The government has today gone big on a pledge to "Stop the Boats" - promising draconian action to restrict access to Britain for those arriving on small boats across the English Channel. This quick post, building on the below Twitter thread, explains why Conservatives see this as electorally appealing, and why the policy may struggle to convince voters or win new support.
First things first - rules and processes do matter, a lot, to voters. They want a migration system that sets and enforces clear rules on who can come here, how, and on what terms. The government’s delivery of such a migration framework post-Brexit is likely one reason why public concern about immigration overall has remained low even as labour and student migration levels have risen to record highs. Small boats migration is clearly at odds with a framework of rules, order and enforcement. Hardline responses to this crisis therefore enjoy high public support, as illustrated in the below YouGov polling from November.
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This, incidentally, illustrates the flaw in args often made by migration liberals that opposition to small boats is driven by exaggeration/misunderstanding on numbers. Voters care much more about how immigrants come than about how many come. This is why we currently have the highest levels of immigration in modern British history, yet we have also had a major positive shift in attitudes to immigration in general and to specific forms of migration - labour, students - where voters believe the migration system is delivering positive outcomes. Voters favour “rules based liberalism” - but both aspects of this matter. The public can be very liberal when they believe a system of rules is working. They can be very illiberal when they think the rules are not working, are being broken or are being ignored.
This, then, is electoral case for "stop the boats" - voters dislike small boat immigration as it represents a failure or breakdown of rules based systems, signalling disorder and enforcement failure. Pledging to stop such migration enable the government to signal a renewed commitment to rules and enforcement, principles with high public support. There are, however, three problems: it won't work, voters know it won't work, & even if it did work most voters don't care about “small boats” and will be asking why the government is prioritising this over the many things they care more about.
Firstly, it won't work. We know most of the draconian ideas in here can't even be implemented for quite a while, due to delays in passing the law and inevitable challenges through the court system. Therefore there is zero chance they will have a significant impact on small boat numbers in the short run. To work, the policy has to deter people getting on to boats and taking risky channel journeys. This supposed "deterrence" mechanism is questionable in general, but even if it is effective, a significant deterrence effect is unlikely to kick in until the policies are actually operating and are seen to be operating.
Most voters will know little and care less about the complicated detail. They are being told the government will “stop the boats” - the PM has plastered that slogan on his podium. Therefore, if the boats don't stop, they will, not unreasonably, judge the government as having failed. And there isn't any strong reason to expect the boats to stop soon because of policies that won't be implemented soon.
What is more, most voters are likely to start off thinking the policy will fail. Public disapproval of the govt on "small boats" is very high indeed - 80% plus already disapproved of the government’s record in November 2021, with little improvement in attitudes since
Source: YouGov analysis, November 2021
Most voters also judged, correctly, that the govt's Rwanda proposals would not work within weeks of their announcement - half of all voters (and 40% of Con voters) rated it “not very likely” or “not at all likely” to reduce small boat asylum claims when polled by MORI.
Source: IPSOS-MORI Immigration Attitudes tracker
A similarly sceptical reception to these new proposals is likely from an electorate which has not seen the Conservatives as reliably able to deliver immigration control since the very high profile and repeated failures of David Cameron’s net migration target during the Coalition. Trust is asymmetric - easy to lose, hard to win back. Voters who no longer trust the government to deliver migration control are not going to be convinced simply because the slogans and proposals are more hardline than those used previously. Only clear evidence of delivery is likely to convince sceptical voters.
Even if such clear evidence is produced, the likely electoral benefits are limited, because this will be delivery on an issue which simply doesn’t animate most voters as it used to. The salience of immigration is much, much lower now than it was in the 2005-16 period. Public attention to the issue in 2021-22 was consistently the lowest it has been in over 20 years. Earlier large waves of attention to "small boats" last autumn generated only small and short lived bumps in public attention.
Source: Ford and Morris “A New Consensus? How Public Attitudes Have Warmed to Immigration (IPPR, 2022)
For example, the share naming immigration as a most important problem in MORI polling seldom dropped below 30% month in, month out in 2003-2008 and then again between 20013-2016. In the past two years it has been (just) above 20% in one month only (November 2022). Immigration was persistently at the top of the political agenda for much of the 2000s and 2010s. It ranks far lower in voters list of priorities now.
A sustained government and media campaign on small boats would likely push those numbers back up a bit, but much of the change is structural. Overall attitudes to immigration are most positive, and are very positive among younger, more diverse and more liberal parts of the electorate. So who will tune in to a media and government small boats campaign? Overwhelmingly, older, authoritarian voters who are already strongly aligned to the Conservatives. The salience of immigration was three times as high in the most recent (February 2023) MORI polling among Conservative voters than it is among Labour voters. While nearly one in five Conservative voters see it as a priority, the figure among Labour voters is barely one in twenty. As issue which excites your existing voters but not those you need to win back from the opposition is not that helpful when you’re a Conservative government needing to turn around a twenty point polling deficit.
Source: IPSOS-MORI Issues Index February 2023
“Stop the boats” could instead be framed as a defensive policy - it may not turn things around, but it at least helps put a floor on Conservative support and deterring a possible Farageist challenge on the party’s right flank. There are two problems with this logic. Firstly, defending a reduced base on this issue makes broader damage to the party brand. Focusing on an issue which only animates a reduced base of older authoritarian voters risks look out of touch with the concerns of everyone else. This may then make it harder to win back otherwise biddable swing voters on other issues - for example by dangling budget goodies next week.
Secondly, this approach only works as a defensive strategy to shore up the older, authoritarian voter base if "stop the boats" actually...stops the boats. Which, as we have seen, is unlikely at least in the short term. Heavy promotion of a slogan which cannot be delivered upon raising then dashing expectations with unhappy low trust voters who find UKIP type politics appealing. Far from heading off a Farageist insurgency, a failed “stop the boats” promise may encourage one.
One of the greatest advantages governments have is agenda setting power. They can put the spotlight on popular ideas and vote winning issues simply by talking about them. "Stop the boats" focuses public and media attention on an pledge that can’t be delivered, on an issue where 80% of voters disapprove of the government’s track record, and which 80% of voters don’t see as a priority. If the government sees this as the best possible use of its agenda setting power, it is truly in deep trouble.
Edited 6pm 8th March to correct some typos and update MORI Issues polling data
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Isn’t there an argument to say that if the deterrent strategy is effective, this will actually drive the number of boats UP in the short term, because it will create a premium on arriving before the regulations come into effect?
Voters favour rules based liberalism when it comes to immigration? Are you sure? Or are they just unaware of how many migrants are arriving in the UK now?
Last year to June 2022 the ONS states that 504,000 migrants (that is the net figure and they came mostly from Asia) were granted the right to stay in the UK long term. Before Brexit in 2016 it was 335,000 (about 50% form the EU I think) a record back then.
Freedom of Movement was a key issue in the Brexit campaign with Penny Mordaunt lying about the UK being invaded by Turks and the infamous poster put up by the Leave side featuring a queue of people waiting at the EU border who were supposed to then come to the UK.
Maybe rules based immigration isn't an issue because the public think as Brexit is "done" and as there is no Freedom of Movement anymore then the immigration issue has been dealt with. Not because the public has became more liberal since 2016.
I really doubt those who voted for Brexit to end Freedom of Movement would be pleased to see 504,000 migrants entering the UK so why isn't that the issue? Ignorance on the part of the public?
Maybe the public's negative attitude to the small boats policy is centred around that policy alone. They don't like it for what it is and because it won't work not because the public has become more liberal.