Could small boats decide the next election?
Migration surges have a history of swinging votes
The crisis over illegal immigration, and Rishi Sunak’s willingness to defy Labour and Gary Lineker by signalling his commitment to ‘stop the boats’, could help the Conservatives win back the 2019 voters who have abandoned them.
There are 36 million genuine refugees worldwide and a further 53 million internally displaced. On top of that, there are at least 900 million people seeking to emigrate, meaning that all Western countries must grapple with the question of how to limit numbers and distribute refugee burdens.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The increase in channel crossings stems from these global pressures as well as the fact that while Brexit releases Britain from sharing EU refugee burdens, it also means that France, an EU country, no longer has to accept asylum seekers back from Britain. The growing awareness of this loophole, and of the ineffectiveness of British law enforcement, is thereby producing a rise in channel crossings.
This problem is not going to go away, as it is a structural issue affecting the entire West. Migration scholar Michael S. Teitelbaum writes that the internet and established global people-smuggling networks now mean that such networks are highly responsive to information about soft entry points. Policies or statements ‘signalling openness…can be quickly disseminated globally’. Numbers can increase very rapidly to take advantage of loopholes, as Figure 1 shows with respect to channel crossings.
These migration surges in turn decide elections. As Teitelbaum wrote in 2015:
The latter helped Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and the 2016 election, just as the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe was a shot in the arm for the populist Right and weakened the social democratic Left.
Might the same be true for Britain in 2023? Possibly. Polling by UnHerd presented in Figure 2 shows that of 10 ‘populist’ issues polled, none commands as much support from 2019 Conservative voters as the statement that ‘immigration is too high’. 53% of Tory and Brexit voters ‘strongly agree’ with this statement, with 77% agreeing overall and just 7% disagreeing. In contrast, just 58% of Right party voters disagree that Britain was wrong to leave the EU while 30% agree. On lockdown, more Right voters support it than say it was a mistake, while they are divided on green issues. In effect, trying to campaign on libertarian economics is a dead end for the Tories while a focus on security issues, especially border control, is a winner.
It is of course true that record channel crossings and migration have soared on the Tories’ watch, so voters concerned about migration will not be able to punish an incumbent, as with Reagan or Trump. New polling from Matthew Goodwin for 8 March shows that 2019 Tory voters agree, by an 83-6 margin, that ‘people arriving in the UK illegally such as on small boats should be removed from the UK and blocked from returning in the future.’ The population as a whole concurs, 52-25.
When asked who they trust to manage the small boats crisis, 39% of 2019 Tory voters say Rishi Sunak, 38% say nobody and a mere 3% reply Keir Starmer. Much will therefore depend on whether Tory policies can put a dent in the numbers and whether Sunak is able to raise the not unreasonable fear that Labour will take the side of progressive Twitter and do little to address border control. For instance, Sunak’s announcement, alongside Emmanuel Macron, of a new migration processing centre in France, is being resisted by Labour. If it helps stem the flow, Starmer’s opposition could cement a perception that Labour stands for open borders.
The third factor is whether immigration rises as a priority for voters. Cost of living and the economy are of course leading issues, even for Conservatives. However, Figure 3 shows that immigration, as of 6 March, is a top-3 issue for 51% of Conservative voters, an increase from around 25% in mid-2020.
Research shows that immigration salience predicts voting for populist Right parties. The rising prominence of the immigration issue, success in halting the rise in channel crossings and a convincing message that Labour would undo such changes could combine to allow Sunak to woo back the Brexit voters who have deserted the Tories in droves. All of which could derail Labour’s heretofore inevitable march to victory.
This piece is very perceptive. It will reward anyone who re-reads it in a year’s time.
Over the last week, things could not have gone better for the Tories. Lineker’s silly tweet has given them the perfect target of pompous extremism that they will try to pin onto Labour. They will be helped by the Labour extremists who think Lineker was fair and balanced in what he said.
The last thing the Tories want, is for the public to focus on legal migration over the last five years. This would leave them with a lot of explaining to do.
Or the illegal migration that arrives via our airports on temp visa’s and then disappear. But hey, the Boats are visible and if we can just stem that the plonkers that buy this dreadful rhetoric won’t see all the other holes in our policy.
Might work. But if we Brits fall for this rubbish again we deserve all we subsequently get.
What is this airport thing about? Do people do that now too? Do you think we actually have any idea how many people are living in this country?
On the most basic level, allocating funding and basic services has got to be hard to work out if we are not even counting people in and out?
J Watson is correct when he alludes to how permeable our borders are, especially airports. Many thousands of people arrive here on visas then quite literally vanish. New Labour abandoned any pretence of border controls in the late 90s / early 2000s and the Tories who followed them saw no reason to change it as cheap labour was, superficially, economically beneficial (esp as these newer Tories were basically Continuity New Labour anyway). No, we have no bloody idea who’s in the country. None. Nada.
Wtf do border force and the government actually do? Do they do anything these days? Sounds like border force are a massive waste of money right now. How much do we spend on that? For it to not work?
