Special Issue Introductory Chapter
Immigration into the Mainstream: Conflicting Ideological Streams,
Strategic Reasoning and Party Competition
Pontus Odmalm (University of Edinburgh)
Tim Bale (Queen Mary, University of London)
Immigration is one of the key issues of contestation in contemporary European
politics (Boswell, 2003). The populist radical right has mobilised around it, some
parts of the media are similarly obsessed with it, and many voters feel just as strongly
about it. Yet the extent to which immigration plays a part in electoral competition in
individual states varies considerably, especially when it comes to the use made of the
issue by those parties generally considered mainstream rather than extreme. In some
countries, the centre-right and the centre-left have made immigration central to their
electoral campaigns. In others, the issue registers temporarily on their electoral radar
screen, only to drop off it at subsequent elections (see e.g. Green-Pedersen and
Krogstrup, 2008; Pellikann et al, 2007; Cornelius et al, 1994; Thränhardt, 1995).
This variance constitutes a puzzle for the study of electoral politics. Studies
that try to explain it sometimes start with the supply side, namely the electoral
significance of anti-immigration parties (see e.g. Kitschelt and McGann, 1995; Betz,
1994, Mudde, 2004). The mainstream, the argument runs, shies away from
immigration, effectively creating a vacuum that the radical right rushes in to fill.
Immigration becomes an ‘issue’ as anti-immigration parties are able to capitalise on
those voters whose concerns about immigration are supposedly ignored by the parties
they traditionally support, leaving them with little alternative but the extremist or
radical option. In order to remedy this electoral ‘theft’, mainstream parties react by
sharpening their own stances, breaking taboos, and doing deals, either to exclude the
radical right from government or to give it a share of the spoils of office, possibly as a
full-blown coalition partner or else as some kind of support party. None of this,
however, can satisfactorily explain why immigration is picked up, and picked over, in
countries where the electoral and/or parliamentary presence of the radical right is, if
not absent, then far too small to present a serious threat – an important reminder that
mainstream parties (and not necessarily only those on the right) do not always need
prompting by ‘niche’ competitors in order to talk about or act upon the issue, often in
pretty populist terms (Alonso and da Fonseca, 2012; see also Bale, 2013 and
Conversely, a focus on the demand side - on voters - faces problems too.
Simply knowing what the electorate thinks about immigration does not allow us to
fully account for either the positions that parties adopt or for when the issue is (or is
not) emphasised by parties during electoral campaigns. Whatever spatial theory
(Downs, 1957) suggests, party positions on immigration are often uncoordinated with
the electorate’s views, not least because there is no guarantee of congruence between
elite and public priorities and because, owing perhaps to ‘issue diversity’ (Hobolt et
al, 2008) and ‘agenda friction’ (Schattschneider, 1960), parties can be slow to respond
to voter preferences – especially when the electoral situation they face does not
appear to be unduly critical (Adams et al, 2004; Budge, 1994). In any case, in an era
of valence (as opposed to position) politics, voters' ideological preferences may
matter less than their judgements about the ability of parties to deliver competently
(see e.g. Stokes, 1963; Riker, 1996; Green, 2007). In the immigration context, this
may well come down to their ability to limit the numbers coming into the country –
something that may not be wholly within the control of even the most resolute
government: as a recent study of a country whose governments frequently find it
difficult to live up to their promises to voters on this score notes, ‘restrictive reform is
constrained by international and European law, global economic trends and organised
interests’ (Ford et al., 2014).
The immigration ‘issue’ is of course ideologically loaded, but it can
nonetheless be understood as a valance question since mainstream parties, with some
exceptions, now seem to agree on the direction that policy should take, namely to
achieve both control and cultural and economic integration. That said, a party that
‘owns’ immigration (Odmalm, 2014; 2012; 2011, van der Brug, 2004; Petrocik, 1996)
is thus likely to emphasise the issue whereas a party that does not and/or performs
relatively worse will downplay or ignore it. Green and Hobolt (2008) identify a link
between issue ownership and how parties strive to raise the salience level of that
particular issue. However, these efforts primarily tend to pay off when they also
coincide with voters’ own perceptions of the importance of the issue, which are never
simply a function of party mobilisation (Belanger and Meguid, 2008). This raises the
possibility of a mismatch between party approaches and the electorate’s responses or
priorities. Why, then, do parties get this calculation ‘wrong’?
