E.g., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
Assessing the Political Impact of Immigration as the United Kingdom Heads to the Polls

Assessing the Political Impact of Immigration as the United Kingdom Heads to the Polls

UKIP graphicmug FB

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has had success fusing anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric, released a poster lampooning the Labour Party's campaign mugs promising stronger controls on immigration. (Photo: UKIP)

Immigration has featured early in the opening week of the United Kingdom’s general election campaign, which officially began on March 30, 2015.  Prime Minister David Cameron was pressed on the issue in a televised interview and the Labour Party was criticized for producing campaign mugs emblazoned with pledges to control immigration. 

As voters head to the polls on May 7, it remains to be seen how central the often-roiled debate over migration will be in what is a deeply unsettled election year. Immigration is a key political issue, brought about through major changes in immigration patterns over the past two decades, significant policy changes that have failed to reassure the public, and the rise as a political force of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)—which has pressed for a temporary ban on new immigration. Paradoxically, immigration may have less visibility during the general election, given the issue is now political poison for the major parties.

Above all, this election cycle will determine the next stage in a long-running political fight: the question of the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union and a possible voter referendum on the matter. Immigration and Europe have now become entangled in voters’ minds and it is likely that the issue of free movement within the European Union could be the determining factor for many voters in any such referendum.

This article briefly reviews the politics of immigration in the United Kingdom since 2010 before examining whether immigration will impact the election and exploring how immigration politics will develop in the future, particularly in regard to the United Kingdom’s place in Europe.

A Salient Issue

Immigration was a substantive political issue in the last national election in the United Kingdom five years ago, and has been since at least 2000. The UK public has consistently been opposed to the high level of immigration and placed immigration as a highly salient issue. For example, Ipsos Mori polling shows voters rank immigration as the single most important issue facing the United Kingdom, according to the most recent data available from March 2015, and it has been the top issue for the majority of the last 12 months.

Concerns about immigration are based on the extraordinary change in the pattern of immigration over the last 20 years. From 1993 to 2013, the foreign-born population in the United Kingdom doubled to 7.8 million people and now accounts for 12.4 percent of the overall population.

In the last decade, this has included significant migration from EU Member States, especially following the accession of eight Eastern European countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) to the European Union in 2004. Importantly for how the public responded, the predicted inflow of migrants from these EU-8 countries was grossly underestimated by the Labour-led government in office at the time. As of December 2013, there were approximately 1,077,000 EU-8-born residents in the United Kingdom, up from an estimated 167,000 in 2004. Migration from Poland has been particularly significant. For example, Polish is now the most common non-British nationality and as of 2013, there were an estimated 726,000 Polish nationals in the United Kingdom, compared to 69,000 in 2004. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union in 2007 has also led to a rising inflow of migrants from those countries.

More generally, long-term immigration (defined as those born abroad but intending to stay for more than a calendar year) has been running above 500,000 people each year for the last decade. The fact that the United Kingdom was a region of emigration until the early 1980s demonstrates the magnitude of this change. The last five years, in which there has been significant economic turmoil and policy has sought to reduce migration, suggests that the high net inward migration to the United Kingdom is not a blip. The evidence suggests that the “steady state” or “natural rate” of net long-term migration lies above 200,000 people per year. Moreover, immigration has become increasingly diverse and more visible as immigrants have moved into rural areas and cities outside the traditional centers of London and Birmingham.

It is thus unsurprising that immigration has captured the public imagination. In the 2010 national election campaign Gordon Brown, then prime minister, was famously caught on a live microphone in a private aside to an aide dismissing a voter as bigoted. (She had challenged him on European migration.) Televised leadership debates were first introduced in the last election, and immigration was the only issue to appear in all three. Immigration was raised again in televised interviews on March 26 of this year between current Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) and Labour leader Ed Miliband. While postelection analysis suggested immigration was not decisive in the 2010 election, political strategists in all three parties changed their policy platforms as a result of the campaign.