The Border Force, at airports, have one performance metric: queue times at passport control. The force is a scandal.
The trouble is that for years they have talked about it and done NOTHING.
It will have no impact on Conservative vote unless they actually DO something.
Unfortunately the Conservatives have learned that just talking about it *is* enough to get the votes they want. They’ve been doing that for decades (as you say) & got the votes. May well happen again – especially as Labour are completely flaky on this.
A few years ago I was chatting to the woman running the checkout and she volunteered how angry and bitter she was about the immigration that meant that foreigners were taking peoples’ jobs.
I realised that from her point of view she was right. There was no political solution in sight… the Tories were ineffective and Labour wanted to import even more people in favour of their political aims.
People in the Chattering Classes (I’m looking at Gary Lineker as an example) can afford to be blasé – their jobs are not affected and more cheap minions are available for unappealing work, so it suits them to signal their virtue.
But arguably the old Elite, as defended by the Chattering Classes, have reached their ‘best before’ date. The ‘old speak robustly but do nothing’ days are fading. Can any current political party pivot enough to gain the support of the electorate? Time will tell; it may have to get worse before it gets better.
The reality is that it’s a v difficult area and an international problem. Simplistic Policies and slogans. not going to cut it. There are no simple answers.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want a better resolution than we have now. We do vary in use of language and how much we might demonise those seeking asylum but we all pretty much want it better managed all round. We want fairness and some humanity.
It gets difficult when some disengage from the complexity real solutions will have to grapple with.
You may well be right. The difficulty is that while many people are OK with those seeking asylum they are markedly less happy with those ‘merely’ undertaking economic migration, especially uninvited migration.
What are the true numbers? And from these numbers how do we determine who may stay and how many should be expelled?
If you aren’t willing to be pretty robust, as Australia successfully was, then you are right. Saudi accepted precisely zero refugees from the Syrian conflict. It is a matter ultimately of political will. I never here what this ‘complex real world solutions’ actually are, and the suspicion is that people who essentially want there to be open borders don’t want any solution to this, which includes a lot of people on the Left as well as some on the free market Right.
The current situation non-formal migration (I will say) is only limited by friction effects such as the financial costs of the people smugglers and the undoubted harshness of the journeys themselves. So, if we can’t get a grip, then we certainly will get millions more of people turning up in Britain. This would be an utter catastrophe for social cohesion and trust in government.
People in the Chattering Classes (I’m looking at Gary Lineker as an example
British Special Forces could mount a mission to find, track and eliminate the gangs…. So why is this not being done?
Because the gangs are already bedded down in many British high streets dominating the drugs trade out of ‘Turkish’ barber shops, corrupting bureaucrats (silver or lead, plata or plombo) and using the muscle (troops) they brought in across the Channel.
The Tory strategy been clear for a while. They have to major on this issue to have a chance of winning. Therefore it’ll be repeatedly and unashamedly stoked
It has jeopardy though because greater illumination risks exposing the void between rhetoric and delivery. Furthermore it hands Macron, and thus the EU, added leverage already part-apparent from the Windsor Agreement. We can assume Macron has indicated his fishing fleet will also need something in return for a few more patrols through the sand dunes. Added to the promised £480m and bingo – a Brexit dividend for our Gallic friends.
Interesting that so many people are still in favour of the lockdown despite the revelations of the WhatsApp messages.
Perhaps Sunak just needs to present staunching the flow of migrants illegal and legal as safety measures to flatten the sombrero and save the NHS.
Certainly the obvious difficulty the NHS has dealing with current demand could justify such a measure.
The NHS is struggling because it’s key workforce has had consistent pay cuts for more than 10yrs, and social care is in a real mess and back-washing into NHS capacity – 160k care worker vacancies.
So let’s get this right, your solution to this problem is to stop the boats, albeit no real idea how. Jeez we really are in a mess if this is the level of comprehension.
Oh and by the way more illegal migrants fly into our airports than get in a rubber dinghy. They have a temp visa and then disappear. Guess who runs that system? Yep, Braverman.
I seldom agree with you, but on the airport issue you are spot-on. However, the idea Braverman has any operational control over the Border Farce, which is *very* much controlled by a heavily-unionised blob, is wide of the mark.
My comment was not directed to offering a solution to the problem of the boat or the airport immigration. I was simply to pointing out the contrast between the fact that large sections of the population are still lockdown enthusiasts despite the illiberal and economically destructive nature of the measures and the revelation of the flaky nature of the political decision making processes, but that any attempt to solve the problem of excessive numbers of immigrants meets with howls of outrage from Labour politicians and supporters.
I merely suggested that the argument that the the sombrero needed flattening that proved widely acceptable to Labour as well as generally might be applied by the Conservatives to make a similar case for dealing with the similar statistical rise shown in the article of illegal immigration. Clearly the illiberal measures to deal with the pandemic proved popular with the Labour Party as the population were convinced to support them. Perhaps they would support illiberal measures to tackle illegal immigration if presented in pseudo-scientific technocratic form. Much of the draconian lockdown measures were pointless and had little real positive effect combatting the pandemic. No doubt the Labour Party could be persuaded to support similar illiberal measures to tackle the illegal immigration if presented in the right way as the Labour Party has abandoned genuine liberalism and is happy to support draconian and authoritarian solutions of a technocratic nature.
