In Depth

Angela Rayner vs. Andrew Marr: what Britain thinks of immigration

Labour told it is ‘out of touch’ with voters on freedom of movement

The BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday accused Labour deputy leadership candidate Angela Rayner and her party of being “out of touch” with their voters when it comes to immigration.

The shadow education secretary and MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester appeared on The Andrew Marr Show calling for a fair and transparent system after Brexit.

Noting that Rayner had lost 5,000 constituency votes in the December election after Labour committed to maintaining and extending freedom of movement in the EU, Marr said: “It’s a painful, hard lesson for the Labour Party – but maybe you are out of touch with your own voters when it comes to immigration.”

So is he right?

Pre-election priorities

A YouGov poll in the lead-up to last year’s election found that voters’ priorities had changed since the previous general election in 2017. While Brexit and health were still seen as the two most important issues facing the country, immigration dropped from third place three years ago to sixth place last year. Among Labour voters, only 7% said immigration was a top priority in 2019.

Post-election analysis

Last week, Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft published an in-depth “Diagnosis of Defeat” for Labour, after polling more than 10,000 people and conducting 18 focus groups in former Labour seats in January. Of those who voted for Labour in 2017 but did not in 2019, 53% said they did not want Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister. The second-biggest reason for abandoning Labour, for 40%, was that voters did not believe the party could deliver on its promises. Another 37% said the party “no longer seems to represent people like me” and 30% turned away from the party because they “wanted to get Brexit done”.

There was some anecdotal evidence to support Marr’s claim in the focus-group feedback. Ashcroft said: “Though they were not clear on the policy detail, many also felt Labour had an unduly soft approach to immigration.”

Quotes from respondents included “It’s ‘come in, come in!’ Too much of an open-door policy” and “They seem to want to open the borders for everybody.”

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Future of immigration

Another poll of 1,015 people, carried out by Survation on Brexit Day last month, asked voters what they thought should happen to immigration once the UK leaves the EU. A decrease in immigration was backed by 50% of voters, while 38% said it should stay the same and only 12% said it should be increased.

However, Rayner insisted the feedback she had heard from her constituents was that “they didn’t think that we had a coherent policy on Brexit” and “they wanted a fair system on immigration”.

She added: “They didn’t say they wanted to end freedom of movement, they said they want a fair system.”

Rayner, who is standing against Rosena Allin-Khan, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and Ian Murray in the deputy leadership race, refused to say whether she would fight to maintain or extend freedom of movement if she won. However, she said: “I’ll be fighting to make sure we have a fair system that’s transparent, that recognises that our country has always had immigration and it’s always been a positive for this country.”

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