Brexit and public opinion: Immigration: a polarised debate?

Immigration was at the heart of the EU referendum debate, having grown significantly in public salience over the previous decade. The Labour governments failed to anticipate the scale and pace of immigration following the EU’s eastward expansion after 2004. The Cameron government, in which Theresa May was Home Secretary, failed to keep their promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

There was no relationship between attitudes towards immigration and how people voted in the 1975 referendum on the EEC. Indeed, those who had voted out in 1975 were slightly more pro-migration than those who voted in.

By 2016, views of immigration had become a significant predictor of choices to vote Remain and Leave. The range of social cleavages underlying the voting patterns – dividing younger and older generations, graduates and non-graduates, cities and towns, and white British and ethnic minority voters – reflected this.

Hence the common observation that the referendum had sharpened a cultural polarisation, often described by liberals as a choice between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ worldviews, or what writer David Goodhart called the ‘anywhere’ and ‘somewhere’ tribes.

But what did this mean for immigration policy after the referendum? Finding that out was the aim of the biggest-ever public engagement exercise on the subject: The National Conversation on Immigration. This was jointly conducted by British Future and Hope Not Hate, the anti-prejudice civic society group, as an input into a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into whether it is possible to build consensus on immigration.

The National Conversation travelled over 15,000 miles – everywhere from Southampton to the Shetlands, Bradford to Belfast, Wolverhampton to Wrexham – to bring together panels of citizens in 60 towns and cities, across every nation and region of the UK.

We asked them to grapple with the choices government ministers will now face, as well as holding sessions with stakeholders from local government, business and civic society in each location.

Most people are ‘balancers’ – seeing both the pressures and gains of immigration. We found low trust in government on this issue, and in the national media too. Yet there was a broad sense that it was a positive thing that an immigration debate had opened up.

Participants combined frustration with government performance with pragmatic views about future policy. Support for student migration was all but universal, while few wanted a reduction in skilled migration. A broad appetite for more control over low-skilled migration was combined with pragmatic support for migration, where needed to fill jobs in care homes and agriculture, if local impacts could be managed better.

Yet the National Conversation research captured a huge gulf between these constructive citizens’ conversations – with participants recruited to be broadly representative of their local areas – and a much more starkly polarised online debate, where the ‘balancer’ majority rarely get involved.

We found this when we compared our local citizens and a nationally representative survey with an open online survey, which ten thousand people completed during the year-long project. All participants were asked to give a 1-10 score to sum up the pros and cons of immigration for Britain. In our local groups and a representative national poll, the most popular scores tend to be 5 or 6: the national average is 5.77.

In the self-selecting online survey, the most popular answers were 1/10 and 10/10, with a majority of participants selecting the lowest or highest score available; only 15% of our nationally-representative survey did the same.

In most local panels it was often difficult to tell who had voted on which side of the EU referendum, except when people spoke directly about Brexit itself. Only a small handful of local panels were persuaded by a ‘trade-off’ case to maintain free movement to retain membership of the single market: those that were cited specific local economic impacts, such as the importance of car manufacturing in Knowsley and pharmaceuticals in Macclesfield.

Contested arguments about national GDP went over everybody’s heads, with decreasing trust in claims from every side in the wake of the 2016 campaign. This matched our nationally representative poll, which found significant potential for a broad consensus on most areas of immigration and integration policy. Yet there was a stark split along referendum lines when asked whether a trade deal or migration control matters most.

If the public saw Brexit as a ‘reset moment’ for getting immigration right, the government were strikingly slow to engage with the issue. This was perhaps because of fear of tackling the hottest political potato of them all.

Yet the public salience of immigration has declined significantly since the referendum took place, reflects both a public expectation of future changes and an increased awareness of positive contributions from migration, as Ipsos-Mori research shows. There were fewer front-page splashes about migration in 2017 and 2018 combined than in 2016 – and the anxieties of 3 million Europeans in Britain, concerned about their status, had a high profile.

But there is no guarantee that the salience of migration might not rise sharply again. Indeed, attitudes have softened on migration, while becoming more polarised on Brexit itself. Those hoping for a future referendum, or to negotiate an EEA-relationship, have focused on the ability to apply existing free movement rules better.

There is little evidence from the National Conversation that changes of this kind will ever have broad general public salience. Politicians consistently over-estimate the potential reassurance value of symbolic micro-policy changes that few people ever hear about.

Public engagement cannot in itself resolve political disagreements about contested issues – but the National Conversation demonstrates how it can have an important cathartic and constructive impact.

If the aim is to rebuild public confidence in the choices we make about immigration, institutionalising public engagement can play an important role in ensuring that all voices can be heard – rather than the pragmatic majority getting drowned out by those who shout loudest.

By Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future. You can read The UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit and public opinion 2019 report here.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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