May 25, 2023 - 3:25pm

Immigration is back in the public conversation. Today’s announcement that Britain’s net migration has reached a record-setting 606,000 follows news of rising numbers arriving illegally across the channel. 

This will likely mark a return to something closer to the political climate prior to Brexit. Net migration rose rapidly under New Labour from its longstanding level in the tens of thousands to over 200,000 by 1999. The rise continued under David Cameron’s Tories. As net migration remained high, public concern rose concomitantly, powering the rise first of the BNP, then of UKIP, then of Brexit. In an August 2016 survey I conducted after the referendum, I found that nearly all Brexit voters wanted lower levels of immigration and that this was the most important priority for 40% of them, far ahead of any other issue.

Net migration declined after Brexit, from over 300,000 in 2016 to just over 200,000 in 2019 to under 100,000 during the pandemic. However, in 2021 it began to climb again, surpassing 200,000 in 2021 and over half a million the following year.

The fact this has continued without immigration returning to a dominant position in the political conversation has led some to surmise that the link between numbers and issue salience has been broken. Gratitude for foreign NHS workers and a focus on economic growth, alongside a perception of control, are said to have led to a more relaxed attitude to large-scale migration.

The idea that numbers are not an issue would be a departure from conventional wisdom, since research on restrictionist immigration attitudes and populist Right voting in Western countries shows that non-economic concerns related to numbers are a key driver of both. In a 2017 survey, I found that mentioning that higher migration levels would result in slightly faster ethnic change by 2060 shifted public attitudes 20-25 points toward favouring lower numbers, even if this meant a lower-skilled immigration flow.

On the other hand, public opinion does not perfectly reflect inflows. American immigration surged in the 1990s, but did not become a high priority issue for a decade. Competing issues and party priorities played a part in delaying the response. In Britain, wonks who follow the latest ONS release often forget that shifts in numbers are not immediately noticed by the median voter — especially since most locales do not experience rapid change. Brexit, the pandemic and cost of living crisis are rare events that have consumed a lot of political oxygen, overshadowing immigration.

But the issue has not gone away. Immigration’s salience has been rising to the point where it is a leading priority for 31% of voters and 54% of Conservatives (where it is nearly tied with the economy).

The more the public becomes aware of the migration trend, the worse things get for the Tories. To illustrate, I conducted a series of two small snap polls of mainly 2019 Tory voters on the Prolific survey platform. One was sent out on Monday and one today, where I showed respondents a BBC brief about the new net migration figures. 

Figure 1 (N=174 on Monday, 169 today).

Figure 1 compares the perception of 2019 Tory voters sampled on Monday and today. On Monday, a similar number of 2019 Tory voters thought immigration had declined or stayed the same (or were unsure) as those who thought it had “increased a lot”. Today, after reading the BBC announcement, the share saying it had risen a lot jumped to 57%, more than five times the 11% who said it had declined or stayed the same (the remainder being those saying it had risen a little).

Respondents were next asked who they intended to vote for in 2024. Prolific’s sample leans liberal, so half the Tory sample are Remainers. But when I restrict my sample to Leavers, in Figure 2, this shows that the proportion of Tory Leavers intending to vote for Rishi Sunak markedly drops, from 42% to 27%. Most of these voters go into the “Don’t Know/Won’t Vote” category, but Labour’s share rises from 12% to 19%. Reform UK’s support remains unchanged, at 8%.

Figure 2 (N=102 on Monday, 84 today).

Interestingly, support for Sunak among 2019 Tory Remainers rises after reading about the party’s liberal immigration policy, but not enough to make up for the decline among Tory Leavers. The announcement also did not increase Sunak’s vote among those who voted for other parties in 2019. 

Given the nature of the Tory coalition, which leans heavily toward Brexit, and the importance of the Red Wall for Sunak’s path to victory, the party would be wise to ignore the advice of those who say a liberal immigration policy is an election-winning strategy. If it acts soon to reduce numbers, it may be able to turn the ship around before more of its voters notice. If not, electoral doom awaits.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).