“The Tory silence on the electorate’s second biggest issue, immigration, was like Manchester United leaving Wayne Rooney on the substitutes’ bench.” So wrote Tim Montgomerie, then editor of this site, during its inquiry into the 2010 campaign – which saw David Cameron, like Theresa May this year, fall short of a majority (winning eleven fewer seats).
Some, like Tim at that time, see migration as a potential match-winner for the Conservatives. Others view it as consistently failing to get the ball in the back of the net for the Party, if not as a source of regular own goals and a cause of defeats. That last take seems to be in the ascendancy at the moment, for a covergence of reasons.
The continuing push for as close to Single Market membership as possible means, at least in the eyes of some, prioritising the needs of firms for labour above any wish by voters to reduce EU migration numbers. This is part of what Philip Hammond means when he says that he wants to put business at the heart of Brexit.
At the same time, the media, think tanks and Tory MPs are reflecting on the shocking results for the Party in London. All three congregate in the capital, and what happens in it tends to gain a certain primacy. And there is evidence that an immigration policy which stresses simply cutting numbers goes down badly in the capital.
According to the Migration Observatory, “residents of London, where migrants are most heavily concentrated by far, are less likely than residents of other regions to favour sharp reductions in migration to the UK. This finding holds even for white UK-born Londoners.” It also says that residence in the capital and friendships with immigrations strongly correlate with a positive view.
However, it also finds that across Britain as whole migration consistently ranks in the public’s top five issues; that three quarters of people in Britain currently favour reducing immigration; that concern about it applies to both EU and non-EU migration and that, while most people think immigration is good for the economy, they are divided about its effects on culture and cohesion.
“Party strategists should not overlook the obvious: that, without locking down the provincial lower middle class, it’s extremely difficult to secure a majority”, James Frayne wrote earlier this week on this site. It is unlikely that the mass of such voters in those crucial northern and midlands marginals would welcome a permissive migration policy.
Where might the Conservatives go from here, then, as they ponder governing with no majority? First, they will remind themselves that their manifesto approach was not the Vote Leave policy – or what could have been read as its policy – of tighening up EU migration while also relaxing non-EU migration.
“We will continue to bear down on immigration from outside the European Union,” the Tory manifesto said, while also declaring that “we will establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our country needs”.
Second, they should linger on the final part of that sentence. It is true that 70 per cent of Eastern European migrants are in what is categorised as unskilled work; it is also true that some of these work in occupations that many would not regard as unskilled. The policy aim should be to skill up domestic workers to replace migrant labour. This will take time.
Third, the Government is likely to take the path for future EU immigration sketched out on this site by Andrew Green of MigrationWatch – that’s to say, towards a system based on work permits. This site suspects that any UK-EU deal will actually give new EU migrants some advantages in relation to non-EU migrants: certainly, Ministers have not pledged a level playing field.
Fourth, they should appreciate that David Cameron’s immigration policy was the same as Theresa May’s. It could scarcely be otherwise, since she was his Home Secretary for six years. Early evidence suggests, however, that he was more successful in winning the votes of some ethnic and religious minorities, such as Indian-origin voters, and they will want to learn from him.
Finally, the Government should launch a high-profile listening exercise on what sort of migration policy voters want post-Brexit (within the confines of its manifesto commitments). What trade-offs do they want – or are willing to live with? How quickly do they believe foreign NHS staff, say, or seasonal crop-pickers could be replaced? Ministers should listen to people as well as business.
The policy baggage to be packed for the journey has yet to be decided, but the direction of travel is clear. May’s policy of cutting net immigration has clearly failed. Brexit will give this Government the chance to make a new start, though its lack of a Parliamentary majority will make legislative change difficult. Ministers should aim to reduce EU migration by introducing a work permit system; they will appreciate that any cut in numbers will take time (the vagaries of the economic cycle excluded).
As in 2010, immigration lingered on the substitute’s bench during the general election: the Prime Minister did not make it a major feature of her campaign. Lord Ashcroft’s research from the EU referendum found it the second main contributor to Leave’s win last year, the first being the broader aim of taking back control. In terms of electoral impact, the truth can be found here. Immigration isn’t a match winner. And deploying it crudely seems to deter potential Tory ethnic minority and liberal urban voters.
None the less, it helps make the team cohere, and can score goals – in opponents’ nets, not its own. Those who take a less party political view should conclude that the mass of voters are in the right place. They have nothing against migration that boosts the economy. But they simultaneously want it to be lower, whether it comes from within the EU or outside. The Conservatives must frame a policy for the nation as whole, not just the more influential parts of it.