Public opinion and the politics of immigration


See the Sunday Times for further coverage of this research.

The debate over immigration encapsulates all the stuff of politics: who we are as a country, how we see our economic prospects, our sense of entitlement and obligation, the purpose of public services and the broader welfare state. And while the subject is no longer taboo – if it ever was – it regularly proves to be explosive. Many feel that over the last fifteen years immigration has been allowed to happen on a scale we cannot cope with, and without public consent being sought or given.

Whatever people’s view of immigration itself, few think any recent government has had any real grasp of it, or that any of the parties does today. Most do not feel there is any strategy for dealing with the number of migrants, for their successful integration into British society, or for managing the effects on housing, infrastructure, jobs, the NHS, schools, or the benefits system.

In a poll of more than 20,000 people I found that six in ten thought immigration had produced more disadvantages than advantages for the country as a whole; only 17% thought the pros outweighed the cons. The biggest concerns were the idea of migrants claiming benefits or using public services without having contributed in return, and added pressure on schools and hospitals.

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On the positive side, the idea of migrants doing jobs that British people are not prepared to do, and being prepared to work harder for lower wages, were seen as the biggest advantages.

Not surprisingly, attitudes to immigration are far from uniform. My analysis revealed seven segments of opinion on the subject. At one end of the scale is the ‘Universal Hostility’ group, nine out of ten of whom name controlling immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain, with almost as many saying their area has changed for the worse because of it. At the other end are the ‘Militantly Multicultural’, dominated by graduates and professionals, and with a significant public sector contingent, most of whom believe immigrants have enhanced the life, culture and economy of Britain – and who are twice as likely as the population as a whole to have employed immigrants to do cleaning or building jobs at home.

Public opinion on immigration, then, is more varied, and certainly more nuanced, than is sometimes supposed. Those who take the most favourable view often regard opponents as backward-looking and fearful of change. Those who are most concerned think supporters of immigration are insulated from its more challenging consequences.

In the immigration debate, opinions are a good deal more abundant than facts – and many refuse to accept any kind of official statistic on the subject. Participants in my research who had a firm view on, say, the idea of welfare benefits being paid to migrants, would readily admit that they did not know what they were allowed to claim, or the numbers doing so, or whether they paid more in taxes overall than they cost in benefits and public services. (They would then cheerfully confess that if they were told the answer they would probably not believe it.)

One thing that unites people with different views about immigration is their conviction that politicians have handled it badly: whether because they are incompetent, or fail to listen, or afraid to be accused of racism, or too weak to set out the advantages of immigration in the face of public opposition.

The government’s ‘Go Home Or Face Arrest’ ad van provides an ideal case study. In my poll, 79% said they supported the scheme, including a majority of all parties’ voters, and less than a fifth thought the posters were racist. But only 17% thought the scheme would persuade illegal immigrants to leave the UK, and just 37% thought people who were in the UK illegally were likely to be arrested and deported. Instructively, UKIP voters were both the most likely to say they supported the initiative and the least likely to think it would work.

Only a minority of voters thought Britain would have a firmer policy on immigration under a Conservative government rather than a coalition – largely because they do not think the action on immigration promised by the Conservatives before the election has not come to pass – and that since the Tories seem to them to dominate the agenda, they cannot blame the Liberal Democrats.

Though the Tories point to a number of measures that have contributed to a fall in net immigration – which I found to be popular – most do not think they have been implemented. Three quarters supported an annual limit on migration from outside the EU, but only a third thought the government had imposed one. Seven in ten approved of a minimum earning threshold for anyone wanting to bring in a spouse or partner from outside Europe, but only a quarter thought this was in place.

People’s concerns about immigration are part of a bigger set of anxieties. They see the pace of change continuing and even accelerating, and they know Britain in twenty years will look different from the Britain of today, let alone that of twenty years ago. Some welcome that, many are ambivalent and others are scared. In the end, migration is inseparable from global economic conditions; governments appear as powerless to manage the first as to deal with the consequences of the second.