How Anti-Immigration Parties Affect Mainstream Parties’ Immigration Positions:
Divided Electorates, Left-Right Politics and the Pull towards Restrictionism
A study of the Netherlands, Flanders and the UK 1987-2010
The rise of anti-immigration parties across Western Europe has put tremendous pressure on mainstream parties to devise strategies to keep the upper hand in political competition. In Flanders, Vlaams Belang (VB) became the second largest Flemish party in the 2007 federal elections, and may have become the largest if CD&V and N-VA had not teamed up in a winning cartel. In the Netherlands, the party of Fortuyn, LPF, became the second largest party in the 2002 elections, while the party of Geert Wilders, PVV, emerged as the third largest party at the elections of 2010. In response, mainstream parties have frantically tried to redress this power balance, and dismiss the claims that they, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric goes, have ‘lost touch’ with the people. One of the central problems they face is how to handle the issue of immigration. According to anti-immigration parties, the political mainstream has been a ‘soft touch’ on immigration: the political elite has encouraged mass immigration, and has done nothing to address the people’s concerns about immigration and immigrants. In response, anti-immigration parties argue, their party has risen to voice these concerns, confront this discrepancy and pressure mainstream parties to reconsider these too liberal positions. The end-game is one in which mainstream parties are forced to move their immigration positions closer to those of the anti-immigration party in order to minimise electoral losses. That is, until the anti-immigrant threat diminishes, and mainstream parties reconsider their positions.
In my thesis I have tried to answer the question of how parties compete on the issue of immigration when faced with competition from an anti-immigration party, and why they compete the way they do. I test the hypothesis that the rise of an anti-immigration party alerts political parties to the neglect of public opinion on the immigration issue and will urge them to adapt their policy positions to address the anti-immigrant threat. This effect of the presence of an anti-immigration party on mainstream party positioning is labelled indirect impact. The hypothesis pre-supposes that parties have created a liberal cross-party consensus on immigration, which can be sustained since they are shielded, to an extent, from anti-immigrant pressures. I also try to explain why patterns of political competition on the immigration dimension occur the way they occur in different political settings and timeframes.
The main argument I put forward is that parties follow electoral incentives when positioning themselves on immigration, despite the normative debates the immigration issue is often shrouded in. Mainstream parties will depoliticise the immigration issue in the absence of an anti-immigration party, and they will co-opt restrictive policy positions on the immigration issue when faced with an anti-immigrant threat, as it is only rational for them to do so. But I also show that immigration as an issue causes trouble for mainstream parties, whether they choose to co-opt restrictive immigration positions or not. No matter what strategy they choose to address an anti-immigrant threat, they are destined to lose considerable shares of their electorate to the anti-immigration party (as well as to left-liberal parties) if immigration is an important election topic. Focusing on the cases of the Netherlands, Flanders and the UK in the time-period 1987-2010, and using a spatial two-dimensional model of political competition which combines analyses of the demand and the supply side of the political market, I show that parties ultimately respond to electoral pressure when choosing their immigration strategy, and that immigration tends to be a difficult issue for mainstream parties.
The thesis has three main findings.
1. Voters, especially of the left and centre, perceive their parties as having too liberal immigration positions compared to their own, causing a stable anti-immigrant gap to exist.
This gap is most pronounced for parties of the left and centre, though it can also be present for parties on the right, depending on the circumstances. It provides opportunities for an anti-immigration party to emerge strongly, especially in multi-party systems. The anti-immigrant gap tends to persist irrespective of parties’ short-term strategies to try to close it.
2. Successfully reacting to an anti-immigration party is a challenge, especially for traditional mainstream parties, as the demand side of the electoral market is characterised by conflicting incentives.
On the one hand, a correlation between the left-right and the immigration dimension at party system level creates a pull towards restrictionism, which is stronger for parties on the right. Voters on the right will want their parties to compete with more restrictive preferences than voters on the left. Such a set-up of voter preferences makes a liberal cross-party consensus on immigration unstable. On the other hand, the high divisiveness of the immigration issue at party level urges mainstream parties of left, centre and right equally to depoliticise (left-liberal parties and anti-immigration parties are the exceptions). Even though voters of the right on average prefer more restrictive preferences than voters on the left, the variance of voter opinion on immigration within party constituencies is so high that mainstream parties will likely prefer to avoid the issue altogether, in favour of competing on more traditional ‘left-right’ issues. No matter which position they take up, large parts of their electorate will remain dissatisfied.
3. Patterns of political competition reflect these demand-side incentives.
Parties tend to change their immigration strategy depending on the degree to which an anti-immigration party presents a threat. Parties, especially in multi-party systems, tend to compete with relatively liberal immigration positions in the absence of a credible anti-immigrant threat. Such a strategy can be explained as the result of high divisiveness of the immigration issue for mainstream parties. There is little for mainstream parties to win, and much to lose, by competing on the issue, so they may very well chose not to, if they have a choice. But once an anti-immigration party presents a credible threat parties abandon these positions and move their positions closer to those of the anti-immigration party while following a left-right logic. This change of strategy shows that parties, especially those of the right, do feel a pull towards restrictionism. The correlation between the left-right and the immigration dimension at party system level, together with the existence of an anti-immigrant gap, explains this pull.
Unfortunately for mainstream parties, a move towards more restrictive immigration positions is not necessarily a recipe for electoral success. Firstly, due to the divisiveness of the immigration issue for parties across the political spectrum, parties are likely to lose votes irrespective of the policy positions they take up, if immigration is a salient issue and an anti-immigration party is present. Secondly, voters are not convinced by parties’ change of immigration strategies. Their ideas of how parties position themselves are relatively fixed: parties of the left and centre are considered to be ‘too lenient’ by default, while parties of the right can get it ‘right’ according to voters, but that scenario becomes less likely when an anti-immigration party is present.
The party system strongly impacts the dynamics of indirect impact. In the Netherlands and Flanders, with their multi-party systems, mainstream parties are mainly reactive on the issue of immigration. They wait for an anti-immigration party to ‘make the first move’. In the UK, with its two-party system, mainstream parties never lose the initiative on immigration to an anti-immigration party: the Conservatives and Labour compete quite fiercely on immigration, on a highly selective set of issues, even in the absence of a credible threat from an anti-immigration party, and they do so mainly amongst themselves. The Conservatives mostly take the initiative in the immigration debate as they stand to win from such a move. The anti-immigration party remains an afterthought, for parties and voters alike.
Popular articles based on my research (in Dutch):
‘Populistische zigzag van de grote partijen’, published 5-5-2012 in NRC (pdf)
‘De zigzag van de middenpartijen, de kiezer gelooft het niet’, published 2-8-2012 in de Groene Amsterdammer (pdf)
Apart from my PhD, I have an MSc in European Politics and Policy from the London School of Economics (with Distinction/ cum laude) and an MA in Public Administration from Leiden University.