Immigration has emerged as the policy issue in British politics. Rebecca Partos examines how the Conservative Party's migration policy is made and finds that managing public expectations about numbers matters more than following the evidence.

In September 2010, the then Conservative immigration minister, Damian Green, proclaimed: ‘whatever your stance on immigration, if you are not basing policy on decent evidence you will be likely to fail.’ Quality data on migration in the UK is surprisingly scant. But leaving aside concerns over whether the evidence available is ‘decent’ enough to base policy on, it is certainly the case that evidence-based policymaking (EBP) has become the watchword in Western policymaking in recent decades.

In the UK, evidence-based policymaking – in which evidence ‘gleaned’ from research directs policy – is not a new concept. In fact, faith in the power of EBP is one of the few continuities in recent policymaking, with the current Conservative-led Coalition Government having inherited EBP from its Labour predecessor. Despite access to the same ‘evidence’, however, the two parties have proposed very different policies on migration. This is not wholly unexpected: evidence is evaluated and interpreted through a mesh of values, judgements and experience. Evidence, however it is defined, does not tell policymakers what exactly they should do. Instead, as we will see in the case of Conservative migration policy, expert knowledge is used to justify policies that are often based more on ideological conviction than a solid evidence base.

Public Concerns

Many politicians argue that they have a duty to represent public preferences. Sometimes, the public's preferences tidily coincide with their own, and their party's, inclinations. In January 2010, David Cameron pledged that the Conservatives, if elected, would bring net migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’, in part, through the introduction of an annual migration cap. The cap was popular with voters: a YouGovpoll found that in 43 Labour marginal seats, 44 per cent of voters were more likely to vote Conservative if Cameron backed a 50,000 limit on numbers of migrants. The Coalition, however, is approaching the end of its term in office, and net migration looks almost certain to miss the target of less than 100,000. Figures released in August revealed that net migration was 243,000 in the year to March 2014.

When it comes to policy, the direction of influence between politicians and their public can go both ways. The reporting and implementation of policies can lead to shifts in public opinion. A lack of evidential change is no obstacle to moulding public opinion. The prevailing public mood (especially if stirred by elements of the media) can be more critical than the evidence on the ground warrants. One example of this is the restrictions on foreign students’ right to work in the UK once their studies have been completed. This constraint was introduced in April 2011 despite fears that its implementation would damage economic interests. In September 2012, a hardening in public attitudes against international students was reported, despite – or perhaps because of – the government's increasingly heavy-handed stance. In a YouGovpoll, 70 per cent believed there should be a limit on the number of overseas students educated in the UK and the same percentage believed that students with poor English should be deported.

It is perhaps no surprise that policy that declares itself to be responsive to public opinion does not resemble evidence-based policy. In fact, under the Conservative-led government, counter-intuitive migration policies have abounded. 2012 began with fresh attempts by government to link the issue of economic immigration with state benefits and tax revenue. And yet, at the same time, a government-commissioned study estimated that foreign-born workers may be less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals. Nevertheless it was announced that, for the first time, the government would begin recording the nationalities of benefit claimants – to ensure that the UK did not attract ‘benefit tourists’.

Perceptions are Key

As immigration has increasingly been framed as a critical policy issue, the response has been a series of tough announcements and initiatives to seize the moment, or even drive the public mood. Summer 2012 saw immigration minister Damian Green marking the tabloid-friendly public opening of two new wings of an immigrant removal centre near Heathrow, with new facilities for holding some of the UK's most ‘difficult detainees’.

When saliency towards immigration issues is lower than usual, it takes time for policy development to settle down. In June 2010, Theresa May introduced a temporary cap on migrant numbers at a time when just 10 per cent of the public regarded ‘race relations/immigration/ migrants’ as the most significant issue facing the UK (see Ipsos MORI's Issues Index for ). Within days, new figures showed that skilled migrants from outside the EU had, in the first quarter of 2010, declined in numbers. The 15 per cent fall in applications was attributed to fears among would-be immigrants about the impact of recession on the UK. Regardless, the new government had taken a very visible stand that migration would be a major policy issue.

By early 2014, there was renewed public concern about immigration. This contributed to a big increase in the number of votes cast for the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the European elections in May 2014 and the subsequent defections of two Conservative MPs, one of whom cited the UK's inability to control who enters the country in the reason for his departure. With media reports pointing out that immigration is now a top-level concern of voters – and so legitimising extensive coverage and perpetuating anxieties – it is to be expected that the Conservatives will continue to place even greater focus on the issue. But there is a difficult balance to be struck even here. In March 2014, the then newly-appointed immigration minister, James Brokenshire, criticised the middle classes for employing cheap foreign workers. An exercise in textbook populism, perhaps, but one that ultimately severely embarrassed his boss, and several other ministers who were found to employ migrant workers.

Quick Responses, Not Long-Term Solutions

For policymakers with a keen eye on poll ratings, it is sensible to focus on measures that can be implemented quickly, easily and visibly. The suspension of London Metropolitan University's licence to sponsor visa applicants in August 2012 was an example of a government keen to be seen as coming down hard on immigration ‘abuse’. Little thought was given to the impact of the decision's timing (just weeks before the start of term). Some 2000 students had their visas cancelled. The Prime Minister publicly backed the ruling, stating that such a dramatic move was necessary to control immigration. Within months, London Metropolitan successfully appealed the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) decision.