For one thing, political parties operate within a space that has at least two-
dimensional dimensions (Kriesi et al, 2006; Kitschelt and McGann, 1995). On the
one hand, there is a Left-Right axis referring to the appropriate level of state
involvement in the economy. As such, parties are classified along a spectrum ranging
from ‘socialist’ to ‘neo-liberal’ (Evans at al, 1996; Kriesi et al, 2006). This ‘old’
politics dimension concerned, among other issues, labour market regulation,
public/private ownership and level of taxation, and characterised a majority of the
West European democracies from the mid-20th century to the early 1970s. Divisions
between parties were often sharp with voter preferences mapping onto social class.
From the 1970s onwards, however, conflict regarding the state’s involvement in the
economy became less polarised and contestation, when present, tended to revolve
around, say, the scope of publicly provided welfare or the speed of privatisation
However, a ‘new’ source of conflict emerged which related to ‘post-material’
(Inglehart, 1997), or what Hooghe et al (2002) have labelled, GAL/TAN issues
(Green/Alternative/Libertarian - Traditional/Authoritarian/Nationalist), and which
concerned e.g. environmental protection, nationalism, personal freedoms, and
questions of ethnicity and culture.
As Hooghe et al. also note, attitudes towards further EU integration constitute
a particularly difficult issue for parties to assimilate into either an economic or a
socio-cultural (GAL/TAN) Left-Right dimension. Immigration gives rise to a similar
dilemma since it cuts across several, sometimes disparate, policy fields. It not only
has economic effects, whether ‘positive’ (e.g. meeting supply shortages or keeping
wage inflation low) or ‘negative’ (e.g. sparking labour market chauvinism, creating a
new, ‘ethnic’ underclass or removing the incentives for firms and governments to
train and educate the native-born working class), but also impacts on notions of
national identity, social cohesion, language, welfare provision, law and order,
terrorism and security, and cultural practices. This puts the political mainstream in a
continual quandary since these effects tap into prevailing ideological tensions that
exist within, and between, parties. The shift from uni- to multi-dimensional
contestation not only adds further complexity to party classification (Benoit and
Laver, 2007; Klingemann et al, 2006), but, rather more importantly, also means that
these tensions can crystallise thus subjecting parties to a set of conflicting ideological
‘pulls’ (Odmalm, 2011; 2014) on a whole series of issues. Most obviously, the right’s
traditional emphasis on ‘less state’ in the economy is counterpointed by a pull towards
‘more state’ influence on individual lifestyle choices and the preservation of national
identity, while the left’s traditional concern to limit the role of the market, through
extensive state action, provides a contrast with ideas of localised democracy,
international solidarity and increased personal freedom that arguably call for less state
influence. The introduction of a new, and increasingly non-economic, cleavage
allowed new parties to form and be (occasionally) successful – in particular Green
parties - and, as such, these ideological tensions have often been neutralised (Jahn,
1993; Müller-Rommel, 1989).
However, competing on the immigration ‘issue’ can trigger the (re)emergence
of these strains, prompting dilemmas of framing, positioning and campaigning for the
political mainstream. For the centre-right, immigration crystallises a tension between
market liberal and culturally conservative wings (see the various contributions to
Bale, 2008). The former, predominantly present in liberal and conservative parties,
often pushes for immigration policies to be liberalised and for the private sector to
have greater powers in deciding the appropriate levels of, especially, labour migration
(see Spehar et al., 2013). The latter, often present in Christian Democratic and
conservative parties, will be hesitant about handing over such a key area of
sovereignty to non-state actors, fearing the loss of control of national borders and
culture. Both wings also tend to experience conflicting attitudes towards asylum and
family reunification migration. Since the former category is usually legally prevented
from economic participation, and the latter’s entry into the labour market can be
delayed due to linguistic, cultural and/or educational reasons, it will make the benefits
of these types of migrants less obvious which in turn will make it difficult for market
liberals to justify why policies should be liberalised. While asylum migration, and
subsequent family reunification, may also bring individuals who emphasise the
family unit and traditional lifestyles, their perceptions of the ‘family’ and ‘traditional
lifestyles’ may run contrary to what the culturally conservative wing has in mind.
