Should the Conservatives pitch for the ANTI-voters - and, if so, how? (Part One)
By Paul Goodman
Media stories move fast. A compelling piece of research, suitably presented to catch the attention of news editors, can be here today, gone tomorrow. There's a chance of this happening with James Bethell's paper on the five million ANTI-voters - or, as Tim prefers to call them, the pound-stretchers - which was covered recently on this site and in national newspapers. I've had the chance to find some time to read the document (some journalists will have only had the chance to skim it), and believe that it's worth asking: should the Conservatives make a special pitch for the ANTIs - and, if so, how?
- The ANTI-voters aren't a homogeneous group - largely because they consist of non-voters as well as voters. The five million figure is reached by adding together the total of those who voted UKIP or BNP at the last election (roughly one and a half million people), plus the "angry" section of those who didn't vote (the remaining three and a half million). From one point of view - that of trying to analyse people - considering these voters together as "angry voters" with similair concerns makes sense. From another - that of seeking to win votes - one must be open to the possibility that it may not. UKIP voters may tend to have different views to a BNP voter (though Bethell's research suggests this that this isn't usually the case). More importantly, non-voters may tend to have different attitudes than voters to voting at all. So to compare the ANTIs (who either vote for a fringe party or not at all) to, say, Essex Man (who crossed from one mainstream party to vote for another) is to draw a misleading parallel.
- There's no evidence that politicians' pledges will make people who don't vote more likely to vote. According to Bethell, 89 per cent of non-mainstream voters said they would be more likely to vote for a mainstream party that promised to be tougher on immigration; 85 per cent said they would more likely to vote for such a party if it promised to take back powers from Europe; and 81 per cent said they would be more likely to vote for such a party if it promised to crack down on crime. However, these findings are, of course, drawn from voters, not non-voters. Obviously, those eligible to vote don't divide into two neat groups - voters and non-voters - since they can drift, so to speak, in and out of voting, doing so in one election and not doing so in the next. None the less - and as Bethell points out - turnout in general elections since 1992 has fallen from the high 70s to the low to mid 60s. A large group of those eligible to vote aren't doing so.
- Most voters who are angry about immigration aren't driven by feelings about "race". Bethell is clear on this point. He writes: "While some wrongly ignore the fact that immigration levels are crucial in explaining the growth in the number of people voting for anti-immigration parties, some people also wrongly assume that people are concerned about immigration primarily because of fears and prejudice surrounding ethnicity or “race”. They argue, in other words, that people choose the BNP (and sometimes UKIP) because they are racist. This research shows that this analysis is wide of the mark." A key point to grasp about the ANTIS, voters and non-voters alike, is that they are, as Bethell puts it, "economically neglected...much of their pessimism about Britain [is] a feeling that they [do] not have much of an economic future". Most of their concern about immigration is driven by "the impact on their everyday lives": on their jobs and prospects of work, on housing, on pressure on schools and hospitals.
- To UKIP voters, immigration is more important than the EU - and they don't always link the two . Bethell writes: "Surprisingly, perhaps, immigration is a higher priority for UKIP voters even than the issue of Europe, which comes in third. This was reflected in the focus groups we conducted. When asked why they voted UKIP, all of the participants said because UKIP was opposed to immigration. They were interested in the issue of Europe but they did not volunteer this as a key factor in deciding their vote. One of the intriguing things from the focus groups, however, was the feeling that people are not necessarily voting for UKIP on immigration because they understand that free movement of labour across the EU leads to high levels of immigration. Many seem to vote UKIP simply because they think UKIP is opposed to immigration, which is a slightly different motivation. In other words, not everyone makes the intellectual leap that withdrawal from the EU would likely lead to a significant drop in immigration."