Instead of “Aping” Ukip Conservatives should be positive about immigration

In Blog, News by redsocks

Ryan Shorthouse and David Kirkby of the Bright Blue Conservative think-tank explain why Tories need to embrace ‘contributing’ migrants.

The Conservative Party does not need to pursue mimicry (of Ukip) or muteness on immigration. Bright Blue’s new report published today, one of several forthcoming reports from our project on building a balanced center-right agenda on immigration, finds that Conservative voters have reasonable and distinctive views on immigration.

In polling we conducted with Survation, we found that Conservatives thought the prime characteristics of an ideal immigration system were: a well-managed system that keeps out illegal immigrants (43 per cent of those intending to vote Conservative agreed) and a system that includes only those who contribute (29 per cent agreed). In contrast, only 15 per cent of Conservatives reported that an ideal immigration system is one with fewer immigrants, and only another 7 per cent wanted a system with no more immigrants.

Conservatives are not against immigration per se, but against what they perceive as unfair immigration. In contrast, Ukip voters are much more concerned with reducing the overall number of immigrants, with 25 per cent of those intending to vote Ukip reporting that they want fewer immigrants and a further 17 per cent of Ukip voters reporting that they want no new immigrants at all.

Indeed, the most important policy to improve our immigration system for Conservatives is restricting migrants’ access to benefits; when we asked respondents to choose two preferred policies, 61 per cent of Conservative voters chose this. This is more significant than tightening the immigration cap on non-EU migrants (32 per cent of Conservatives chose this) or withdrawing from EU free movement of workers rules (29 per cent of Conservatives chose this). Contrastingly, UKIP voters are much more likely to choose withdrawing from EU free movement of workers rules (37 per cent).

In November 2014, the Prime Minister delivered a keynote speech, declaring that he would be looking to work with EU partners to restrict the time before EU migrants can claim in-work benefits and social housing in the UK to four years. Nonetheless, he also committed the UK to respecting EU free movement of worker rules. Our polling indicates this approach is overwhelmingly supported by Conservatives.

Conservatives certainly want to make it harder for migrants who they feel will not contribute to the UK. But they do not want to see a reduction in the number of ‘contributing’ immigrants to the UK: 85 per cent of Conservatives said they do not want a reduction in the number of international students coming to the UK and 73 per cent do not want to see a reduction in skilled manual workers. Similarly, a majority of Conservatives reported that they would let the following types of immigrants into the UK: 77 per cent would admit a qualified care worker and 58 per cent would admit a seasonal fruit picker from the EU. In fact, 74 per cent said they would let in the spouse of a British citizen on the minimum wage, which is not possible under current rules introduced by this Government in 2012 (the British citizen needs to earn at least £18,600 a year).

The evidence, though still developing, suggests that immigration is economically beneficial to the UK. So, in the national interest, and to carve out a unique approach on immigration, the Conservative Party should convince its supporters and the wider electorate that it will build a more contributory-based immigration system. Leave a policy approach of lowering migrant numbers, whatever the costs, to UKIP.

In fact, the Conservative Party will need a more positive approach on immigration to win elections, certainly in the long-term. Our report finds that there are certain socio-demographic characteristics that make Conservatives consistently more likely to be positive about immigration in the UK. Conservatives who are younger, more affluent, from an ethnic minority background and know immigrants well are consistently more welcoming of different types of immigrants including asylum seekers, more positive about the impact of immigration, more positive about what immigrants do, and more likely to have friends or family members who are immigrants. Social changes mean that most of these social groups will be a larger part of the Conservative Party’s support base in the years ahead.

The Conservative Party will not win this General Election, and certainly not future ones, by sounding more negative about immigration, and promising to clampdown more on immigration, than UKIP. The views of current and future Conservative voters suggest that the Conservative Party should champion a unique approach which shows that our immigration system is competently managed and rewards contributors, rather than just focusing on admitting fewer migrants.