The British Election Was All About Immigration

by William Galston | May 11, 2010

Many observers are wondering why the Conservatives failed to gain an outright majority in last week’s elections. After all, Labour has been in power for thirteen years, Gordon Brown is deeply unpopular, and the budget is in crisis. Moreover, David Cameron worked hard to modernize and moderate the Conservative party, and despite a surge after the first debate, the Liberal Democrats scored only a modest gain in the popular vote and actually lost five seats.

The answer is starting us in the face, and it’s disturbing: the Tories fell short because the right-wing anti-Europe, anti-immigrant parties surged. Let’s look at the past three elections:

 

 

Between them, these two parties now enjoy the support of nearly one and a half million British voters – a full five percent of the total.

This may well have made the difference between a Tory majority and the actual result. I count twenty-three constituencies narrowly won by Labour or the Liberal Democrats where the vote for the UK Independence Party alone was greater than the margin of the Conservative defeat. We can’t know for sure, but it seems likely that those votes would have gone to the more Euro-skeptic Conservative candidates had it not been for the UKIP.

This suggests that immigration may have been the sleeper issue in 2010 election – and that the Conservatives will have a strong incentive to respond. They’ve positioned themselves to do so, promising in their manifesto to “take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.” Among the steps they propose to achieve this result: “setting an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants” (AKA Muslims); and “limiting access only to those who will bring the most value to the British economy” (AKA university graduates and others with advanced technical skills). By contrast, the Liberal Democrat manifesto does not call for any new numerical quotas and offers undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. If they enter into a formal coalition with the Conservatives, they will have to go along with – and thereby facilitate – a new immigration regime with which they profoundly disagree.

 

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