Student and alumni views

What's really driving UKIP support in Great Britain - practical worries or prejudice?

MPP student Max Callaghan shows that UKIP's popularity isn't just about pressure on public services.

By Max Callaghan

UKIP or their supporters are no longer widely dismissed as bigots. Instead, politicians and the media have started to treat the phenomenon of UKIP as a manifestation of the real concerns of people about, among other things, “the pressure immigration puts on public services”. The leader of the Labour Party went so far as to say that UKIP supporters’ migration concerns are ‘based on reality, not prejudice’. If this were the case, we would expect support for UKIP to be higher in areas where there were higher levels of immigration, as these would be the areas where immigrants were putting pressure on local services.

With the 2015 general election approaching, and UKIP claiming a lot of attention, results from the last general election were tested against this hypothesis. Two maps of English parliamentary constituencies were created, one (on the left) showing support for UKIP, and the other (on the right) showing the percentage of the population that was born outside the UK. Each constituency was coloured either white (representing 0) or purple (representing the maximum value) or somewhere in between on a linear scale from 0 to the maximum.

The data are drawn from the results of the general election in 2010 (pulled from the Guardian website) and the 2011 census (pulled from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford). They do not seem to support the idea that UKIP gained higher vote shares in areas that have the highest concentration of immigrants. If they did, the darker purple patches on the left would be mirrored by darker purple patches on the right. In fact, some of constituencies which showed the greatest support for UKIP, such as Buckingham, Staffordshire Moorlands, Boston and Skegness and Christchurch, have relatively low levels of immigration and appear in a lightish purple on the right map. On the other hand, some of the constituencies with the highest concentrations of foreign-born residents have very low levels of support for UKIP: if high immigration puts pressure on local services, turning disaffected voters towards UKIP, why would only 0.73% of voters in Brent North (where the concentration of foreign-born residents is highest at 59.27%) vote for UKIP?

Plotting votes for UKIP against foreign-born population in each constituency (above) we actually observe a moderate negative correlation between immigration and UKIP support. The 34 constituencies where UKIP did not field a candidate were excluded, though the average percentage of the population born in another country in these constituencies was 18.51, compared to 12.84 in England as a whole. Assuming that the decision to field a candidate was based on the perceived chance of success, this lends further support to the idea that UKIP are more successful in areas with lower levels of immigration.

It is hardly the first time that it has been pointed out that the rise of UKIP is not just about immigration. Nor is it the first time that the claim that immigration will ruin public services has been refuted. Services, after all, are paid for by taxes, and immigrants pay taxes and actually make a positive net contribution to the budget. But the fact that higher levels of immigration in a constituency actually make it less likely for those who live there to vote for UKIP shows centrist parties’ increasingly xenophobic rhetoric to be particularly disingenuous. These figures suggest that those living in areas with low levels immigration may actually be misinformed about the negative effects of higher immigration. Instead of countering misinformation, centrist politicians who play up to people’s fears about immigration are bringing xenophobia into the political mainstream.

More about the author

  • Max Callaghan is an MPP student of the class of 2016 at the Hertie School. He earned his Bachelors’ degree in English Literature in 2011 at the University of York, he is especially interested in data analysis and visualisation.

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