Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council.
By ramping up the rhetoric on immigration being a threat to UK employment, we risk cutting our Party adrift from the younger voters we will need in future years if we are to enjoy longer term success.
At the Whitehouse Consultancy we have developed a long term relationship with pollsters ComRes, whose latest survey produced some very interesting results when it comes to support for statements about employment prospects, particularly those of the young. Our latest survey of over 2,062 adults was conducted between 22nd and 25th August.
The survey revealed some surprising findings about the perceived attitudes of employers to young people’s lack of experience; strong views about the extent to which government shouldn’t introduce financial incentives for employers to take on young workers, and an awareness of weaknesses in the education system in providing demonstrable work experience.
Our poll found that nearly half of Britons (48 per cent) believe the main reason for persistently high unemployment rates amongst young people is due to employers not taking a chance on candidates without work experience. Concern about the need for work experience was highest amongst those aged 18-24, 60 per cent of whom believe that most employers wouldn’t employ people of their age without it.
The poll also found two fifths (40 per cent) of respondents argued that the school system doesn’t do enough to prepare young people for the world of work.
But it was the response of young people on the challenging issue of immigration that caught my eye in the welter of detail we collected. With youth unemployment still worryingly high, and with school, college and university leavers more concerned than ever about their employment prospects, they just don’t see immigration as an employment threat.
Indeed, our poll found that only 16 per cent of those in the 18 to 24 age group considered the statement “Employers prefer to recruit immigrants rather than young British people” to be one of the three main reasons for youth unemployment in this country. This is particularly surprising given that younger workers, at the start of their careers, are much more likely to be chasing the low skilled jobs that are so often filled by workers from overseas.
Against the background of increasingly strident calls from Labour, UKIP, and the Conservative Party for ever tighter immigration controls to protect British jobs, it seems younger voters are simply turning a deaf ear and focusing instead on the things that they know matter much more: getting a good education and getting work experience. Whilst they have concerns about the way in which our education system prepares them for the world of work, they don’t abrogate responsibility, they don’t seek scapegoats and they don’t think the solution is more meddling by Government to bribe employers to take on younger workers.
Even among those aged over 65, whom increasingly politicians of all political hues portray as having strong views on the need to reduce immigration, our survey found only 28 per cent believe that a preference for appointing immigrants was one of the three main reasons for youth unemployment.
These were not, to be honest, the views we expected to find; they show a subtlety of opinion on immigration when it comes down to more specific questions about the practical impact on jobs, a subtlety which has largely been drowned out from the national debate.
I’ve never been a fan of Lynton Crosby’s “dog whistle” politics, and, it seems, younger voters are tuning out that shrill noise. The Conservative Party ignores this finding at its peril, because we risk the contamination of the Conservative brand with the virus of bigotry in a way that risks backfiring over the longer term. Is that a price that we should be so willing to pay to garner a few anti-immigration votes in the short term, especially if by doing so we alienate the more tolerant voters who will be voting in a general election for the first time next May – and possibly establishing a voting preference that will influence them for elections to come?