In the aftermath of Labour’s defeat, the party's policy has moved decisively away from a Blair-era acceptance of economic immigration. Ed Miliband and his team first offered an extended mea culpa for their party’s failure to control immigration sufficiently, followed by broad acceptance of the Conservative position (except for a net migration target below 100,000) on economic migration. They have moved to link labor market regulation and immigration policy more closely together. The Liberal Democrats similarly shifted position—for example abandoning their policy to regularize unauthorized immigrants (the only mainstream UK party to hold this position). They continue to offer the most liberal positions on migration of any national party except for the Green Party.

Coalition Pledges 2010-15

The 2010 election produced an unusual result: a coalition government between the then official opposition party, the Conservative Party, and the much smaller third party in UK politics, the Liberal Democrat Party. Together with the Labour Party, these three parties had dominated UK politics for a generation. The result was unusual as there has not been a lengthy, stable coalition government since the national government in power during World War II. Few commentators predicted that the coalition would govern and fewer still suggested it would last. They were wrong. In fact, the two parties worked out a carefully negotiated coalition agreement and introduced legislation that set national elections on five-year cycles (previously elections could be called at any time by the government of the day).

Usefully for the purposes of analysis, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition set out its program of reforms in a published agreement. Immigration received two pledges: an ending of child detention for immigration purposes—a commitment demanded by the Liberal Democrats—and a pledge to reduce the level of net migration to the “tens of thousands,” insisted upon by the Conservatives. This commitment was not set out in detail but had been Conservative leader David Cameron’s signature policy in the election campaign and had proved popular, with the Conservative Party taking a huge lead over all other parties on the immigration issue.

Two other points are worth noting. First, the coalition agreement included plans to review the Human Rights Act; the introduction of a British Bill of Rights—which would replace the Human Rights Act—had been an important Conservative manifesto commitment but was watered down in the coalition agreement. Second, immigration—and indeed Home Affairs—would be controlled by Conservative politicians. Theresa May has been Home Secretary since 2010 and under her the three Immigration Ministers—Damian Green, Mark Harper (who resigned in a scandal), and James Brokenshire—have all been Conservative politicians.


The two main pledges have had wildly differing fates. The pledge to end childhood detention was largely achieved. Families with children are no longer routinely held for detention purposes, although they may be detained for up to a week in a secure “predeparture accommodation” center prior to removal or deportation. Families and unaccompanied children also continue to be held in short-term holding facilities for up to 72 hours at UK ports of entry pending their admission to or immediate removal from the United Kingdom. This is not an absolute end to detention but very different to previous practice.

In contrast, the pledge on net migration has been an epic failure. Eventually, officials defined the net migration pledge as referring to keeping long-term net migration under 100,000 annually. The pledge has driven many policy changes (undertaken mostly by executive fiat and not through primary legislation in Parliament), including new rules on family union that require a minimum income, tougher rules on student and post-study visas, and reducing the number of work visas (for instance, heavily curtailing Tier 1 visas for high-skilled workers without a job offer).

As the Migration Observatory pointed out at the time, this left the target at the mercy of emigration and the level of migration from the 27 other countries of the European Union, within which there is free movement. This proved to be the case, and despite some reduction over certain periods in the last few years, current net migration stands at around 300,000 for the fiscal year ending September 2014—about three times over the government’s target and slightly higher than when the coalition government took office in 2010. This was not an aberration. The closest the government came to achieving the target was in the 12-month period ending September 2012 when net migration stood at 154,000.

It is noteworthy that while European migration and emigration flows were such that the target was probably unachievable, the government would have failed even on the narrower definition of non-European migration and this despite some slight massaging of certain visas categories (for example, the time limits on certain types of study visas are now less than 12 months).

Figure 1. Total Long-Term International Migration Estimates in the United Kingdom, 2004-14

Source: Office of National Statistics (ONS), Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, February 2015 (London: ONS), www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/migration1/migration-statistics-quarterly-report/february-2015/index.html.

