John Curtice: Policies reflect rising hostility to immigrants

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The Independent Online

Michael Howard's attempt to project immigration into the pre-election campaign is not surprising. Immigration has climbed the public agenda steadily for eight years. Before the 1997 election, just 2 or 3 per cent were telling Mori's pollsters that immigration and race relations were among the most important issues facing Britain. By 2001, the figure had risen to around 10 per cent. For the past year, it has regularly been between a quarter and a third.

Michael Howard's attempt to project immigration into the pre-election campaign is not surprising. Immigration has climbed the public agenda steadily for eight years. Before the 1997 election, just 2 or 3 per cent were telling Mori's pollsters that immigration and race relations were among the most important issues facing Britain. By 2001, the figure had risen to around 10 per cent. For the past year, it has regularly been between a quarter and a third.

Not since 1978 has concern about immigration been so high. Then, the National Front was enjoying some electoral success. Margaret Thatcher sympathised with those who feared being "swamped" by immigrants, and the following year appeared to win over some of that NF support. Now, with the British National Party winning votes, Mr Howard has calculated he should repeat his predecessor's tune.

Immigration is never popular. Even in the quieter mid-1990s, as many as two-thirds favoured cutting the number of immigrants. But as immigration has moved up the agenda, so have demands for a reduction. As many as three-quarters now want immigration cut, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.

Over the past decade, the proportion who believe that immigrants improve British society by bringing in new ideas and cultures has dropped by 20 percentage points. The proportion who think that immigrants cause crime has also sharply increased. Doubtless these sentiments reflect the widespread negative portrayal of asylum-seekers and Muslims.

Labour is not blind to this public mood. The Government has tried to make Britain a less attractive destination for asylum-seekers and to ensure that the applications it does get are processed more quickly. Yet Cabinet Office research shows that public dissatisfaction with asylum and immigration outstrips its discontent with the country's trains, let alone its hospitals.

Expect Mr Howard to continue to mine this discontent.

John Curtice is professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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