The issue of immigration (and related matters of race and ethnicity)1 has been a contentious and highly emotive one in British politics for half a century. For the Labour Party, it has always been an Achilles heel. Labour has lagged well behind in voter ratings of its ability to tackle immigration, with research showing that its liberal approach was a major factor in its loss of working-class voters.

In recent years, the accelerating pace of immigration, combined with waves of asylum-seekers seeking succour in the West, has propelled the issue to the forefront of political debate. Sensing an opportunity to exploit Labour’s weakness, the Conservatives pledged in their 2010 election manifesto to make drastic cuts in immigration levels – with some effect. Lack of confidence in Labour’s capacity to tackle what was now seen as the major “problem of immigration” was a significant factor explaining defections from the party.2

The target the Tories (and the Conservative–Liberal Democratic Coalition that governed from 2010 to 2015) set themselves was spectacularly missed. By the close of 2014, migration was three times the target and 63,000 higher than when the Coalition was formed. Indeed, it was higher than at any time since 2005 – all this despite a slew of restrictive policies toward non-EU incomers. The Conservatives’ inability to fulfil their pledge poured oil onto the flames of public outrage, further fed by often vitriolic coverage in the tabloid press. Polls registered deepening indignation over immigration levels, now catapulted to the status of top public concern after the economy.3 According to one extensive survey, the majority of people were convinced that immigrants took jobs away from British workers, claimed too many benefits, lowered wages and placed an unfair burden on hospitals and schools.4

The major consequence was the rapid rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), largely led by dissident right-wing Tories but one of the new breed of European radical right parties. Though UKIP’s founding aim was British separation from the European Union, its campaigning between 2005 and 2010 was increasingly spearheaded by attacks on immigration. It reaped major electoral rewards, starting with impressive performances at byelections and culminating in a sweeping triumph at the 2014 European elections when, garnering 28 per cent of the vote, it came top of the poll.

Immigration and UKIP: Labour’s strategic response

Initially, Labour Party strategists somewhat complacently expected that expanding support for UKIP would helpfully split the right-wing vote. It soon became evident that this was not the case: UKIP was in fact rallying support disproportionately from lower-income groups, apprehensive about immigration levels, that might otherwise be expected to swing to Labour.5 How was the party to respond?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues have identified three possible strategic responses by social democratic parties to the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment and radical right parties, which they label hold, defuse and adopt.

The hold stance advises a strategy of cleaving firmly to traditional liberal values while seeking to convert voters through “preference-shaping” campaigning, based on reasoned argument and evidence, to a more tolerant and open-minded stance. The defuse option more pessimistically assumes that shifting opinion is not feasible and the best that can be achieved is to diminish the salience of the issue by avoiding discussion and highlighting other issues. The adopt position contends that the only realistic approach is “preference accommodation”: aligning policy more closely with the anti-immigrant stance.6 Of course these are ideal types, and any real-life strategy may draw on more than one of these options.

Hammering out the best strategic response was, for Labour, always going to be difficult. Bale and his colleagues found in their survey of four social democratic parties that none of the options adumbrated above had been effective, which was hardly encouraging.7 All had costs and risks attached. Reaffirming liberal values and contesting popular perceptions would be risky since views on immigration are emotive, entrenched and not easily dislodged. Trying to keep the issue off the political agenda is unlikely to work since the agenda was heavily influenced by immigration-obsessed mass-circulation right-wing tabloids. Adopting a more anti-immigrant posture ran the risk of sowing dissension within the party, legitimating anti-immigration claims and boosting the profile of an issue which could never benefit the left. It would, in any case, probably lack credibility.8
Not surprisingly, under Ed Miliband, leader between 2010 and 2015, Labour oscillated among the various approaches. His initial response was to acknowledge that Labour had failed in government to grasp the scale of voter anxieties about rising migration. Labour’s “embrace of openness,” he said, “made some people feel we didn’t understand the pressures immigration put on them … they were right.”9

Miliband framed the problem primarily in economic terms: employers had been allowed to exploit the flexible labour market to recruit cheap labour abroad, creating jobs at levels of pay and with conditions which British workers were unwilling to accept and thereby depressing wage levels for the lower-skilled. The party’s remedy was a package of labour market reforms, including strengthening labour protection, tightening regulations governing working conditions, blocking employers from undercutting wages through imported labour, cracking down on people who trafficked migrants and introducing enhanced training schemes to upgrade the quality of jobs on offer.10

