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Sophie Stowers examines what voters think about immigration in light of the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, highlighting that the public expect transparent and fair rules that are enforced. 

They may have been watching MPs debate the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, seeing pictures  of small boats crossing the Channel  on social media, or have simply noticed that Match of the Day wasn’t on as usual this weekend. Whatever the reason, voters have noticed the small boats crisis. In the last two weeks, illegal migration has shot up in importance among the British public, and is now viewed by voters as one of the top-four most important issues facing the country.

This of course matters in its own right, but it is all the more striking because the last decade, and particularly the period since the 2016 referendum, witnessed a significant shift in attitudes towards immigration. In short, public anxieties about immigration have been slowly melting away – despite record levels of migration into the country.

This shift in attitudes has occurred across all voter groups, regardless of age, education level, ethnicity or vote choice in 2016. Data from the World Values Survey shows the UK has some of the most positive attitudes towards immigration of any country in Europe. The proportion of people who think immigration to the UK should be reduced has dropped, with more people now favouring maintaining, or even increasing, migration for the first time in polling history. The public has also become markedly more positive about both the economic and cultural impacts of migration – half of voters express positive views, up a third from 2014.

And as attitudes have liberalised, so too has salience waned. Around the time of the 2016 referendum, about half of voters named immigration as a top concern. By the end of last year, public interest in immigration at its lowest level in two decades, with just 11% of voters citing it as a priority issue.

So why, then, all the interest in the small boats crisis? The key is control. The public’s priority when it comes to immigration is not how many migrants come to the UK, or even necessarily the kind of sector they work in. Instead, it’s whether the rules for entering the UK are being properly enforced. As Rob Ford puts it, voters care about how immigrants come to the UK, not how many come.

As a result, attitudes to migration are positive only when voters think the government has control over the immigration system. When it doesn’t, or at least when voters don’t think it does – when, for example, they see images of small boat crossings on the news and social media – their attitudes are less positive.

Little wonder, then, that the government is going ‘all out’ on the small boats issue. It is, after all, a priority for many voters, but particularly for 2019 Conservative voters, according to whom ‘stopping the boats’ is the second most important issue facing the country.

While on many issues, not least the economy, the Conservative voter coalition is fragmenting before our eyes, cracking down on illegal immigration is one issue that holds it together. Messages of law, order and control hit home with Tory voters, not least those who lent their vote to the party for the first time in 2019. What is more, illegal immigration is an issue that poses problems for Labour, whose base is profoundly divided over this issue.

But – and it’s a big but – sticking ‘stop the boats’ on a podium is easy.  Doing so may even send a message wavering Tories want to hear. However, if the boats don’t actually stop, it’s unlikely to win the Prime Minister any plaudits.

Indeed, although attitudes towards immigration have become more positive of late, one thing that hasn’t changed is the public’s lack of faith in the ability of any politician or party to sort illegal immigration. 79% of voters disapprove of the government’s track record on this issue. And though Labour’s approach to immigration is viewed more positively than that of the Conservatives for the first time in decades, public confidence in any party to tackle the issue remains low.

At a time when most voters are cynical about politicians’ ability to tackle illegal immigration, another failed attempt to curb it is unlikely to work in the Conservatives’ favour, not least after a number of past failed measures.

One of the most recent, the proposed plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, was predicted to be a failure and a waste of money by a majority of voters. In making the promises it has, the government may have made a rod for its own back. The chances of the proposals outlined in the Illegal Migration Bill having any tangible effect on small boat crossings before the next election are low, not least because of inevitable delays to its implementation, legal challenges, and the lack of any immediate deterrent impact on those wishing to cross the Channel.

The public are certainly becoming more liberal on immigration. Yet that doesn’t mean they’re becoming more lax on the regulations that govern entry to the UK. Voters expect transparent and fair rules for immigration. And they expect these rules to be enforced. When they are, they are pretty relaxed about migration. When they’re not, however – as we’re seeing – then unease starts to mount.

Promising the earth, though, is a high risk strategy. Should he fail to deliver, Sunak risks not just more small boats crossing the Channel, but reinforcing the public’s lack of faith in the government.

By Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.


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