Further problems may arise if these ‘new’ values and lifestyles clash with particular
‘Western’ values that stress e.g. equality, especially between the sexes, or
Immigration poses just as many dilemmas for the centre-left (see Bale et al.,
2010 and 2012). For Social Democratic and reformed Left parties, limiting it can
easily be seen as vital in order to retain collective power and good terms and
conditions in the labour market (see Hinnfors et al. 2011). Giving up the right to
decide on entry would run the risk of undermining the collectively bargained
agreements and allow wages to be undercut. And in the long run, ‘uncontrolled’
immigration could potentially create not new recruits to the cause (Ireland, 2004;
Breunig and Luedtke, 2008, see also Messina, 2007) but rather a new – ethnic -
underclass and accordingly, split the indigenous working class (Givens and Luedtke,
2004). At the same time, the centre-left has been influenced by ‘new’ post-material
ideas. Green and reformed Left parties often view immigration as a fundamental
human right and taking on workers and, especially, refugees would thus be an
important aspect of showing one’s credentials of international solidarity (Jahn, 1993;
These tensions will have an affect on party behaviour and competition.
Adopting a position that links immigration with international solidarity or the free
market, or with labour market protectionism or value-conservatism is associated with
particular risks and emphasising either position will have important electoral and
organisational implications. If parties get the emphasis wrong, it may alienate their
natural voters and jeopardise governing potential. As such, the immigration ‘issue’
can cause ideological splits and intra-party fragmentation, which further hinders the
chances of winning elections. Little wonder, then, that it often makes strategic sense
to downplay or ignore immigration as an electoral priority. Yet parties have to be
sensitive to shifts in public opinion and if immigration moves up the agenda, they
must respond to voters’ concerns. On the other hand, emphasising the issue too much
gives the populist radical right unwanted attention and may further destabilise the
political arena. Parties must therefore perform a difficult balancing act. They must
engage with the immigration ‘issue’ in a way that avoids highlighting these tensions,
thereby shifting the electoral focus away from parties’ key areas of policy strength
and electoral priorities. At the same time, they have somehow to improve their
capacity to handle a matter of acute public concern while not opening themselves up
to criticism, which, in turn, gives the populist radical right unwarranted attention.
In the light of all this, we ask the contributors to this special issue to address
when, why, and how do mainstream parties decide whether or not to emphasise
immigration during their election campaigns? Of particular concern has been to
evaluate the explanatory potential of two competing frameworks.
On the one hand, there is a more structurally orientated approach which
addresses the extent to which parties react to a set of immigration ‘shocks’, and then
assesses the importance of these for the type of party responses, (re)positioning and
electoral strategies pursued (Norris, 1995; van Spanje, 2010; Mudde, 2004, see also
Rabinowitz and MacDonald, 1989; Kitschelt and McGann, 1995; Betz, 1994). These
shocks are not just limited to the emergence, and subsequent electoral success, of the
populist radical right but are also contingent upon an additional set of indigenous and
exogenous factors. These include, but are not limited to the following: increased
immigration and asylum pressures; the perceived economic and/or cultural ‘cost’ of
immigration/integration and changing levels of media and public attention paid to the
immigration ‘issue’. None of these factors exist independently of each other and more
often than not they will create a feedback loop in the political discourse. But
immigration will impact on countries in different ways and responses have
subsequently tended to vary. Parties therefore tend to behave selectively and may
emphasise particular aspect(s) of the immigration ‘issue’ in their campaigns.
Additionally, certain events, such as increased terrorist activities or threats, often
manage to cut across the immigration/integration divide. It would thus seem
reasonable to assume that the above factors lead parties to respond by sharpening
their stances on the immigration ‘issue’. That is, one might anticipate finding a degree
of fit between immigration developing in a ‘negative’ direction and parties taking up
more restrictive positions and discourses.
