Page last updated at 20:35 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Is immigration an election issue?

By Ben Wright
Political correspondent, BBC News

Polish manual workers wait to be collected for work in London
The number of immigrants from Eastern Europe has fallen

The last figures to be published before the general election show the number of immigrants entering the UK from Central and Eastern Europe has continued to fall.

However, the number of people seeking British citizenship rose by almost a third, and the numbers admitted on student visas was up by 30%.

How strongly is immigration likely to play as a voter issue?

Immigration to Britain from Eastern Europe receded during the recession. But that is not how it feels in some of the places that have had the largest number of new arrivals.

The Millfield area of Peterborough has been a magnet for migrant workers, and in recent years they have travelled to the town in their thousands to work in the factories and fields.

The parade of shops on Lincoln Road is peppered with Polish and Spanish cafes, and agencies recruiting foreign workers to do jobs that involve picking, packing and plucking.

I don't think political parties understand it and I don't think they ever will
Brian Gascoyne, community worker

Some of the residents are very comfortable with their new neighbours; others have concerns about the impact on jobs and wages.

Peterborough council says there is a pressure on public services in the town because of immigration from Eastern Europe.

That view is echoed by Brian Gascoyne, who works for a community partnership in Millfield.

He said: "There are tremendous pressures in this area because of the saturation point we've reached.

"I don't think political parties understand it and I don't think they ever will."

'Nasty party'

Looking at some of the election literature from the main parties being circulated in Peterborough, it appears immigration hardly features as a voting issue.

The Tories certainly don't seem to be emphasising immigration as prominently in their campaign as they did in 2005.

Then, they asked voters: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"

That billboard campaign - featuring scribbled phrases such as "It's time to put a limit on immigration" and "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration" - shows no sign of being repeated.

There are opportunities for minor parties such as the BNP and UKIP
Jo Twyman, YouGov

In part, it is because the issue is at odds with their efforts to ditch the "nasty party" tag.

But the government's latest "citizenship survey" showed that 77% of people thought immigration should be cut.

Slightly more than half said it should be reduced "by a lot". So if the major parties aren't talking about it so prominently, does that help the minor ones?

Jo Twyman, from the polling organisation YouGov, said: "There are opportunities for minor parties such as the BNP and UKIP.

"It could be important in a marginal seat but it depends on the very specific make-up of that seat.

"If it's a seat that has suffered badly in the credit crunch then again that's something - that if it's linked in with immigration - that could be important."

Annual cap

Of course, the ebb and flow of immigration from Eastern Europe is out of ministers' hands, but a new points-based system has been introduced for non-EU workers.

After Thursday's immigration statistics from the Office of National Statistics were published, minister Phil Woolas trumpeted them as proof that the government's immigration policies were working.

And in a speech earlier this month, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said there was little difference between the main parties on the issue - an exception being the annual cap the Tories want to put on immigration from outside Europe.

But with the numbers of work visas and passports up, the Conservatives have again said immigration has spiralled out of control.

So while immigration is still a big issue for some voters, as arrivals from Eastern Europe decline, so might its political potency.

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