But defining the issue more or less exclusively in economic terms and deploying rational economic argument to sway opinion made little impression. In part this was because Labour ignored the cultural dimension, the widespread feeling that mass immigration was unsettling traditional ways of life, values and customs and transforming local communities in disturbing ways. In part it was because views on the issue were rooted more in emotion than reason. As a result, as the election neared, Labour shifted closer to an “adopt” strategy, in terms of both rhetoric and policy. This culminated in a series of tough-sounding manifesto pledges including a cap on non-EU workers, banning EU migrants from claiming benefits for at least two years, ending child benefits payments to dependents outside the UK and taking stiffer action to stop illegal immigration.11

But Labour remained uncomfortable with this more rigorous approach, and perhaps Miliband’s heart was not in it. It probably did not carry conviction and certainly had negligible effect. The fact was that voters simply did not trust the party: one sample indicated that only 19 per cent of voters thought that a Labour government would handle immigration well. So there was always a temptation to retreat to “defuse” as the default option. One leaked 2014 document advising campaigners on how to respond to the issue of immigration on the doorstep, especially with potential UKIP voters, suggested avoiding the topic altogether and discussing other issues.12 Certainly it hardly registered in the party’s campaign messages. The problem with this was that Labour could be portrayed as ducking the issue and, in any case, there was no realistic way public attention could be diverted.

The fact was that Labour faced a series of strategic predicaments which made the task of designing a coherent and electorally successful policy on immigration extraordinarily difficult. Constructing a rhetoric which was, at the same time, rational, grounded in party values and yet appealing to the public seemed out of its grasp.

First, there were tensions within the party, which did not correlate with the standard left-right division. Some of those who opposed a tough line on immigration were Blairites – strong upholders of a globalized world economy and especially an open labour market, generally liberal-minded and strongly pro-EU. Others (including the present leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his chief ally, shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell) were traditional socialists, longstanding champions of minority rights who believed that immigrants were being scapegoated in an attempt to distract the working class from its real enemies.

Advocates of a firmer, more robust line on immigration were also composed of two elements. There were left-oriented communitarians who worried about the dislocating impact of mass immigration on social cohesion, traditional communal attachments and established values. The other group, larger in number and much larger in influence, were those primarily animated by pragmatic electoral considerations. Anxious that the party was wildly out of touch with popular (particularly working-class) sentiment on the issue, they felt it vital that it narrow the gap even if this meant adopting a more illiberal posture.

Second, Labour’s own electorate was sharply divided. According to British Social Attitudes data, 40 per cent of Labour supporters believed that immigration damaged the economy while 36 per cent disagreed.13 At the same time, in certain parts of the country, such as the North and London, the party was becoming quite dependent on the ethnic minority vote which formed a growing proportion of its political base. As a result, a strategy which pleased one group of Labour supporters was likely to alienate the other.

Third, mass perceptions on the issue of immigration were synchronized rather poorly with empirical reality. For example, many people were utterly convinced that immigrants were “benefit tourists” though research showed that respondents exaggerated the proportion of immigrants on any sort of benefit by a factor of over 7.14 Two leading experts on labour economics noted that “immigrants arriving since the early 2000s have made substantial net contributions to its public finances, a reality that contrasts starkly with the view often maintained in public debate.” In short, as another analyst wrote, perceptions of the impact of immigration bore “little relationship to objective assessments,” with people in general having “a very poor understanding of the scale and nature of immigration.”15

The problem for Labour was that votes are driven by perceptions, not facts. What the polling organization YouGov called the “gulf between perception and reality” meant that much public debate on immigration was ill-informed, with the parties reluctant to contest “widespread popular misconceptions.”16 Within the Labour Party this circumstance posed moral problems for preference-accommodators on the right who urged (in effect) endorsing these “misconceptions” and grounding policy on fallacy and exaggeration rather than on reason and evidence. It presented political problems for preference-shapers on the left: given the strength and intensity of attitudes on immigration, how could people be induced to take a more liberal view? Nor was it reassuring for the “defusers” who believed that the less said about the problem the better – it was patently clear that the issue would not disappear simply because Labour chose not to address it.

The 2015 general election

Taking account of all three strategic predicaments, there were no easy answers to Labour’s immigration dilemma. But did this matter? How important was immigration as an issue at what was for Labour the deeply disappointing 2015 general election? While the two weightiest factors deterring voters from backing Labour were lack of confidence in its ability to manage the economy and distaste for Ed Miliband as a potential prime minister, immigration also played a major part. Campaigning mainly on this issue, UKIP collected almost four million votes (12.6 per cent of the total) making it (in terms of votes) the third strongest party in the UK – although because of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system it won only one seat.