More broadly, there have been some thoughtful changes to other areas of the immigration system. Some asylum reforms (especially under Damian Green) aimed to improve the asylum determination system—the numbers of asylum seekers given refugee status following the first interview is currently at the highest level in a decade. In similarly unheralded reforms, Home Secretary Theresa May agreed to new rules for immigrant spouses suffering domestic violence.

Less thoughtfully, the seemingly permanent revolution of institutional change has continued. For instance, the UK Border Agency, a quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organization (QUANGO), was broken up and brought back directly under the control of the Home Office. Likewise, a new asylum decision process, the Asylum Operation Model, was introduced and then its implementation reversed. Concern over numbers also prevented any serious consideration of resettlement of refugees (the United Kingdom’s proposed Syrian refugee resettlement program is minor in comparison to Germany’s, for instance).

Finally, the government has also sought to maintain an image of tough control, even when those reforms have not gained traction in terms of numbers. Most obvious in terms of policy was the effort to persuade unauthorized immigrants to voluntarily contact the authorities to leave the United Kingdom. This effort, which met with very limited success, was most visible through “Go Home” vans—vehicles displaying billboards with the legend “Go Home” on them. The significant backlash—in part because of the racial overtones of the campaign—also showed the limits of government action.

However, the key impacts on immigrants lay outside direct immigration-related policy changes. Instead, they lay in the bulk of reforms to public spending on legal advice and representation for various immigration cases and attempts to reduce the eligibility and the power of administrative justice, mainly in terms of judicial review. The coalition pledge on the Human Rights Act produced little: a committee staffed equally by supporters of change (Conservative appointed) and supporters of the status quo (Liberal Democrat appointed). The inevitable result was a stalemate. However, reforms to legal aid and to administrative justice have had significant impact. The most substantial change for immigrants was that public funds were eliminated for immigration-related cases, with the specific exception of asylum cases, for advice and representation in immigration proceedings for those who could not afford it. Government proposals went further (for example, a residence test for legal aid that is currently blocked in the courts, and an erosion of judicial review, the mainstay of administrative justice in the United Kingdom).

Political Upheaval

The long-predicted failure of the net migration pledge, confirmed by the release of new statistics in February showing net migration for 2014 at close to 300,000, has not attracted as much public attention as one might assume. Furthermore, any review of the reforms of the last five years would surely place legislation, the Immigration Act of 2014, at the center of change. The reasons lie in the political upheavals of the last few years.

The Immigration Act was passed in May 2014 with little opposition, despite some limited cross-pressure from the Liberal Democrats. At its heart is the development of a “hostile environment” for unauthorized immigrants, with restrictions on access to services such as banks and driver’s licenses; new service provider checks (landlords will be expected to check documentation of tenants, a program currently being piloted in the West Midlands); and a reduction in appeal rights in immigration proceedings. This has been the result of huge political upheaval that directly relates to issues of immigration and identity but only indirectly to government reforms. In particular, two political trends upended the coalition agreement and changed the political dynamics: first, the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and second, the ascendance of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

The first change can be traced to May 2013, when UKIP finally broke through as a major political force in local elections. Established in 1993 in opposition to the Maastrict Treaty and Britain’s entry into the European Union, UKIP had been a largely fringe force, campaigning on a euroskeptic platform, and tending to win power only in European elections (previously winning seats to the European Parliament in May 2009), which are considered second-tier elections in the United Kingdom. However, that changed in May 2013, as UKIP’s populist leader, Nigel Farage, successfully tapped into the anti-politics zeitgeist and fused euroskepticism with other concerns, including worries over immigration and loss of national identity. Analysis of UKIP voters reveals that their main issue of concern is no longer Europe, but immigration. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey has shown how closely a lack of trust in national government, concern over immigration, and anti-European sentiment overlap.

The 2013 breakthrough at the local elections set up the potential for a major UKIP win in the May 2014 European election. Given that UKIP drew mainly from Conservative voters, the government responded with the Immigration Act of 2014—a statement that the government was taking action. The legislation was tough but it failed to halt the rise of UKIP, which became the largest party from the United Kingdom in the European Parliament in the European elections. This was the first time in more than 90 years that a national election was not won by either the Labour or Conservative parties.

