The UK’s Conservative Party may be on course to lose the next general election unless it reduces the net migration number, political experts said.
Prof. Eric Kaufmann, who has authored a number of books on subjects including political and religious demography, said Brexit voters who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 “won’t show up” in 2024 if the government “keep[s] on doing what they’re doing now.”
It comes after a record-high number of visas were granted in the year ending June 2022.
The size of post-Brexit net migration is unknown, due to an interruption of survey data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Office for National Statistics’s (ONS) ongoing process of changing its estimation methods.
Ditching the previous Conservative government’s pledge to reduce migration from “hundreds of thousands” to “tens of thousands,” former Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned on an “Australian-style” points-based immigration system in 2019 before winning a landslide majority, which he saw as “a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.”
Under the policy his government introduced, E.U. citizens could no longer move to the UK without visas since Jan. 1, 2021, but there was a liberalisation of immigration policies for skilled non-E.U. workers.
The cap on the number of non-E.U. skilled migrant workers was discarded, and applicants in some occupations can be granted visas with salaries lower than previously required, while some occupations require higher salaries, according to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
Post-study work visa, which was introduced in 2008 and scrapped in 2012, has been re-introduced, and employers no longer need to advertise a job in the UK for at least four weeks before hiring from overseas so they can save on administrative costs.
Brexit Vote Re-Interpreted
Alp Mehmet, Chairman of think tank and campaign group Migration Watch UK, said the reason why the points-based system “went down well in focus groups and on the doorsteps” ahead of the 2019 election was that it alluded to “the sort of tough immigration policies” that Australia had.
The former diplomat told The Epoch Times that he believes it was a “slightly underhand way” to persuade people that the proposed system was going to “not only control but reduce immigration in the way that the Australians had done, and in the way that the Australians had stopped the trafficking of illegal immigrants in boats.”
The recent wave of visas granted included those issued under programmes tailored for Hongkongers wishing to escape communist rule and Ukrainian women and children fleeing Russia’s invasion. Mehmet said the British people generally do support these special programmes because they wanted to help, although if the overall immigration number continues to increase, there is the risk of a “reaction” towards immigration as pressures mount on housing and healthcare.
London Mayor Boris Johnson delivers a speech at a “Vote Leave” rally at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, England, on April 16, 2016. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Kaufmann also said the government didn’t address the concerns of Brexit voters who then voted for the Conservatives in 2019.
“They tried to essentially reinterpret the Brexit vote as a vote for control only, but a green light for continued high levels of immigration, and that’s not what the survey data really shows,” he told The Epoch Times.
Kaufmann said he believes a group of “liberal globalist Brexiteers, who emphasize free trade and economic growth,” took over the Brexit movement and “took that into the Conservative Party in 2019 under Johnson.”
Noting that net migration is usually seen as the best indicator, Kaufmann said visa data suggested immigration had remained either increased or remained unchanged, albeit the source shifted from Europe to predominantly South Asia and East Asia.
“I think it is slowly dawning on [the Brexit voters] and will dawn on them evermore that they’ve kind of not gotten what they voted for,” he said. “So you see disillusionment now in terms of the dropping support for the Conservative Party, which is concentrated more among those who were Brexit voters who want less immigration.”
Issue of Immigration Gaining Salience
According to the weekly YouGov survey on the most important issues facing the country, the salience of immigration and asylum declined from a peak in 2015 before rising again over the last two years.
On Sept. 12, around a quarter of adults (24 percent) said immigration was one of the top three issues on their minds.
But among Conservative Party voters and Brexit voters, the number jumped up to 46 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Immigration was also the second most salient issue after the economy among the two groups.
Trust in the UK’s major political parties regarding immigration is also low, separate surveys suggested.
On Sept. 12, more than three quarters (76 percent) of adults, 79 percent of Conservative Party voters, and 83 percent of leave voters thought the government had handled the issue badly; and half of the respondents to another survey didn’t pick any of the major parties when asked which was the best at handling asylum and immigration.
This may be related to the increase of migrants smuggled into the UK on small boats.
A group of illegal immigrants are brought into Dover, England, by the RNLI, on Aug. 25, 2022. (Gareth Fuller/PA Media)
According to an article published in 2018 by Prof. Andrew Geddes and Prof. James Dennison at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, there had been a strong correlation over the years between the salience of immigration and the polling of anti-immigration parties in most western European countries.
Pressure Mounting On Conservative Party
In an article published earlier this month, Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor and author who specialises in Brexit and right-wing populism, warned that the pre-Brexit era anti-immigration populism will come back with a vengeance if the future governments—be it Conservative, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats—fail to “take back control and reduce migration to sustainable levels.”
