A new paper argues that both parties should champion migration
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.
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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.