I don’t she is personally on duty! But yes, the Border Force – one wonders what it is doing.
That is quite some claim. You don’t even mention ‘investment’. You seem to be saying that NHS workers are working less hard because of real term pay cuts. If that is the case, it makes the whole inefficient mess (not emulated by the way by ANY European country) all the less defensible.
And the prison population increases!
“…while Brexit releases Britain from sharing EU refugee burdens, it also means that France, an EU country, no longer has to accept asylum seekers back from Britain.”
Is that really the case? I never knew.
Neither is true. We never signed up to refugee quotas (nor have most EU countries) and the Dublin Convention never worked – we never returned any illegal immigrants back to France when we were in the EU. It is impossible for the Dublin Convention to work because it would mean returning all illegal immigrants back to Greece, Italy and Spain (i.e. where they enter Europe) which would hardly be fair or accepted by them.
That is true MM. It was a few hundred a year we returned to another EU country (albeit this predated the surge in small boats).
The reality though is the flow only really abates if Europe adopts joint strategies and collective actions, and even then it’s a really difficult problem if on the edge of Europe there are wars, famine, whatever, as well of course as a huge industry in trafficking.
What we’ve certainly done by withdrawing from a shared responsibility is create a situation where v little incentive for European countries to stop anyone travelling through their territory on their way to Channel. In fact it saves them the problem. And to now get more actions that side of the Channel we’re going to have pay an awful lot of money and find it used in other negotiation issues too.
The small boats aside though we have to recognise more illegal migration occurs through our airports on temporary Visa’s that expire with no return. And the weather in the Channel doesn’t stop that each day. I’m more and more convinced we need an ID card system like the French. It’s a factor in why traffickers extol the benefits of Britain to the desperate.
Question then is given it’s so obvious why hasn’t Braverman et al suggested as such and pushed such a Policy? One wonders if they are caught between the strategy to make ID necessary to vote but they don’t want to make it too easy for everyone to have ID as they are assuming youngsters, the poorer etc won’t have ID and that’ll be to their electoral advantage. So it’s all a game about staying in power and not really solving the problem.
I’m more and more convinced we need an ID card system like the French.
Dublin is still applicable, but has been de facto defunct in Europe since at least 2015. Austria, for example, only returns a very small number of refugees to countries of first entry such as Hungary or Greece each year even though it is entitled under Dublin to return thousands. And even those token returns are fairly useless as the returnees are probably back over the border within a few days anyway.
But Britain leaving the EU removed any obligation of France under the Dublin regulation to accept asylum seekers back from the UK, so it could safely open up the floodgates and let them pour over the Channel. That fit right in with France’s hardcore, anti-Brexit line and asylum seekers are, after all, excellent tools for applying political pressure.
That did however put France in the same company as Erdogan, the Moroccan government and Lukashenko who have also used migrants as weapons in the past…no one was willing to say this openly about Macron for a long time even though it was completely obvious. It’s only now with this new deal with the UK that he’s backed off and decided that it wasn’t such a good look after all. With anti-Britain feeling in Europe receding fast (no one cares about Brexit anymore – they care a lot more about the Western aliance sticking together), Macron could no longer rely on his EU buddies to have his back on this.
My two cents.
This piece is correct – this will be a huge issue for a large number of voters.
They won’t end up doing anything remotely effective, and have just talked up anti-migrant rhetoric knowing full well it would upset a vocal 10% of the population, but appease an angrier but quieter 40% odd of the population.
They’re playing voter games and won’t end up actually enforcing any effective migration policy. Though I hope I’m wrong.
It will be an even bigger issue in Labour run areas since that is where the real problems occur as it is far easier for illegal immigrants to disappear in areas where there is already large (even if legal) immigrant communities. It barely touches the leafy suburbs inhabited by the left wing chatterers.
More people are realizing we can’t solve world poverty by evacuating the Third World to the First.
Yes, both illegal and legal numbers. Next?
The problem is that the ‘policy’ has been designed by Isaac Levido and Sunak’s advisors specifically to create division. Standing on the record of the last 13 years, where everything has got worse, where Brexit has failed to deliver any of the promised benefits (including on immigration) is electoral suicide so creating a culture war on one of the hot button topics must have seemed a great idea. But it’s not going to work, in part because Braverman is a culture warrior but not someone you would send to the shops for a pint of milk if a semi competent five year old was available, and this will need a motivated and effective Home Office to have even a faint chance of success. Life will be more miserable for migrants, lots of money will be spent, hatred and division will abound, but nothing material will change because none of this is a genuine solution to the problem.
Immigration NOT migration!
The quickest way to silence the Left is to compare treatment of small boats today with such things as the ramming by British warships of ships carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine in the 1940s.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe