Monday, 14 July 2014

Tougher, more restrictive...just right...for now? Changes in Conservative immigration policy, 1960-2010

Tim Bale and Rebecca Partos discuss the development of Conservative immirgation policies since the 1960s.

Why might political parties shift their position on immigration? To find out, we looked at the Conservative Party’s immigration policy over a half a century to explore the extent to which significant shifts in policy can be explained by the three most commonly cited drivers of party change derived from the framework developed by US political scientists Bob Harmel and Ken Janda: first, external shock (essentially, electoral defeat or loss of office); second, a change of leader; and, third, a change in the dominant faction (or coalition) that, to a greater or lesser extent, runs the party in question.[1] We concluded that they all made a difference – but that their impacts varied, and varied over time.  Here are the take-home messages from our findings published in the journal, Contemporary European Politics.

Things may now be changing with the rise of UKIP which, unlike the National Front or the British National Party, does pose a serious threat to the Conservative Party’s ability to win elections. Traditionally, however, tightening of Tory immigration policy tends to be driven more by the Party’s determination to maintain its edge over Labour than any desire to reach out to a more radically right-wing constituency via an even more restrictive policy, not least because taking things too far might lose the Party its core support among well-heeled (and increasingly well-educated) middle-class voters. Policy change between 1964 and 1966, for example, was partly the result of the Conservatives’ acknowledgement that Labour had, despite its criticisms of the restrictive 1962 Immigration Act when it was in opposition, retained the legislation when it entered government and even took steps to make it harder still for ‘coloured’ immigrants to enter the country. 

There is no sure-fire connection between the Tories losing an election and then hardening their line on immigration: electoral defeats are not always followed by significant policy change; in fact a narrow defeat may lead to a bigger shift and vice versa. That Tory policy became more restrictive after 1966 had less to do with Labour’s landslide win in the general election of that year and more to do with a) Labour’s sudden and breathtakingly restrictive response to the threat of a large scale influx of ‘coloured’ immigration prompted by Kenya’s decision to expel its Asian population and b) the need to bow to demands on the part of activists (and voters) for a harder line on the issue after Heath, much to their chagrin, sacked Enoch Powell for his infamous Rivers of Blood Speech in 1968.

Policy changes on immigration are sometimes driven by the Party responding to events, and then responding to the response to that response! In 1972 Uganda decided to throw out its Asian population, many of whom were entitled to British passports. Acting on legal advice, the Cabinet decided it had no choice but to allow some 25,000 of those affected to settle in Britain. The decision was regarded by many party activists as a clear breach of the Party’s manifesto commitments, and thus provoked resignations from constituency associations around the country. Just as it had done in the run-up to 1970, this pressure, combined with similarly inclined public opinion, helped ensure that, over time, policy was ratcheted yet another notch towards restriction.

Although a change of leader doesn’t always make a difference, it can have a real impact, not least when it comes to tone. By 1979, the Tories were promising more hard-line policy interventions than ever before. Their manifesto committed an incoming Tory administration not only to a new British Nationality Act that would define citizenship and right of residence but to a series of unusually specific and restrictive pledges across the board. Immigration did not play much of a role in either of the two general elections in 1974, but two Tory defeats did hand the leadership to a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who was far more in touch (and in sympathy) with party and public feeling on the immigration than her predecessor – and far more convinced that politicians had a duty to reflect it, both in reality and by ramping up the rhetoric.  In contrast, David Cameron, taking over in 2005 from three leaders who banged the drum on immigration and asylum, dialled down the rhetoric considerably. Yet by 2010, in response to massive anxiety about the Labour government presiding over a huge influx of migrants and only belatedly tightening the regime, the Conservatives had actually adopted an even more restrictive policy stance.

The findings of our study, then, fit nicely with Harmel and Janda’s (and their colleagues’) conclusion that electoral ‘shocks’ matter but that leaders matter most, while factional turnover is of lesser importance. We should note, however, that policy change need not be driven by a change of leader; it can equally well be driven by an existing leader changing his or her mind. There are many reasons why that might happen, but there are two which are especially important.

The first is what might fairly be termed force majeure – international crises or legal agreements and decisions that cannot be wished away: predictably, perhaps, such external events are more acutely felt in office than they are in opposition, which may well explain why at least some of the promises made when outside government have to be broken in it.  The second reason is the need to respond to party and public feeling, whether it be triggered by particular cases or by developing trends. In stressing the latter, our findings also support more recent cross-national research on parties’ policy changes – for example, those by Jim Adams and his collaborators – which strongly suggests that election results are much less likely than is widely assumed to trigger them than shifts in public opinion.[2] 

In essence, Conservatives believe that, by tightening the UK’s country’s migration regime, they will outbid and outperform their opponents electorally. But they are also fulfilling what they see as their democratic obligation to respond – ‘thermostatically’ to borrow a term from scholars like Chris Wlezien and Will Jennings – to voters’ insistence that government protect the nation’s borders and its culture, however porous and ill-defined they may be.[3]

Rebecca Partos is an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher in Politics at the University of Sussex. Her research examines the development of Conservative Party immigration policy with a focus on how periods in opposition and in government inform policy-making. She has had articles published in Comparative European Politics and The Political Quarterly.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He specialises in party politics and the politics of migration. He is the author of numerous articles, two books on the Conservative Party and European Politics: A Comparative Introduction (Palgrave, 2013).

[1] See Harmel, R. and Janda, K. (1994) An integrated theory of party goals and party change. Journal ofTheoretical Politics 63(3): 259–287; Harmel, R. and Tan, A. (2003) Party actors and party change: Does factional dominance matter? European Journal of Political Research 42(3): 409–424; Harmel, R., Heo, U., Tan, A. and Janda, K. (1995) Performance, leadership, factions and party change: An empirical analysis. West European Politics 18(1): 1–33; Janda, K., Harmel, R., Edens, C. and Goff, P. (1995) Changes in party identity: Evidence from party manifestos. Party Politics 1(2): 171–196.
[2] Adams, J., Clark, M., Ezrow, L. and Glasgow, G. (2004) Understanding change and stability in party ideologies: Do parties respond to public opinion or to past election results? British Journal of Political Science 34(4): 589–610.
[3] See Jennings, W. (2009) The Public thermostat, political responsiveness and error-correction: Border control and asylum in Britain, 1994-2007. British Journal of Political Science 39(4): 847–870 and Soroka, S.N. and Wlezien, C. (2009) Degrees of Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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