There is, however, a second approach. The first assumes that there is a stimulus-
response relationship between immigration ‘shocks’ and restrictive repositioning. This
does not attribute parties much agency or agenda-setting power. It also leaves us wonder-
ing how it is, if parties’ responses to the presence of populist radical right challengers or
various immigration and integration pressures really are so automatic, they often ‘fail’
to campaign on, or emphasise, a restrictive agenda.
The special issue, then, will also consider how much agency parties exercise
and how much leeway they actually have or give themselves (van der Brug, 2004; Petro-
cik, 1996). While migratory pressures and populist radical right challenges are obviously
still relevant in explaining party actions, contributors also consider parties’ ability to
handle the conflicting ideological strains described above. Since immigration has been
described as being an important contributor to the transformation of established cleavages
(Kriesi et al, 2006; 2008) as well as an issue associated with the demise of ideology (La-
hav, 1997), parties are likely to find it difficult to come up with a new ‘master frame’ (Ry-
dgren, 2005) around the issue while simultaneously experiencing intra-organisational
strains due to competing factions and issue orientations. If they cannot successfully nego-
tiate, and manage, these opposing ‘pulls’, parties might therefore try to divert attention to
issues on which they are particularly trusted . This focus will thus allow us to examine
and explain instances where parties do not behave as expected.
Based on these conditions and what the literature suggests about party
behaviour, we propose the following three hypotheses:
H1: Mainstream parties will emphasise their ability to deal with the immigration
‘issue’ if there is significant inter-party agreement over the direction of
immigration/integration policies. Where there is no such agreement, they will not do
H2: Mainstream parties will downplay/ignore the immigration ‘issue’ if voters’ trust
in them on the issue is lower than it is for the other party/other parties.
H3: Mainstream parties will divert attention toward areas of greater competence if
they are unable to resolve any ideological tensions stemming from the immigration
Some of the cases included in this special issue (namely, Belgium; Germany; the
Netherlands and Sweden) would feature in any line of ‘the usual suspects’ when it
comes to studying the politics of immigration in Western Europe. However, we have
also included cases that are covered less frequently (namely, Italy, Greece and Spain).
All our countries not only have a sizable migrant and/or ethnic minority population
but they have also, with the partial exception of the latter three, received substantial
attention in the literature (see e.g. Boswell, 2006; Castles and Miller. 2003; Hammar,
2006; Messina, 2007). The cases are of further interest since they also offer a high
degree of variation in terms of the sources of newcomers, approaches to integration,
and the degree of contestation that the immigration ‘issue’ endures during elections.
Belgium and the Netherlands form a ‘post-colonial’ pairing which is
juxtaposed by Sweden, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain which, conversely, have
had higher numbers of asylum seekers and, especially for the latter three,
undocumented migrants. Similarly, the countries differ in terms of their conceptions
of citizenship (Bauböck et al, 2006) and in their approaches to migrant integration
(Koopmans et al 2006; Koopmans and Statham, 2000). Finally, the way that the
immigration ‘issue’ has appeared on parties’ electoral radar screens shows ample
variation but also some crucial similarities. While the Dutch parties have come to
adopt an increasingly confrontational approach, immigration has rarely been a source
of contestation in Sweden, even though both countries share similar institutional
surroundings and (traditionally anyway) similar approaches to integration. On the
other hand, Germany and Sweden display some surprising similarities in the way that
the immigration ‘issue’ has played out in electoral politics even though these cases
have very different institutional conditions and ways of dealing with immigration and
integration. Some of the cases have also experienced the sudden rise of populist
radical right challengers but this rise has prompted markedly different mainstream
party responses. Although some of the Swedish parties have hinted at a more
restrictive line on immigration, they have not abandoned key stances on asylum, anti-
discrimination and cultural differences which, in contrast, have been modified and in
some cases completely abandoned in the Netherlands. In addition, the Swedish parties
have showed few signs of trying to accommodate the populist radical right or
incorporating its issue positions.
