by Eric Kaufmann
Thursday, 24
November 2022
Chart
13:15

No, the public has not warmed to immigration

A new paper argues that both parties should champion migration
by Eric Kaufmann
Credit: Getty

Fresh off the back of today’s news that UK net migration rose to an eye-popping record 504,000 in the past year, there are some who are making the argument that Britain’s main parties should pivot to championing a pro-immigration stance to win votes. According to a new report entitled ‘A new consensus? How public opinion has warmed to immigration,’ public opinion has drifted in favour of immigration over the past years.

Drawing on the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA)/Ipsos-Mori Tracker, they show that the proportion of Britons who think immigration levels should stay the same or increase has risen from about 22% in 2013 to 54% in 2022, on a steadily rising trajectory. In the British Election Study (BES), the share who say immigrants have made a positive contribution to the economy and the culture of Britain has risen from under 35% in 2014 to over 50% today.

The conclusion: Keir Starmer should pipe down about British workers and Rishi Sunak should trumpet a generous immigration intake based on ‘rules-based openness’ to capitalise on the newly compassionate public mood.

The analysis has much to recommend it. It is based on an analysis of established surveys of large numbers of people over time, and it correctly captures the fact that immigration attitudes have liberalised since the mid-2010s. A streamlining of immigration bureaucracy and reduction of high processing fees is warranted.

However, the report has a number of critical problems of which Starmer and Sunak should be wary before forging ahead with a high migration message.

First, the BSA/Ipsos-Mori data which shows a surge in the share of Britons who want immigration to remain at the same level or increase seems to be an optimistic outlier. For instance, where BSA/Ipsos-Mori shows a steady rise in the share of Brits who want present or higher levels of migration rising from little more than 20% in 2013 to 40% in 2019 and reaching 54% in 2022, YouGov’s immigration opinion tracker begs to differ: only 33% of Britons say that immigration levels in the past decade are at the right level or should increase, with over 50% responding that immigration has been ‘too high’. In addition, the desire for reduction is more stable than in the IPPR numbers, declining by fewer than 10 points since 2019.

 

A second point is that opinion has hardened noticeably with more coverage of the record number of migrant channel crossings. While the authors acknowledge that their most recent numbers stem from September 2019, these are clearly out of date given recent events. YouGov data shows a 6-point uptick between September and November of this year. As of 7 November, both More in Common (56%) and YouGov (59%) show that most British voters want less immigration. Among Tory voters, these figures are a whopping 77% and 87%, respectively.

Third, the IPPR floating voter analysis neglects the fact that salience — where voters rank different issues — is not symmetrically linked to vote switching among pro-immigration and anti-immigration voters. In a just-released academic paper in Electoral Studies, Matt Goodwin, Erik Larsen and I show that in Germany, America and Britain, anti-immigration Left party voters are considerably more likely to switch to a Right-leaning party like the Tories or Republicans than pro-immigration Right party voters are to switch to a Left party like Labour. Similar results have been reported in another recent article.

On balance, pro-immigration Tories tend to prioritise economic or other issues and are more reluctant to move to Labour than anti-immigration Labour voters are to switch to the Tories. In 2019 BES data, for example, immigration is a priority issue for only 18% of pro-immigration survey respondents compared to 43% among restrictionists.

While the authors, based on Ipsos data, rightly show a decline in immigration salience to 10%, down from a peak of 45% prior to Brexit, this has recently reversed, with YouGov’s latest figures showing 33% of voters ranking immigration a top issue. Moreover, immigration salience tends to rise, as the authors acknowledge, when the economy is a less prominent topic. Looking ahead, any lifting of the current crisis is likely to open more room for immigration to re-emerge as an even greater concern.

