Immigration – the subject candidates chose not to talk about during UK Election 2015

Source: Knokton, Flickr

Source: Knokton, Flickr

The battle to set the agenda during the UK General Election 2015 was fought by all sides through social media and mainstream news outlets.  The way that battle played out and the influence of each media source on pulling public attention towards a particular issue is the basis of a new report by the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at the Policy Institute at King’s College London.  In this blog post, Dr Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, draws on the report to explore why the subject of immigration was largely ignored by the political parties when it came to social media.

Source: ukhomeoffice

Source: ukhomeoffice

‘[W]hen immigration is too high,’ the Home Secretary Theresa May told the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, ‘when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society’. There is no case, she went on, ‘in the national interest, for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade’.

Net migration to the UK has been high over the last decade. In August, we learnt that net long-term migration to the UK for the year ending March 2015, when May was also Home Secretary, was 330,000. This was, according to the Office of National Statistics, the highest net migration on record.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given this and other news, the public saw immigration as the most important issue facing Britain in September 2015. It was also seen as the most important issue facing Britain in seven of the previous eight months of 2015, including four of the five leading up to the May election.

Which makes it all the more strange that immigration was not one of the most discussed topics during the election campaign. Indeed for the national media during the election campaign immigration was not the first, second or third most covered topic – it was the fifth. This was one of the discoveries we made in our analysis of media coverage of the UK general election, published today – UK Election 2015: Setting the Agenda.

Setting the agendaOne reason immigration was not a major campaign issue was because parliamentary candidates for the two main parties did not much talk about it. In fact, based on what candidates published on social media, Conservative and Labour politicians hardly talked about immigration at all.

Our analysis found that 56% of tweets about political issues by Conservative candidates were about the economy, as compared to 3% of tweets which were about immigration. For Labour candidates the differences were similar – 45% of Labour candidates’ tweets were about the economy as against 3% about immigration.

Even when immigration became newsworthy the candidates of the two main parties virtually ignored it. On Thursday 16 April, Nigel Farage raised immigration frequently during the live Challengers’ Debate, including blaming immigration for pressure on housing. The following day The Sun published Katie Hopkins’ virulent column comparing migrants to cockroaches. Then that weekend we learnt that a migrant boat had capsized in the Mediterranean, killing hundreds. The disaster sparked debate about migration across Europe.

Although each event caused a storm on twitter, they did nothing to pull Conservative and Labour candidates into a debate on immigration. Over the fortnight from 13 April to 26 April Conservative candidates tweeted – in total – an average of 288 times a day about the economy, but only 14 times a day about immigration. Across the same period Labour candidates tweeted an average of 330 times a day about the economy, but only 16 times a day about immigration.

Source: Dannyman, Wikicommons

Source: Dannyman, Wikicommons

Prior to the 2010 election David Cameron published a ‘contract’ between the Conservative party and the people, promising – amongst other things – to ‘reduce net immigration to tens of thousands a year, instead of the hundreds of thousands a year we’ve seen under Labour’. If the party did not deliver on these promises, the contract said, then Cameron urged the public to “vote us out in five years’ time”.

Given the Coalition government had not been able to fulfill this policy promise, and given that more than 60% of Conservative supporters did not think the party was tough enough on immigration, it is not surprising that Conservative candidates were not raising the issue with voters. Indeed it may be that such an approach was party policy or campaign strategy. More surprising is that the mainstream media did not focus more attention on it.

Instead, as our study shows, mainstream media focused – like Conservative and Labour candidates – on the economy. Within this, the national media concentrated on Conservative policy announcements like inheritance tax, right-to-buy, rail fare freezes, spending commitments and tax pledges. Labour’s promise to tax non-domiciles briefly captured mainstream attention, though was soon bounced out by Michael Fallon’s claim that Ed Miliband was ‘willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister’.

Having secured a majority, Conservatives like Theresa May have started talking about immigration again. We shall never know if, had they talked more about it during the campaign, the result would have been different.

You can read the full report – UK Election: Setting the Agenda – at the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, in the Policy Institute, King’s College London.


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This blog by Policy Institute at King’s is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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