Italy and Belgium are, in comparison, the odd cases out. In the former, there
are difficulties involved in identifying ‘the mainstream’, especially if the mainstream
parties are defined according to ideological distance and electoral success. Such a
definition would place the populist radical right very much at the heart of the Italian
centre-right family thus blurring the distinction between ‘mainstream’ and
‘radical’/‘extremist’ parties. In the latter, Belgium provides an anomaly in terms of
immigration’s level of contestation. While a majority of the countries covered in this
issue exhibit some degree of polarisation between parties that want to pursue a more
liberal vs. a more restrictive approach, the Belgian parties have tended to find
consensus around a ‘doctrine of zero-immigration’ (Martiniello, 2003:225) where the
main emphasis has been to reduce, prevent and reverse migration flows as much as
possible. Greece, on the other hand, provides an extreme example of the state of ‘flux’
(Mair, 1989) that West European party systems are in politically as well
In order to test the relevance of the special issue’s thesis regarding ‘conflicting
ideological pulls’, the case selection includes countries with varying degrees of public
opposition to immigration, ranging from Greece (strongest) through the Netherlands,
Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy and (lowest) Sweden (Sides and Citrin, 2007). We
have also included countries where the populist radical right has a parliamentary
presence (Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy) and where it does not
(Germany and Spain). The countries will thus shed light on the extent to which
immigration, as a party-politically relevant issue, is dependent on, or largely
independent of, these externalities. While we anticipate that the above conditions will
have some effect on immigration’s level of politicisation, our main emphasis is placed
on parties’ abilities to handle and negotiate these ideological ‘pulls’ and issue
priorities. As such, we argue that it is the dynamics of party competition that is the
key explanatory factor for when and why immigration becomes an electoral issue.
Accordingly, we ask contributors to focus on both the centre-right and the centre-left.
Despite the common wisdom that preferences can be read along a left (pro) – right
(anti) continuum, the extent to which immigration policies became more or less
restrictive, or integration policies more or less demanding, does not always map onto
parties’ ideological affiliations. That is, the centre-left is just as likely as the centre-
right to introduce changes regarding immigration controls, citizenship policies or
access to welfare benefits (Hinnfors et al, 2011).
Finally, when analysing their respective cases, we ask our contributors to address the
1) How divided are parties over the direction of immigration and/or integration
2) Are some parties more trusted than others on the immigration ‘issue’? If so,
how have these differences played out in party competition?
3) Has the immigration ‘issue’ brought the ideological tensions to the fore? If so,
how have the mainstream parties handled these strains?
What, then, do our cases, beginning with Germany, tell us? For the German parties,
agreeing on the general direction of policy has seen an increased emphasis on
competence yet this has often been reluctantly, rather than enthusiastically, pursued.
As Schmidtke’s contribution suggests, this hesitation is linked to multiple
uncertainties: first, there is concern that competition over ownership may result in an
unwelcome opening for the populist radical right; second, centre-left and centre-right
parties have struggled to agree on what type of issue the immigration ‘issue’
constituted in the first place; and thirdly, there is doubt and debate within parties as to
which segment of voters to pursue – in the case of the centre-left, for instance, should
it be the ‘new’ ethnic or the ‘old’ working-class vote? The centre-right has perhaps
fared better by merging the immigration ‘issue’ with policy areas associated with high
levels of public trust.
The conflicting ideological ‘pulls’ have also been present in the Swedish case.
But, as Widfeldt points out, these tensions have rarely translated into any overt
electoral conflict but have instead remained under the surface. The centre-left, at least
as a bloc, has been more prone to such strains given the clear tension on labour and
asylum migration between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ left parties, whereas the centre-right
has managed to steer the political conversation towards labour migration thereby
avoiding any potential disunity arising from the more ideologically ambiguous
In the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Flanders as well, all bets appear to
be off. Super notes that, regardless of whether issue positions converge or diverge, or
the extent of ‘pull’ that parties experience, the mainstream has increasingly opted for
an ownership approach. Yet this has also been coupled with a more cautious
‘Goldilocks’ tactic that attempts to straddle the ‘liberal’/’restrictionist’ divide without
drawing too much attention to precise policy positions.
