Immigration: a subject that is everywhere and nowhere

Labour will launch its immigration strategy today (28 April 2015)  Image: Thinkstock

Labour will launch its immigration strategy today (28 April 2015) Image: Thinkstock

In our recent election campaign reports, we have shown that immigration (and other related issues) has failed to attain the levels of coverage that its position among  the list of public policy concerns might warrant, occupying only 3.7 % of coverage between 30 March and 20 April.

Over the past week, however, it seems that outside pressures may have forced the issue onto the news agenda. Despite the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and its entanglement with British immigration politics and foreign policy, it was not until Thursday’s Daily Mail front page and editorial that the 2015 ‘short campaign’ had seen the prominent politicisation of immigration in electoral terms, beyond the efforts of Nigel Farage in the leadership debates. The Mail’s front page referred to a poll by Ipsos-MORI which, the paper claimed, placed pressure on David Cameron and the Conservatives to be ‘far tougher on mass immigration’ than they had been thus far in the campaign. Immigration is, apparently, the ‘subject that dare not speak its name’. Certainly, Ipsos’ poll suggests that there are more people who think immigration has been discussed ‘too little’ over the last few years/months (37%) than people who think it has been discussed ‘too much’ (27%), but this betrays a decrease of the former (from 62% in 2011) and an increase of the latter (from 11% in 2011) over the past few years. The pressure placed on the Prime Minister by the Mail and the Ipsos poll had told by Friday, when Cameron penned a column for the newspaper (featured on the day’s front page), declaring that the electorate could trust only the Tories on immigration and that a vote for UKIP would let in a Labour-SNP government of ‘uncontrolled immigration’.

Pressing the matter?

It might be suggested that this episode proves that it isn’t until a national newspaper uses its prime editorial space to directly challenge party leaders to address the issue that the debate can finally begin. Certainly, later on Friday Ed Miliband was accused of making political capital out of the Mediterranean crisis by connecting it with failures in post-conflict planning in Libya, which married foreign policy issues with immigration. And on Saturday the Guardian – though unrelated to the Daily Mail’s intervention – devoted part of their editorial to the case for an ‘outward facing’ debate and the political courage necessary to achieve it.

It is important to appreciate that our sample data only covers the formal election campaign period. In the weeks before, there were higher levels of press and TV engagement with immigration politics. For example, the Mail reported in February on foreign patients ‘abusing the NHS‘. In March, the Express reported on the nation’s ‘asylum bill’ standing at £726,000 a day, before the Independent reported the next day on MPs’ calls for immediate action on the ‘shocking’ detention of asylum seekers. The Express then warned of a ‘new migrant flood on [the] way’, and the Mail reported on Trevor Phillips’ assertion that discussion about ‘race’ had been silenced by the politically correct. As a counterpoint, the Guardian placed the number 298,000 in large Union Flag-filled type above the claim that ‘this is the number fuelling UK growth’ (‘But you won’t hear the story from politicians. That’s because it’s the M word. Migrants’) .

The ‘I-word’ or the ‘M-word’?

These examples suggest there are some marked divisions in how national newspapers discuss the issue. Indeed, the Guardian’s mention of Migrants as the ‘M-word’ that politicians neglect to suitably celebrate is reminiscent – though antithetical – of the Mail’s naming of immigration in 2010 (and in Thursday’s editorial) as the ‘I-Word‘ politicians were too scared to discuss. The Guardian and the Independent, in particular, seem to be the outlets most likely to promote a ‘cosmopolitan‘ view of immigration events, in contrast with their far less sanguine competitors whose perspectives focus more on the costs of immigration.

I have just completed an historical investigation into the reporting of immigration news in the national press for each of the general election campaigns since 1918. The reasons for doing this were clear: I wanted to know whether and how immigration news had intensified and become politicised during election campaigns over time. Without an adequate appreciation of the historical depth of the mediated immigration debate it is difficult to make such claims or to understand how recent coverage fits in with longer term patterns.

My findings reveal that immigration has featured in nearly all post-WW2 election campaigns, with the exception of the first couple which followed the conflict. The first identifiable peak in coverage came during the elections campaigns of the 1960s – a decade notable for the rise of Enoch Powell, the first legislative steps to curb the immigration of non-white migrants from the New Commonwealth and Smethwick. This level of coverage was not sustained into the 1970s though, and it wasn’t until the campaigns of the 2000s that immigration coverage increased dramatically.

Chart 1

Substantial and superficial coverage

However, when the coverage is broken down into whether immigration is the main or the secondary focus of the news article, the picture appears far less conclusive about the recent increase in coverage. The chart below suggests, in fact, that the 1970 campaign featured more ‘in depth’ immigration coverage than the 2010 campaign. In fact, recent overall inclines in coverage have come in large part due to an increase in the amount of coverage which focuses on immigration in a secondary way. This appears to demonstrate the extent to which the issue has become politicised and entrenched as a routine election topic alongside other more established policy areas.


History lessons

What can this historical data tell us about the contemporary debate? At first glance, it permits us to see that immigration is certainly not a taboo subject, and has been widely discussed across the press, particularly in recent campaigns. But a substantial proportion of the increase in its coverage appears to be fairly superficial in nature. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it may sometimes feel as if it is everywhere and nowhere at once. Unfortunate, too, is that it is often invoked, as in the aftermath of ‘bigot-gate’ in 2010, as something politicians may ‘win’ or ‘lose’ on and as such has seemingly become regularly incorporated into electoral process coverage rather than deliberative and substantive policy discussion. A recent example of this effect can be seen in the response to Labour’s ‘Controls on Immigration‘ mug, about which much of the discussion centred on various politicians and commentators condemning or distancing themselves from the mug, rather than any elaboration and critique on the pledge itself.
David Smith


Recent tweets

Contact us