It has been no surprise to find that immigration has played a big part in deciding the outcome of the European Parliamentary elections last week, and also influenced the vote for local elections in England.
As far as the European poll is concerned the outcome can be easily summarised: UKIP won a 27% share of the vote to secure the biggest share of MEPs, with 24 celebrating victory. The evidence from opinion polls is pretty unequivocal: the party’s success was in large part down to it being able to make immigration – specifically the immigration of European Union nationals – a symbol for everything that a large segment of the population believes has gone wrong in recent years.
There can be no argument that things have been going wrong for a lot of people for many years. Decent paid jobs are becoming ever scarcer, good housing a dream for anyone outside high paid income brackets, and schools and GP services are considered to be in decline by many families. Meanwhile Polish shops open on the high street and there seems to be a great deal more Spanish spoken on our buses than ever there was in the past. The way seems to be open for any enterprising politician to put two and two together on behalf of the electorate, and suggest that the total equals somewhere in the region of five.
In the aftermath of the voting a cottage industry of poll analysts has swung into action to try and find the deeper meaning of what is being described in the media as a political earthquake. Based on viewpoints expressed at a well-informed breakfast gathering at the British Future think tank this morning, at this early stage the following points seem most salient.
Firstly, UKIP relies for its impact on the results it achieves in voting areas with a particular conglomeration of factors. The exemplar of these are the communities which exist in what is often presented as the ‘left behind’ medium size towns in the coastal areas of eastern England. Declining port and fishing industries and surrounded by a wide hinterland of rural regions that offer little in the way of secure job opportunities have created the take-off point for a party that needs protest to kick-start its operation. Some variants on these conditions are also to be found in towns far away from the coast, with Rotherham and Leeds showing strongly for UKIP on this occasion.
Secondly, the party attracted two types of voters at voters at this poll, both in approximately equal proportions. One type thought that immigration is the main issue facing the country; the other that the state of the economy gives most cause for concern. The evidence suggests that the 50% who are concerned with immigration are most likely to stick with the party at the 2015 general election, while the economically worried will go back to their primary allegiance with the Conservative Party.
Thirdly, age and gender factors are relevant. Only 14% of 18-35 year olds voted UKIP, as opposed to 40% of people in the 55 plus category. Men favoured the right wing party more than women, showing up a difference rate of 26% to 20%.
Fourthly, educational and skill levels have proven to be good indicators of who votes are cast for. UKIP polls strongest amongst sections of the local communities who have not experienced higher education or picked up much in the way of vocational skills.
Fifthly, a ‘halo’ effect suggests that UKIP support is most likely to show up in communities which have relatively low ethnic minority presence yet are close enough to more diverse towns to experience multiculturalism at one stage removed. Their judgement that it is undesirable is seldom shared with such vehemence by the people who actually live in the midst of the urban melting pots.
Implications for migrant rights
What is all this likely to mean for those of us who expect to be talking and campaigning on immigration issues over the next twelve months as we head to a general election?
What needs to be said loudest and clearest is that this is most decidedly not the time to go quiet on a subject which is clearly vexing a large section of the public. On the contrary, it will be more crucial than ever to push ahead with efforts to keep a balanced conversation going about why the UK economy is exerting a strong pull factor for new migrants and what this has really meant for local and regional communities across the country.
We should also be looking for opportunities to get this conversation going in the cities and towns outside of London. The capital city is proving itself to be something of a fortress for the younger and better informed groups who are least likely to be attracted to UKIP’s gloomy viewpoint. But as long as it remains a phenomenon that can be easily dismissed as ‘merely London’ then we will see the deep pessimism of the right wing party gaining ground.
On the face of it there is no reason why a narrative of successful engagement with the potential of diversity should not also be present in cities like Bristol, Cardiff, and the entirety of the Midlands, North West, and Yorkshire and the North East. What is needed are new centres of activism around issues of inclusion and social justice which will drive this process forward.
A word of warning, echoing the message that came from British Future colleagues at this morning’s de-brief session: pushing forward the national and regional conversation on migration is not the same thing as ‘turning up the volume’ on the issue. Some in the mainstream parties will be tempted to do this with a loudly proclaimed message along the lines that ‘we share your pain’ in having to deal with all the messiness that comes from Polish retail outlets and polyglot public transport and are determined to deal with it. This has already begun to be heard by some in both the Conservative and Labour parties who think the threat from the further right will be contained by getting even tougher on immigration.
It won’t. Our appeal is for a mainstreaming of the discussion about immigration and what it means to modern Britain, joining up advocacy for better and fairer policies with a progressive programme for greater fairness and social justice across the whole of society, which will show itself up in decent jobs for all and a full and flourishing role for the public sector in providing high quality services. There is every reason to believe that this is a message, particularly when conveyed by messengers that ordinary citizens are likely to trust, that will win the day and contain the dangerous threat that the hard right wing anti-immigrant represents to us all.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.