In short, however much it would please the Guardian or Financial Times, the Tories would be insane to adopt a pro-immigration strategy. Starmer would be hard-pressed to inspire less confidence on immigration than the Tories, but should his party come to be identified as the party of mass migration, this is likely to exact a significant electoral price, even if it fails to sink him in the next election.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
27 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
D Glover
D Glover
10 days ago

Net immigration of 504,00 in one year.
This implies a huge number of new houses, which will make the property developers very happy. Where will they be built? If you build on farmland you can forget all about food security, because more people need more food and you’ll be growing less.
How will these houses be bought? We have exceptionally high house prices in this country. I suppose some Hong Kongers are wealthy enough to buy, but for most of the new people it will have to be social housing. So we’re going to cover hectare after green hectare in new council houses. Forget wildlife and re-wilding, amenity and self-sufficiency.
Who voted for this? Not long ago David Cameron was talking about reducing immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ and the voters lapped it up. When did we express the opposite desire?

R Wright
R Wright
10 days ago

“According to a new report entitled ‘A new consensus? How public opinion has warmed to immigration,’ public opinion has drifted in favour of immigration over the past years.”
I didn’t bother reading it when I saw it was from the IPPR, a famously left wing think tank. The increase of favourability towards immigration has, quite coincidentally, increased in line with the number of immigrants in England.

Clara B
Clara B
7 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Even immigrants say that immigration is too high. That’s my experience anyway (and plenty of BME Britons move away from diverse areas once they are able to do so). I know Brexit wasn’t all about immigration, but about one in three BME Britons voted for it; for some of those, their pro-Brexit sentiments were motivated by a desire to reduce immigration (I’ve met several black Britons who seem especially annoyed at the influx of Poles).

Last edited 7 days ago by Clara B
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
7 days ago
Reply to  Clara B

People are terrified of being thought ‘racist’ . That probably explains the pole results , rather than any genuine enthusiasm for immigration

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 days ago

I don’t know whether the poll asked the participants to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. I do believe that many, even most, Britons are prepared to accept legal immigrants in areas where more labour is needed. However, I find it difficult to believe that they are prepared to put up with hundreds of thousands of people who come uninvited with few skills to offer the community.

Mark Kerridge
Mark Kerridge
9 days ago

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the primary motivation for more immigration is because we need more labour ( although with an aging population we most likely do need some more young workers / consumers). The primary motivation is for cheap labour..

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 days ago
Reply to  Mark Kerridge

Exactly right, hence why the CBI is among the voices calling for more immigration.

chris Barton
chris Barton
10 days ago

What will it take for people to dump the Tory and Labour parties?

D Glover
D Glover
10 days ago
Reply to  chris Barton

It needs two things;
A sensible alternative to vote for.
A change from the FPTP voting system. If disgruntled Tory voters switch to Reform (for example) that just bleeds enough votes from the Tories to help Labour win. Remember UKIP. In 2015 they got 12.6% of the vote, and one seat.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
9 days ago
Reply to  D Glover

The important point you make is – A sensible alternative to vote for. Most smaller parties are far from sensible – SDP, perhaps,but there are no others that I would dream of voting for.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 days ago

“According to a new report entitled ‘A new consensus? How public opinion has warmed to immigration,’ public opinion has drifted in favour of immigration over the past years.”
That is just an out right lie.
over the past years public opinion has drifted in favour of [paedophilia, Asian rape gangs, anti-white discrimination -take you pick]

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 days ago

The central problem is that the people who profit from immigration are not the ones who pay for it – with over-crowded schools and hospitals and diminished access to affordable housing. Of course the middle class are going to want more of it – what’s not to like when it’s pushing up house prices and pushing down wages?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I think the middle classes are the ones now starting to pay the price for it

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
8 days ago

but will that impress the neighbours?

Clara B
Clara B
7 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I’m not even sure anymore that the middle classes are motivated by those considerations. I think they just want to sound good in front of their mates (and ‘dissing’ the UK, reminding us all how racist we are and extolling the benefits of migration and migrants go hand-in-hand). Of course, if in the process of sounding good, they happen to materially benefit, then it’s win-win.

Patrick Ruark
Patrick Ruark
9 days ago

Why an article on the political ramifications rather than an article on whether increasing immigration is the right thing to do? I’m wondering if people on the UK’s side of the pond are as tired of political “meta-analysis” (as opposed to actual examination of the issues) as those on the US side. I was hoping to find something in here about the merits of adopting or not adopting a policy of increased migration.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
9 days ago

If government policy is influenced by this sort of opinion poll then there are some other changes due. In particualr, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that only a minority of people beleieve that climate change is mainly due to human activity. So as well as allowing even higher immigration, the government will also forget about carbon emission reductions.

