UK Conservatives fear electoral disaster over EU immigration figures

The Conservative Party, the largest party in the UK parliament and the senior partner in the UK's Coalition government, fears that the release of immigration figures could adversely affect its electoral prospects at the European elections to be held on May 22nd.

It has emerged that the next set of UK immigration figures will be published by the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) on 22nd May, the day of the elections to the European Parliament.

Conservative strategists fear that the figures will show a substantial rise in the net immigration figure and that this will cause many Conservative voters to vote for the anti-EU, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) instead.

Electoral nightmare

The polls already forecast a terrible result for the Conservatives. Latest polling predicts that the opposition Labour Party will win the election taking 30% of the vote. UKIP is forecast to come in second place with 27% and the Conservatives in third place with 22%. The Conservatives' partners in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats are predicted to garner only 10% of the vote.

One poll has predicted that UKIP may come first followed by Labour and then the Conservatives. This result would be even worse for the Conservatives.

But Conservative strategists believe that the immigration figures to be released on 22nd May will show a substantial rise because of immigration from within the EU, in particular from Romania and Bulgaria. This, they believe, is likely to anger traditional Conservative supporters and drive them either to stay at home or to switch their allegiance to UKIP

Transitional controls

Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 but their citizens were only allowed to travel to live and work in the UK without restriction from January 1st 2014 after 'transitional controls' which prevented them from coming here expired. (Before then, only certain groups such as those with skilled job offers, the self-employed and 'highly skilled migrants and agricultural workers were allowed to come).

This is a problem for the Conservatives because, when he was leader of the opposition in 2010, the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron promised, if elected at the 2010 general election, to reduce net immigration from the then level of over 250,000 a year to 'tens of thousands' a year by the next election in 2015. Tens of thousands has always been taken to mean less than 100,000.

Net immigration is calculated by calculating the number of migrants arriving in the country over any given period (immigrants) and subtracting the number of people who leave the country as migrants over the same period (emigrants)'. For the purpose of the net immigration figure a 'migrant' is anyone who intends to live in another country for twelve months or longer.

Coalition

The Conservatives did not win a majority in 2010 but were the largest party after the election. The Conservatives entered into a Coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats and Mr Cameron became Prime Minister.

His government has made many changes to try to cut the net immigration figure. It has had some initial successes but the figure has recently been rising again. Some immigration experts predict that the net figure will rise back to levels approaching 2010 levels by 2015.

Since 2010, the Coalition has

  • Abolished the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa which allowed foreign graduates to work in the UK for two years after graduation
  • Abolished the Tier 1 (General) visa which allowed 'highly skilled people (mainly graduates) to come to the UK and work for any employer. The Coalition claimed that at least 33% of those with Tier 1 (General) visas were working in low-skilled jobs.
  • Introduced a cap of 20,700 on the Tier 2 (General) visa for skilled workers. (The cap is never reached but UK immigration has made it harder to qualify for the visa)
  • Barred over 700 colleges from sponsoring foreign students for Tier 4 student visas
  • Prevented UK citizens who earn less than £18,600 a year from bringing their foreign born spouses to live with them in the UK

Net immigration rising

By last year, the net immigration figure had fallen by about 100,000 from the 2010 figure. In the year to September 2013, net immigration was calculated as 153,000. Unfortunately, the next set of data calculating net immigration in the year to December 2013 showed that this figure had risen again by 60,000 to 212,000.

Experts predict that the figures released in May, which will provide an estimate of net immigration in the year to March 2014, will show another substantial rise. This would be bad news for the Conservatives.

Firstly, it would show that the government is highly unlikely to keep the Prime Minister's promise, which seems to have been made off the cuff on a BBC politics programme, The Andrew Marr Show.

EU immigration

But secondly, experts predict that the rise in immigration will be made up of immigration from within the EU. UKIP says that the UK cannot control immigration while it is in the EU because all EU citizens can come and work in the UK because of the principle of freedom of movement of labour.

Recent figures show that UKIP is correct to say that the UK cannot cut immigration while EU workers can move to the UK to work.

The ONS figures show that the latest rise in net immigration was caused largely by an increase in the number of continental Europeans coming to live and work in the UK.

Immigration a key issue

This makes immigration a hot political issue in the EU elections. Pro-Europeans like the Liberal Democrats say that this is an advantage, or at least a price worth paying, for being in the EU. UKIP on the other hand, says that the UK must leave the EU to 'regain control of its borders'.

The difficulty for Mr Cameron is that many traditional supporters of the Conservatives agree with UKIP's analysis. Perhaps Mr Cameron is regretting ever making his 'tens of thousands' pledge.

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