Immigration in the 2019 General Election campaign

Of all of the contentious issues sublimated by the term ‘Brexit’ during this General Election, arguably the most significant of all has been immigration. Significantly and prominently featured during the referendum debate of 2016, with ‘leave’ voting widely attributed to negative social attitudes, immigration remained very concerning to voters, including in the UK ahead of the 2018 Parliamentary Elections. However, whilst public concerns continue to be negative, polling and other research evidence strongly suggest they have ‘softened’. IPSOS MORI data indicate a significant decline in immigration’s salience as ‘the most important issue’ facing Britain since the 2016 referendum, overtaken by the NHS and the European Union. These, ostensibly less anxious, attitudes towards immigration have attracted commentary in the mainstream media, including, for example, the BBC’s ‘Crossing Divides’ season earlier this year. So, if no longer a pre-eminent issue for public concern, how did immigration play a role in the public discourse during the election campaign?

Mainstream Party Policies

Across the manifestos we saw a general consensus on establishing distance from Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, albeit to varying degrees and with different substance. Recognition that many of the consequences of May’s approach were profoundly damaging (not least the Windrush scandal) and a more pro-migration tone could be traced in the LabourLiberal Democrats and Green manifestos. Advocating recognition of the social and economic benefits of migration, an automatic right to residency for EU nationals already in Britain, equality for all workers with a right to be in the country, and the closure of immigration detention centres were key promises of both Labour and the Greens. Another anti-hostile-environment measure from the Liberal Democrats proposed the re-distribution of specific visa granting powers away from the Home Office to other departments, such as Business, Education and the Department for International Development. A more positive focus on the benefits of migration also typified the nationalist parties’ manifestos, with Plaid Cymru and the SNP each proposing ‘needs based systems’ and visas specifically designed for the Scottish and Welsh economies. Conservative proposals, moved away from arbitrary net migration targets associated with the ‘hostile environment’, instead promising to end freedom of movement for EU citizens, fast tracking ‘highly skilled’ migrants, e.g., through a cheaper ‘NHS Visa’, and reducing numbers through an ‘Australian-style’ points based system (a similar policy on the latter was included in DUP proposals).

Whilst some of these policies appeared to enjoy greater traction than others in the press, coverage largely seemed to follow established partisan editorial lines, including extensive repetition of Conservative attacks on Labour in right-wing publications (including misrepresentations of policy, for example on freedom of movement), and support for Labour plans in the Daily Mirror. The policies of other parties on immigration appeared to receive very little coverage in the national titles.

Press Coverage

When we look at the prominence of immigration as an issue across the major national newspapers during the six weeks leading up to polling day1, we see that it was certainly not ignored or marginalised by the standards of recent election campaigns.

Coverage intensified in week 3 with the trailing of Labour and Tory manifestos, and the first leaders’ debate on 19th November, and then again in the final week, as key campaign messages were reiterated, including in Boris Johnson’s letter to the nation, warning against the ‘nightmare’ of a potential Labour win. Somewhat more unexpectedly, football pundit Gary Neville’s comments on the racist abuse of Manchester United players were also widely reported, where he blamed Boris Johnson for fuelling racism in language about immigration during the Leaders’ debate.

In polling week, the Daily Mirror suggested that ‘Immigration is the dog that hasn’t barked in this election’ (8th December), attributing this, in part, to wider recognition of the benefits of immigration to the country. Although Labour’s social media video advertising sought to challenge misdirected hostility towards migrants and transform the debate, realistically it is doubtful that this message would have landed with readers of a right-wing press strongly supporting the “Tory crackdown on post-Brexit migrants”, and the equation of Labour’s immigration policy with an ‘open borders’ security threat, over-burdening the NHS, and a betrayal of democracy. A familiar collection of hostile tropes on immigration, it was articulated all the more powerfully as an ominous and obvious flipside to “delivering Brexit”. Johnson’s late controversial claim that “membership of the EU meant its population of 580 million had been able to treat the UK as though its basically part of their own country”, should arguably be seen, then, as merely the loud, concluding ‘bark’ of a concerted dog whistling campaign.

1 Data for both figures based on basic search of Nexis: 6 weeks leading to polling day; keywords: immigra! or migra! or “asylum seeker!” or refugee!; No manual filtering applied.