Last edited 9 days ago by Peter Francis
Clara B
Clara B
7 days ago

I honestly can’t believe anyone’s warmed to immigration – in the middle of an economic crisis and severe housing shortage (though I accept the vacancies in health and social care that can’t be filled by natives might sway them slightly)? I suspect social desirability bias might have affected the IPPR findings (people saying the thing they think they should say, or that they think others want them to say – even the use of anonymised questionnaires can’t eliminate this bias). I’m well used to middle class friends extolling the virtues of mass migration but I’ve long felt that they were just mouthing platitudes and even they no longer believed this.

Last edited 7 days ago by Clara B
Tim Smith
Tim Smith
7 days ago

The difference between these polls is largely down to the questions asked and how people interpret them.

The vast majority will say that *ongoing* migration – i.e. the numbers coming each year – is too high.

But not many will say that the numbers already here are too high, and should be reduced (i.e. ‘send them home’).

Ambiguous polling questions mean that people’s views on the latter, are presented as their views on the former.

j watson
j watson
9 days ago

I suspect how ‘the people’ are feeling about it has become a little more nuanced in recent times, as the impact of labour shortages becomes a little more apparent and this is increasingly one of the unique UK issues making our inflation and recession worse. I suspect the issues in Hong Kong and Ukraine also elicit a different sentiment too.
But I suspect the author is also correct and politicians should tread carefully before assuming a complete swivel in aggregated opinion.
Is not part of the problem how we all have a tendency to hyperbole and oversimplification in this debate?
Anyone saying ‘no immigration’ perhaps needs to sign up to voluntary euthanasia at age 70 – so they have no need for care support or health care in old age. Because thinking we can provide the labour force for this without some well-planned and efficient immigration is a pipedream. Any takers?
At same time anyone who feels that we can take everyone should recognise you’ll rip the bonds between us apart, even if unintended.
So good sense is somewhere in the middle and we need somehow to find the wherewithal for an adult conversation. You join Unherd hoping for alot of that, and occasionally you do find it.

Last edited 9 days ago by j watson
polidori redux
polidori redux
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I have not the slightest intention of signing up to voluntary euthanasia, or of voting to turn my country into an overcrowded third world dump. You will have to find some other little pipedream if you want to maintain your comfortable middleclass lifestyle in this morally and financially bankrupt country. I will struggle along as best I can until the grim reaper calls. I suggest that you do the same.
Glad to help.

Last edited 9 days ago by polidori redux
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 days ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Good riposte

R Wright
R Wright
9 days ago
Reply to  j watson

You know all those migrants will grow old and need care too, right? When will it end?

j watson
j watson
8 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Aging populations do provide us with some real long-term challenges. Of that there is no doubt. But UK population has a baby boom gen rolling through, which adds to the immediate and near-term challenge.
Evidence suggests many migrants go home after a period. Some stay of course, but not all and therefore we’ve always done a little better. As everyone should know, over half the 500k are students on short term stays. Yes, ok the odd wrong-un might try to avoid leaving at end of their Visa but one of our greatest ‘soft power’ assets as a nation is exposure to our education, language and values.

Clara B
Clara B
7 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Yes, the number of overstayers is small but a significant proportion stay in the UK legally and illegally (about 40% according to the ONS) (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/articles/visajourneysandstudentoutcomes/2021-11-29#what-students-did-next). Ok, they will leave at some point but, while they are here, they are adding to pressure on housing etc. How many of those 40% end up staying here permanently? I agree that this is one of our strongest soft power areas – I don’t want it to end – but I would rein it in (esp at the lower end of the HE market, where some institutions will take virtually anyone, even those with extremely poor English language skills).

Last edited 7 days ago by Clara B
j watson
j watson
8 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Minuses as form of flattery! At least someone who’d usually prefer to rattle around in an echo chamber has read it.

John Riordan
John Riordan
8 days ago
Reply to  j watson

What’s the view like up there on your high horse?