Detailed data have yet to be released, but early research indicates that while UKIP drew support from all parties, the main loser was Labour. Although the Labour vote rose in most parts of England (though not in Scotland), its gains were smaller in those constituencies where UKIP advances were more substantial. Where UKIP polled well, Labour failed to take a single seat from the Tories. This delivered a fatal blow to its prospects. But no less worrying for Labour was that this setback was one further phase in the long-term contraction of its working-class base. From 2001, working-class voters, affronted by Labour’s liberal stance on immigration, have been steadily abandoning the party, some to the Tories and now some to UKIP. The Labour leadership (including the current one) has proved consistently unable to reverse this trend.17

Why immigration is so harmful for Labour

A central premise of electoral studies has long been that parties of the left form the natural political home for the working class. Yet accumulating findings across Western Europe have demonstrated that working-class voters are disproportionately moving to the radical right – primarily over the issue of immigration.18 In other words, what has happened in the UK is part of a broader pattern. The literature has suggested a range of possible explanations, the two most important of which are economic competition and cultural conflict.

Economic competition explanations contend that people suffering from unemployment and deteriorating material conditions as a result of globalization and technological innovation are estranged from the political system and mainsteam parties of the centre-left which, they feel, have abandoned them. In the struggle for scarce resources (jobs, pay levels, housing, social benefits and so forth) in which they are heavily engaged, they regard their main competitors as immigrants, perceived as illegitimate and undeserving, rather than business or the wealthy and privileged.

Cultural conflict explanations focus on issues of community and identity. Workers are attracted to radical right ideas not primarily because of material concerns, though these may play a part, but because they feel under threat by a large-scale inflow of immigrants whose values, styles of life, customs and practices are deemed incompatible with the national culture.19

These two explanatory frameworks are not mutually exclusive; what matters is the relative weighting. Seminal research by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, the UK’s leading students of UKIP, has shown that recruits to UKIP are disproportionately drawn from the economically marginal, the socially vulnerable and the insecure, “older, blue-collar voters citizens with few qualifications” – those “left behind.” Opinion surveys have provided further support for the proposition that perceived unfair competition from immigrants over resources (jobs, housing, benefits etc.) is nourishing an anti-immigrant mood and sympathy for the radical right.20

But Ford and Goodwin concluded that, though distributional issues certainly figured significantly in their thinking, UKIP adherents were “often motivated as much, if not more, by their distinctive set of values as by their economic position and anxieties.” These values, especially antipathy toward immigrants and general mistrust of ethnic (and sexual) minorities, were particularly widely held by the old and those with modest educational attainments, two categories positively correlated with voting UKIP. Such people find a society defined by multiculturalism, toleration of diversity and liberal and cosmopolitan values uncongenial.

Jon Cruddas, a senior communitarian-minded Labour MP, and Professor Jonathan Rutherford similarly contend that anger over high levels of immigration reflects not only worries over jobs and wages but deeper existential fears in which anxieties are refracted “into a brittle politics of loss, victimhood and grievance.”21

This may apply in particular to Muslim immigrant communities (both British citizens and more recent asylum-seekers) where cultural distinctions are more overt and pronounced. When people encounter very different moral codes, customs and religious viewpoints, the argument runs, they are more likely to experience discomfort and even a sense of threat The highly publicized conviction of gangs of predominantly Islamic background or the systematic and extensive sexual exploitation of vulnerable young white girls in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere has served to further inflame such fears and contributed to a spread of anti-Islamic attitudes, fertile territory for UKIP.

To further complicate matters for Labour, there is some evidence that greater ethnic and cultural diversity corrodes social cohesion, social solidarity and a general sense of collective responsibility for all society’s members. Thus Oxford economics professor Paul Collier reports that the post-1997 surge in immigration has been accompanied by a major decline in voter willingness to pay higher taxes to fund extended social programs, especially when immigrants are seen as possible beneficiaries.22

Anger, frustration and resentment

There appears little doubt about the capacity of the issue of immigration (linked to race and ethnicity) to restructure political alignments throughout the Western world, largely to the detriment of parties of the left. The increasing prominence of ethnicity as a source of social identity (as in the concept of the “white working class”), affording opportunities for expansion by the radical right, has been fed by a range of sources, including the perceived adverse impact of immigration on jobs, wage levels and welfare availability but also by a sense of endangered identities, customary ways of life and traditions. As Rutherford suggests, the upsurge of antipathy toward immigrants and ethnic minorities may not only be a response to resource competition but, more generally, represent a projection onto out-groups of the anger, frustration and resentment at the increasing precariousness and instability of life among the most economically marginal.23

Winning back voters who quit Labour for UKIP or the Tories over the issue of immigration will not be easy.24 As has been noted, there are no obvious strategic options to overcome the problem. Ed Miliband anticipated that having an informed, candid and rational debate on immigration would be an “incredibly hard thing to achieve.”25 Events have proved him right.


