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Anand Menon and Sophie Stowers highlight the increasing complexity of public opinion on immigration, suggesting that the relationship between high numbers and public concern should not be taken for granted. 

At the end of May, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released figures showing net migration had reached its second highest level on record. The figure was 333,000. The year was 2016. Just over a month later, the UK voted to leave the European Union after a campaign in which immigration was a key theme.

As the ONS prepares to release its figures for 2022, some have argued (with little evidence) that the new figure might be one million. Last year’s figure of 504,00 was already a record high.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to much speculation. The presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme on 11 May chatted (at 2:22:22) about ‘whispers’ of a figure as high as 700,000, leading Amol Rajan to declare dramatically that ‘I suspect [immigration] is going to be a new fault line in our politics.’

The parallels between now and 2016 are clear. They are, however, also potentially misleading.

Immigration was, of course, a key issue during the 2016 referendum. And the Vote Leave campaign was quick to pivot, following the ONS release that year, to focus squarely on the subject of net migration. It’s worth noting though, that while they committed to an immigration system that would favour higher-paid migrants, they said nothing about reducing numbers.

One of the most striking phenomena ahead of that vote was the almost uncanny correlation of immigration numbers and public concern about immigration in the run up to it. As Geoff Evans and Jon Mellon show, as numbers rose, so concern increased.

Source: G. Evans and J. Mellon, ‘Immigration, Euroscepticism and the Rise and Fall of UKIP’ (2019)

Since the referendum, however, we have seen something very different. Over the last decade – and indeed beginning before the referendum – there has been a gradual shift in attitudes towards immigration across all demographic groups regardless of age, education level, ethnicity, or vote choice in 2016. Voters are now more likely to say that immigration has had a positive impact on the UK than a negative one.

And when it comes to salience, or the question of public concern, the picture is very different indeed from 2016. Immigration, as mentioned above, has been rising and net migration hit record levels in 2022. Public concern, however, has been decreasing steadily from even before the 2016 referendum.

Indeed, voters have become increasingly likely to say that levels of immigration should be maintained or even increased, as opposed to reduced, since 2016.

What has caused this change? The liberalisation of attitudes, associated with generational change and with higher numbers of people entering higher education, has certainly been one factor.  General awareness of post-COVID labour shortages may be another: though a plurality of voters still favour reducing net migration overall, most are in favour of increasing numbers working in the NHS, agricultural sectors and education.

There is evidence, too, that ‘control’ has also played its part. The British public are reassured that government now gets to decide who comes into the country – polling shows that even those who are typically pro-migration express clear preferences for a system of controls rather than free movement.

Moreover, not only has the composition of net migration changed (with non-Europeans now making up the vast majority of the numbers), but so too has its geography. Under freedom of movement, significant numbers of EU nationals came to less well off parts of the UK where services were already stretched to carry out low paid jobs Brits were unwilling to take up.

Now, the large numbers of students now entering the UK go to places with universities. Meanwhile non-EU migrants are much more likely to live in London as opposed to struggling towns in the North of England. It’s plausible to assume that immigrants meeting minimum salary requirements tend to head to thriving cities where the population tends to be disproportionately young, educated and cosmopolitan. They now go, in other words, to places where their presence is far less likely to be resented.

Now, what we don’t know is how long this disjuncture between the scale of immigration and public concern about it will last. Perhaps there will be a lag. Perhaps the faint sounds of concern we have heard to date will be amplified and lead to greater public interest in the issue.

One obvious difference between now and 2016 is that the Conservatives no longer face a credible political threat from their right of the kind that UKIP represented. This might lessen the electoral implciations of high immigration levels.

That being said, internal divisions remain. While some MPs are expressing concern, others are relaxed about higher immigration, the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised that ‘overall numbers will come down’. During Party Conference 2022, Home Secretary Suella Braverman spoke of resurrecting the target of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands, while Prime Minister Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng were openly discussing liberalising immigration policy to promote growth. Open divisions might serve to increase the salience of the immigration issue.

And  Labour certainly seems to be sensing an opportunity. Keir Starmer has accused the government of ‘losing control’ over migration numbers, framing its argument around a reliance on foreign-born workers.

Then of course there is the small boats issue. Rishi Sunak made ‘stopping the boats’ one of his five pledges to the British people in response to the increased salience of the issue – particularly among Conservative voters. A failure to act on this promise could could feed into the narrative that the UK’s border control is in disarray, and may bleed into the broader debate about immigration and attitudes about increasing numbers (to the benefit of immigration sceptics).

What might happen? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that the kind of simplistic commentary that has marked the countdown to the next ONS release has been both uninformed and unhelpful. Public opinion on immigration is more complicated than it has been before, and while a simple causal link between rising numbers and rising concern might well ensue, it cannot be taken for granted.

By Professor Anand Menon, Director, and Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.


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