The second political upset in the last 12 months was the inexorable rise of the Scottish National Party, led until November 2014 by Alex Salmond (now by Nicola Sturgeon). The SNP, like UKIP, has moved from fringe status to the center of political power in Scotland. In 2007, the party formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament, followed by a subsequent breakthrough win in 2011 where the SNP formed a majority government (a huge victory given the way seats are assigned in the Scottish Parliament). This forced a decision to hold a referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, which ultimately took place in September 2014. Independence was opposed by all the main parties (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat) and supported by the SNP. Despite this, for a short time immediately before the vote, the polls were showing a 50/50 result. The final result was a vote against independence, with 55.3 percent against and 44.7 percent in favor. While Salmond resigned on the loss, he plans to lead the SNP caucus in Westminster by running in the coming general election.

The SNP oppose much of the current UK government’s immigration policies as harmful to Scotland’s economy, particularly the increased regulations on international students, and has called for devolution of immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament. With its rise in Westminster, the SNP could challenge the carefully balanced status quo and may focus attention away from further restrictions and towards initiatives on immigrant integration and more openness to high-skilled immigration.

The May 2015 Election

The upcoming general election is the most uncertain in living memory, with six main possible outcomes (see Table 1).

The foremost polls and the betting markets are predicting a hung Parliament (i.e. no single party majority). Over the last year, aggregated polls estimated the vote share for Labour at 29 to 36 percent and the Conservatives at 30 to 35 percent. UKIP has been polling at 10 to 15 percent, the Liberal Democrats at 8 to 10 percent, and the Green Party at 3 to 6 percent. However, the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post election system does not mean vote share translates directly into seats. Instead, political forecasts suggest that the two major parties will take 265 to 300 seats each with the Liberal Democrats holding 18 to 30 seats, UKIP winning two to eight seats, and the Green Party zero to two seats. The remaining seats (there are 650 Parliamentary seats with a majority requiring 326) will be won by regional parties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with Scotland particularly important (see below).

There are four main reasons for the uncertainty in making an election prediction, with a single underlying theme.

First, there has been a dramatic fall in the popularity of the Liberal Democrats, who currently hold 56 of Parliament’s 650 seats but are polling at less than one-third of what they did in 2010. Second, the referendum has changed the politics of Scotland, bringing the 45 percent of Scots who voted for independence to the SNP banner. Previously, Scots did not vote for the SNP in UK-wide elections, but polls report SNP support at 43 percent. If such a poll lead holds, the SNP could increase its current six seats in Westminster to perhaps 40 to 50 seats and become the third-largest party by seat tally. Thirdly, there is the rise of other parties, especially UKIP, but also the Green Party. UKIP and the Green Party will not win many seats, but both represent wildcards and will win big shares of the popular vote, with UKIP perhaps coming third in the popular vote. Between them, UKIP and the Greens will influence policy agendas, any television debates, media discourse, and tactical voting. The fourth variable contributing to uncertainty: changes to campaign finance, campaigning and voter registration laws, and how the two main parties are focusing in different ways on ground and air wars.

The underlying theme is the unraveling of the duopoly of party politics in the United Kingdom. The two main parties can now count on a combined vote share of approximately 60 to 70 percent, when 90 percent plus had been the norm since the 1950s. This fragmentation of political affiliation makes multiparty rule far more likely.

The Future

Immigration remains salient. Paradoxically, the rise of UKIP may mean less attention is paid to immigration in public debates in this general election, as discussion of the issue favors UKIP. For example, the six themes of Conservative campaigning do not include immigration, while internal Labour strategy documents ask canvassers not to dwell on the issue. Nonetheless, some detail of plans can be gleaned from party platforms, which are summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Six Electoral Outcome Scenarios and Likely Impact on Migration and any EU Referendum

Leaving the European Union?