Both Kaufmann and Mehmet agreed with Goodwin’s assessment.
If the ruling Conservative Party stays on its current course regarding immigration, “I just think a lot of the Brexit voters who have voted for the Tories in 2019 won’t show up in 2024. That will simply cost the Tories the election,” Kaufmann said, adding that a potential boost in the economy won’t make much of a difference.
“I think that’ll only give them a few points. I think that if they don’t do something on the cultural issues, which is really why people voted Conservative. If they don’t do anything on that, they’re gonna lose in my opinion.”
Kaufmann said if the Conservative Party remains a “business Conservative Party,” a UKIP-style populist right-wing party that focuses on immigration and “culture war issues” such as freedom of speech, protection of national heritage, and education, is likely to emerge.
While the question remains on whether any new party can win seats in an election, “what they will do is certainly stop the Conservatives winning those seats” in swing constituencies, Mehmet said.
A “Vote to Leave” campaigner holds a placard as Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, campaigns for votes to leave the European Union in the June 23rd referendum in Bolton, England, on May 25, 2016. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
On whether there is a risk of increased radical populism if the government does not address the immigration issue, Mehmet said dissatisfaction “can only grow” in that case, but he hopes it would not manifest in people turning against each other.
“Clearly cohesion and stability in our society are dependent on the government actually getting its policies right,” he said.
Mehmet said banning all immigration would be “crazy” and not in the UK’s best interest, but there needs to be a reduction in numbers.
Currently, there are around “a quarter of a million” a year, and “when Tony Blair was first elected in 1997, at that time, we were talking about net migration of 40,000 [to] 50,000,” he said.
“We’ve added in 20 years, 8 million people to our population. And something like 7 million of that was the result of direct and indirect immigration,” Mehmet added, referring to ONS census data for England and Wales.
Asked about the UK’s seemingly tight labour market, Mehmet argued there are ample capabilities including among the economically inactive if training, pay, and working conditions are improved.
Kaufmann suggested the government should set a target for reducing net migration, “ideally … around 100,000 a year, and work to move to that target.”
Attitude Toward Immigration
Asked whether voters who want to reduce immigration are more concerned about jobs and resources or cultural differences, Mehmet said these elements can not be separated.
Citing a recent clash between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester as an example, Mehmet said there had been arguments saying such historical rifts were imported as a result of legacy government policies that “led to the exponential rise in migration with the aim of increasing diversity and multiculturalism for its own sake.”
“If we are serious about integrating those who come here, then we should limit numbers to the sort of levels that allows us to cope so that we do provide the facilities, the housing, the services that people expect to have in this country,” he said.
Many voters also want “commitment to what this country is and stands for, rather than coming and immediately turning against the country that is effectively providing refuge. That is the way a lot of people do see it,” he said, adding, “I think it’s a combination of all these things that prompts people to want reduced immigration.
A poster featuring a Brexit vote ballot with “out” tagged is on display at a bookshop window in Berlin on June 24, 2016. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)
Kaufmann said according to relevant studies, anti-immigration sentiment is “really not about economics.”
“I would say that your attitude to immigration comes first and then once you have that attitude, you see problems like pressure on public services or employment through that lens. So it’s primarily psychological and cultural,” he said. “People who notice difference and change more and they see it more negatively, that sort of psychology would tend to predict someone who would vote for Brexit, for example.”
Speaking of the issue of assimilation in Western countries, Kaufmann said he does believe immigrants are assimilating, but they may be assimilated to the “official high culture” that has a “left modernist” leaning or the “vernacular culture” that is “closer to the historic culture,” depending on where their interactions are.
Net Migration Number Unclear
According to an analysis of Home Office data by Migration Watch UK, 1.1 million visas were granted for people to work, study, join their families, or resettle in the UK during the year ending June 2022, almost doubling the pre-pandemic number (year ending June 2019).
Part of the increase can be explained by E.U. citizens being required to obtain visas for the first time in many years, but the group argued the number of visas given to E.U. citizens (64,700) “does not nearly account for the large increases we have seen since the system was introduced last year.”
The figures also included visas given to Hongkongers, Ukrainians, and Afghans who were at risk under the Taliban.
People who were granted visas may not have moved to the UK. It’s also unclear how many people emigrated from the UK or what the net migration number was during the period.
The latest ONS estimate said net migration in the year ending June 2021 was around 239,000, slightly down from the year ending June 2020 (260,000), but these estimates were based on experimental methods and are subject to uncertainty.
The Epoch Times reached out to the Conservative Party and the Home Office for comment.