A shift in emphasis by politicians and policymakers from policy details to implementation is part of the ‘what works’ evidence-based policy school of governing, in which policy is assessed by its delivery. In effect, the focus (and responsibilities) move from government to the agencies and private companies that have been contracted to deal with immigrants. In 2012, for example, UKBA awarded a £40 million, four-year-contract to locate illegal immigrants to Capita, a private sector company. The rationale here is that if the figures are not coming down, despite punitive measures, then there are failings at an institutional or technical level. The government, then, has done its ‘job’ to keep out immigrants, or perhaps more importantly, it looks like it has done so.

Perceptions of managing the issue matter more than the details of policy. Thus, technical errors and ineptitude within the border service have ensured that the government's asylum policy receives little attention. In November 2011, the Home Affairs Select Committee accused UKBA of having ‘lost’ a population of asylum seekers. Around 124,000 cases had been relegated to the ‘controlled archive’, a designation used to disguise UKBA's incompetence, according to MPs.

The evaluation of a policy by fairly rudimentary measures, such as whether net migration is below a certain numerical level, can often be an unsatisfactory way to judge policies. In her keynote speech to the Conservative Conference in October 2012, Theresa May referred to the ‘first significant falls in net migration since the 1990s.’ Unfortunately for her, the decline in numbers was not ‘significant’: the decrease from 252,000 to 216,000 when combined with a margin of error of 35,000 meant that this ‘fall’ was little better than a guess. It is even more difficult for voters to judge whether policy is working when the criteria for collecting data are changed. In April 2014, it was reported that May was considering amending the Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer) (Short Term) visa category which would remove some 20,000 from the net migration figures.


In light of the strong performance by UKIP in the European elections (and the success of similar parties across Europe more generally), it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservative-led coalition's immigration policy has been restrictive and at times hyperactive. Economic migrants are deterred through stricter regulations, and possess fewer rights to settlement and citizenship; international students must now hold higher educational qualifications and endure greater bureaucratic procedures; increased financial requirements for those who wish to bring a non-EU relative to the UK have reduced the number of British citizens and residents who can act as sponsors. The most recent piece of legislation, the 2014 Immigration Act, is explicitly intended to make the UK a more hostile environment for illegal immigrants. It is now more difficult for irregular migrants to open bank accounts, apply for a driving licence or rent privately. All this at a time when the existing rules are too complex for even an immigration minister to follow: Mark Harper resigned in February 2014 after it was discovered that his cleaner had no right to work in the UK.

Political motivations (the need to retain electoral popularity) rely on listening closely to public opinion – even if a coherent message cannot be distinguished from the public. Thus policymaking is susceptible to the winds of popular opinion, which is not used solely to direct policy change, but also to assess the results of policy change in a measurable way through polls and focus groups. Conscious of a time lag between implementation and awareness of change, policymakers consequently concentrate on actions which are bold, visible and straightforward to execute.

The Conservative Party is keen to vaunt the use of evidence as a basis for its immigration policy – despite the sometimes questionable quality of this evidence. In practice, however, it frequently fails to use this evidence, withholds it, and indeed, on occasion goes against it. In March 2014, a report on the impact of immigration was said to have been ‘withheld’ because it claimed that the negative economic impact of immigration was smaller than previously thought. Government sources initially said that the report was incomplete, but a day after the story became headline news, the report was promptly released.

Within the coalition government's migration policy, the impact of the two different parties has been evident. The Conservatives’ fingerprints are all over immigration policy, with their junior partners playing a secondary role (with the exception of Business Secretary Vince Cable). The real issue within government is the strong pressure from those on the right of the Conservative Party to go further and cut net migration more deeply with more drastic measures. A recent survey of 852 Conservative Party members found a clear preference among the grassroots for restrictive immigration policies (see graphic, opposite page).

High poll ratings for UKIP and the defections of prominent Conservative politicians and funders have made the situation more difficult for the blue half of the coalition. Following the February 2013 Eastleigh by-election, in which UKIP performed particularly well, veteran Tory Michael Fabricant called for a re-positioning of the party on key policies, or at the least, in the way that they are presented. The Conservative Vice-Chairman argued that the party should follow UKIP's example and announce policies that the public want to hear. With the general election of 2015 in the offing, the Conservatives are determined to show that they are the only ones who can ‘deal with’ immigration. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they will argue, ‘won't’, while UKIP ‘can't’. 

Once again, presentation is key. ‘Evidence’ – or at least, in the sense that politicians refer to it – is often used by parties only as a front to drive policy. Expert knowledge provides little to no instrumental function ‘except insofar as analyses of public opinion are used to adjust strategies of political mobilisation’ (Boswell 2012: 89). It is the perceptions of the opinions of the voting public, combined with the personal convictions of politicians and other policymakers, that influences the development of Conservative immigration policy in the current coalition government. Under the surface, government policymaking continues to be dominated by the concerns of the Conservative Party leadership and members and punctuated by reactions to ‘scandal-making’ in the popular media.

Conservative Party members’ support for policies aimed at curbing immigration to the UK.


  • Bale, T and Webb, P. (2013) Conservative Party Membership Survey.
  • Boswell, C. (2012) The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge: Immigration Policy and Social Research, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Ipsos MORI's Issues Index for 2010,
  1. With thanks to Tim Bale, Paul Webb and YouGov for permission to reproduce data from the Conservative Party Membership Survey 2013.

Rebecca Partos is an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher in Politics at the University of Sussex and Chair of the PSA Postgraduate Committee. She has had articles published in The Political Quarterly and Comparative European Politics.