However, a much larger issue hangs over this election and has become intrinsically linked in public debates to immigration: the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union (EU). The European Union is based on the principle of free movement; as new countries have joined, migration among Member States has increased, with large inflows from the poorer Eastern and Southern European countries to the United Kingdom and other large economies like Germany. With the global recession and a surge in recent years of humanitarian migrants making their way to Europe, where there is a weak framework for burden sharing, migration pressures have become connected to the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union. UKIP has successfully associated voters’ anxieties about the future and their own place in UK society to the country’s growing diversity and obligation to accept EU migrants and provide them certain social benefits. Leaving the European Union would allow the United Kingdom to “take back control of [its] borders” and protect British jobs, according to UKIP’s party platform.

A voter referendum on the future of the United Kingdom as an EU Member State has not been agreed, but this general election will determine whether a referendum will or will not take place. The reason it’s a defining moment can be traced to January 2013, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced that if re-elected as prime minister with a Conservative majority, he would hold a referendum on continued EU membership in 2017. He has subsequently flirted with moving the date of any referendum forward to 2016. It is clear that a Conservative majority would lead to a referendum. However, most other scenarios for a new government point in the same direction. For instance, any Conservative coalition would not be possible without promise of a referendum as part of a coalition agreement. Only a strong Labour majority or coalition defers a referendum.

British lawmakers have long questioned the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union, securing a number of opt-outs from the Union on various policy issues, including on certain migration directives. (The United Kingdom has also eschewed joining major EU migration initiatives such as the Schengen border-free travel zone.)

Nonetheless, the United Kingdom is tightly enmeshed in the European Union, with decades of shared regulations across many sectors. A European referendum in the United Kingdom would be defining for nearly every sector of the economy and society and yet it appears increasingly likely that the main compass points in any referendum will not be on economic wealth issues but cultural issues including immigration and identity concerns.

As of March 22-23, polling shows an edge for those favoring remaining in the European Union. The vote share is typically around 40 percent favoring departure from the European Union and 40 percent in with the reminder undecided. But polling in March reflected the highest lead for remaining a part of the European Union since tracking began in 2010, 46 percent in favor versus 36 percent for exit. However, as of today this is a second-tier issue in many voters’ minds and public opinion could change significantly. Put differently, any contest will be very close and the general election in May will, if nothing else, decide the next step in the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. If there is a referendum, it will partially be a referendum on immigration from Europe and the parameters of that debate will largely be set in this campaign and its aftermath.


Asylum Information Database (Aida). 2014. Country Report: United Kingdom. Brussels: Aida. Available Online.

Curtice, John and Rachel Ormston. 2015. British Social Attitudes 32: Key Findings. NatCen Social Research. Available Online.

Ford, Robert and Somerville, Will. 2010. Immigration and the 2010 General Election: More than meets the eye. In Immigration Under Labour, eds. Tim Finch and David Goodhart. London: Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)/Prospect. Available Online.

Gower, Melanie. 2014. Ending child immigration detention. House of Commons Library, Standard Note HA/5591. Last updated September 4, 2014. Available Online.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. 2015. The Drilldown: Which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing the country at this time? (YouGov). May2015.com. Accessed March 27, 2015. Available Online.

Hawkins, Oliver. 2015. Migration Statistics. House of Commons Library, Standard Note SG/6077, last updated February 26, 2015. Available Online.

Jordan, William. 2015. Record support for staying in the European Union. YouGov UK, February 24, 2015. Available Online.

Labour Party. 2015. Changing Britain Together. Available Online.

Office for National Statistics (ONS). 2014. Population by Country of Birth and Nationality Estimates: Frequently Asked Questions. Available Online.

---. 2015. Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, February 2015. London: ONS. Available Online.

Scottish National Party. 2014. Experts call for devolution of immigration powers. News release, November 20, 2014. Available Online.

The Migration Observatory. 2011. Tangled Up in the Net? Challenges with Reducing Net Migration to the Tens of Thousands. April 14, 2011. Available Online.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). 2015. Policies for People. Accessed March 30, 2015. Available Online.

YouGov UK. 2015. EU Referendum. Accessed March 26, 2015. Available Online.