John Curtice: Conservative policies on immigration are popular - but they simply aren't enough

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Our poll will come as a big disappointment to Michael Howard. Rather than making progress, his party's vote is, if anything, in decline. The two-point drop in Tory support over the past week can only increase the criticism of the Conservative campaign.

Our poll will come as a big disappointment to Michael Howard. Rather than making progress, his party's vote is, if anything, in decline. The two-point drop in Tory support over the past week can only increase the criticism of the Conservative campaign.

One feature of that campaign is particularly controversial, the call for annual limits on the number of immigrants allowed into the country. It has been argued that Mr Howard's stance appeals only to core Tory voters. His allegedly mean and nasty approach to the subject is simply thought to be encouraging everybody else to vote against the Conservatives.

This view is badly mistaken. Mr Howard's policy has widespread popularity. No less than 63 per cent agree with the Tory stance that there should be strict annual limits to the number of immigrants. Only 21 per cent say they actually disagree and 16 per cent neither agree nor disagree.

Far from simply appealing most to the archetypal Tory voter, support is strongest amongst working-class C2 and DE voters, around three-quarters of whom are in favour. But even among the so-called chattering-class AB voters, a majority, 52 per cent, back Mr Howard's position.

Those opposed to limits on immigration are not particularly inclined to go to the polls. Just 64 per cent of them say they are certain to vote, little different from the equivalent figure of 63 per cent among supporters of limits.

But there do appear to be doubts about the manner in which Mr Howard is selling his policy. As many as 38 per cent agree that the Conservatives are using immigration as an excuse to raise the issue of race, slightly more than the 37 per cent who disagree. The policy may be popular but its presentation is apparently less widely admired.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. Perhaps there is genuine concern among some supporters of the policy about the racial overtones some have detected in Mr Howard's remarks. Or it could be a sceptical electorate doubts Mr Howard's motives in putting forward the policy although they support it. And, of course, it could be that many voters just still find it difficult to think anything but ill of the Conservative Party.

In any event, these are all potential barriers to immigration being a vote-winner. Indeed, their apparent power is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the apparent popularity of Mr Howard's policy and the present level of support for his party. That a majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters say they back the Conservatives' policy on immigration may be an indication of the policy's popularity but it also demonstrates its limited ability to change people's votes.

Not that the Conservative stance has not helped the party win some votes. Among those who say they did not vote Conservative in 2001 but who support limits on immigration and do not feel the Conservatives are exploiting the issue of race, about one in three says they are going to vote Conservative this time around. It is only a minority but it is far higher than the one in 20 or so who switched to the Conservatives despite being out of sympathy with the Conservatives' immigration campaign.

But immigration is also costing the Conservatives votes, among those 2001 Conservative supporters who do not like the party's campaign. And the party's losses among this group pretty much match the gains it has made among those who did not back the party four years ago.

Mr Howard's immigration campaign is simply neither helping nor hindering his party. His real problem is that he lacks any other popular tunes.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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