The Mediterranean cases provide an illuminating contrast but also a number of
similarities. Karamanidou, for example, highlights how ideological strains, and the
overall directional consensus, have indeed come to affect the strategies of the Greek
mainstream and how these factors have quite clearly pushed parties towards an
ownership-style mode of competition. At the same time, however, the sudden rise of
Golden Dawn has accentuated these efforts rather than prompted parties to respond
with a dismissive approach or to divert attention elsewhere. And in Spain, Morales et
al find that mainstream parties converging around largely restrictive positions has not
necessarily translated into more claims of issue ownership on their part. Rather
counterintuitively in fact, the attention paid to, and the degrees of ownership
competition over, the immigration ‘issue’ appears to be out of sync: parties that
exhibit relatively low levels of trust on immigration emphasise it just as much as
parties that enjoy higher levels of trust. The Spanish case also suggests a greater role
for ideology in the political discourse around immigration but, somewhat surprising
perhaps, fewer internal strains than are evident in other countries. Parties instead tend
to stick to their long-standing positions despite political conditions which might have
been expected to prompt positional, tactical and saliency shifts. This is possibly
because of the novelty that the immigration ‘issue’ presents and how the Spanish
parties have yet to agree on an appropriate frame and problem formulation of the
‘issue’. This leaves the rather paradoxical case of Italy. Massetti finds that intra-party
and inter-coalition dynamics have effectively trumped any hesitation that an
ostensibly conservative party like Forza Italia might have been expected to display
when dealing with a radical right coalition partner like the Lega Nord. And, whereas
the centre-left in other countries often struggles to accommodate labour market
protectionism with a focus on international solidarity, the Italian equivalent has been
remarkably unaffected by this particular conflict due to the two-tier structure of the
labour market. All this has come to neutralise any destabilising tension between
different party wings and factions.
Where, then, does this leave party competition on one of the most
ideologically loaded policy areas in Western Europe? The overall picture suggests
that parties are cautious creatures who tend to stick with ownership rather than
striking out and offering choices, regardless of whether those choices involve
liberalising or restricting entry regulations or involve pushing for more or less
demanding modes of integration. One explanation for their seemingly natural caution
(some might call it inertia) is that the choices they might consider may very well see
them straying into or even stranded on the territory of their more radical competitors,
be they radical right-wing populists or left-liberals or invite criticism for not being
So how do our hypotheses stand up in the light of the contributions to this
special issue? First, the immigration ‘issue’ does indeed appear to give rise to a
directional consensus and, as such, is better placed in the realm of valance rather than
positional competition (H1). Yet what the contributions also highlight is that parties
often disagree about what type of ‘issue’ immigration constitutes, particularly if there
is an internal party struggle over dimensional fit and societal impact. And while,
secondly, it does indeed seem as if trust and competence are important for whether or
not parties choose to campaign on immigration (H2) -related questions, a more
pertinent query is, perhaps, the extent to which parties are able to merge their stances
on immigration with issues where they enjoy higher competence ratings (H2).
Thirdly, the immigration ‘issue’ has also more obviously crystallised internal
ideological tensions the further North one looks, whereas in the South a much more
complex relationship between ideology, the inter-party dynamics and immigration
Overall, then, we find stronger evidence for the first and second than for the
last of our three hypotheses. This is in itself interesting. It raises a number of
questions about the state of flux that party systems are said to be in but also about the
shift that is taking place in the role of political parties. More ideological tension
would suggest that ideas and visions continue to be important in contemporary
European politics but the turn – or perhaps reversion - towards ownership competition
is not so much a sign of ideology’s death as an indication of its continued importance.
Since a majority of the parties covered here have struggled to accommodate their
‘issue’ position with their ‘ideological’ orientation, the shift towards emphasising and
evidencing competence is a convenient (and safe) way to bypass these ideological
tensions. Our case selection, and the subsequent findings do, in a sense, suggest that
something more is going on here than merely the demise of ideology and parties
responding (either pro- or reactively) to various external ‘shocks’. The processes
internal to parties themselves appear to be just as important for understanding why
the political mainstream tends to not make a big deal out of the immigration ‘issue’.
The analytical framework we propose and the questions we ask thus invite further
comparisons to be made.
Research support under the Economic and Social Research Council’s First Grant Scheme
(RES-061-25–0195) is gratefully acknowledged. The guest editors would also like to
thank the article referees, and the anonymous reviewer of the special issue for
additional comments and suggestions.
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