national debate, where it’s now more acceptable to express concerns about immigration, all mean [this issue] is more likely to play an important role.”