It should be noted that the concept of “immigrants” as used in everyday UK discourse is a very loose and protean one. It encompasses not only those who fit the legal definition of immigrants but also asylum-seekers, EU migrants and, not least, members of ethnic minority populations, many of whom are born in the UK. The latter, in turn, can for the most part be fitted into three categories, those of Afro-Caribbean descent, Muslim Asians and non-Muslim Asian (Hindus and Sikhs). In the article I generalize, but this caveat should be borne in mind.

2 Geoffrey Evans and Kat Chzhen, “Explaining Voters’ Defection from Labour over the 2005–10 Electoral Cycle: Leadership, Economics and the Rising Importance of Immigration,” Political Studies, Vol. 61, No. S1 (2013), p. 150.

3 James Hampshire, “The Cost of Broken Promises or How Policy Failure Can Help Win Elections – Immigration and the 2015 UK General Election,” Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2015), p. 5. An Ipsos MORI study found a significant correlation between newspaper readership and fears about immigration (Bobby Duffy, “Perceptions and Reality: Ten Things We Should Know About Attitudes to Immigration in the UK,” Political Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 3 , p. 264). YouGov, “How Hostility to Immigration Has Grown,” September 23 2013, retrieved from here.

4 Lord Ashcroft, Small Island: Public Opinion and the Politics of Immigration (2013), p. 5, retrieved here.

5 James Dennison and Matthew Goodwin, “Immigration, Issue Ownership and the Rise of UKIP,” Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 68, No. s1 (2015), p. 176.

6 Tim Bale, Christoffer Green-Pedersen, André Krouwel, Kurt Richard Luther and Nick Sitter, “If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them? Explaining Social Democratic Responses to the Challenge from the Populist Radical Right in Western Europe,” Political Studies, Vol. 58, No. 3 (2010), p. 413. See also William Downs, “Social Democracy’s Strategic Quandary: Responses to Immigration Challenges and Issue Capture in Europe,” Perspectives on European Politics and Society, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2011), p. 248.

7 Bale et al., “If You Can’t Beat Them,” pp. 413–14, 422.

8 Tim Bale, “Putting it Right? The Labour Party’s Big Shift on Immigration Since 2010,” Political Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 3 (2014), p. 296.

9 Quoted in Dennison and Goodwin, “Immigration, Issue Ownership and the Rise of UKIP,” p. 172.

10 Ed Miliband, “Ed Miliband’s Immigration Speech in Full” (speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research), June 22, 2012, retrieved here.

11 Labour Party, Britain Can Be Better – The Labour Party Manifesto 2015 (London: Author, 2015), pp. 49–50.

12 Dennison and Goodwin, “Immigration, Issue Ownership and the Rise of UKIP,” pp.180, 184.

13 Ibid., p. 176.

14 YouGov,Welfare Tourism: Crisis, What Crisis,” January 3, 2014, retrieved here.

15 Christian Dustmann and Tomasso Frattini, The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK (London: University College London, Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, 2013), p. 27, retrieved here; Duffy, “Perceptions and Reality,” pp. 261, 260.

16 YouGov, Welfare Tourism.”

17 Hampshire, “The Cost of Broken Promises,” p. 11; Geoffrey Evans and Jon Mellon, “Working Class Votes and Conservative Losses: Solving the UKIP Puzzle,” Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2016), p. 467. To give one example, between 2005 and 2013 Labour support among white working-class pensioners collapsed from 45 to 26 per cent while UKIP support leapt from 3 to 28 per cent (Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo, “How Labour is Failing to Grasp UKIP’s Appeal to Angry White Voters,” The Guardian, June 24, 2014).

18 Daniel Oesch, “Explaining Workers’ Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence from Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, and Switzerland,” International Political Science Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2008), pp. 350, 357.

19 Ibid, pp. 350–51, 352.

20 Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2014), p. 175. For opinion surveys, see, e.g., YouGov, “Voter’s Top Priority for 2014: Two-Year Ban on Migrant Benefits,” January 6, 2014, retrieved here.

21 Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, “Different Class? UKIP’s Social Base and Political Impact: A Reply to Evans and Mellon,” Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2016), p. 484; Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal (London: One Nation Register, 2014), pp. 17, 24, retrieved here.

22 Paul Collier, “Immigration’s ‘Dark Side’: A Challenge for the Left,” Policy Network, December 5, 2014, retrieved here.

23 Jonathan Rutherford, “The Future Is Conservative,” in Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White, eds., The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2011), p. 92.

24 Matthew Goodwin, “Jeremy Corbyn Will Struggle to Win Back UKIP Voters,” Prospect, September 14, 2015, retrieved here.

25 Miliband, “Ed Miliband’s Immigration Speech.”