Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs


posted on 16th July 2019 by Callum Tipple

As part of our new report arguing for a Migration Dividend Fund, Global Future commissioned Hanbury Strategy to conduct a nationwide poll to understand the attitudes of different sections of the public towards immigration. By tying immigration to questions of regional inequality, we also aimed to establish the level of support for a policy designed to build cohesion through addressing geographic gaps in opportunity (support which stood at an overall level of 69%).

Getting to grips with public attitudes towards immigration is a uniquely difficult task. Different surveys record very different levels of support for migration (or aspects of it), often due to subtle changes in the framing of the question. Similarly, due to the nature of how opinion polling is often carried out, it can be very difficult to get information which reflects the complexity of the issue. For example, in a representative sample of 2000 people, it is impossible to properly understand distinct attitudes within towns and large cities, when surveys are specifically set-up to gauge opinion on a macro level.

From the data we do possess, there appears to have been a decrease in anti-immigrant sentiment over recent years, with new polling showing 41% of the public viewing the impacts of immigration as positive, compared to just 31% who believe the opposite. According to the IPSOS MORI Issues Index, the proportion of individuals listing immigration as a most important concern has fallen from 56% in September 2015 to 14% in June 2019 (known as “salience”). As the academic Rob Ford has pointed out, this trend seems to hold across other sources of data, including British Election Study panels, and across demographics.

There could be a multitude of factors driving this shift, including a step-change in generational attitudes. Our new polling finds that 56% of 18-24-year-olds are positive about immigration. This aligns with a broader reorienting of politics around ‘open’ and ‘closed’ positions; in a previous Global Future report (‘Open owns the future‘), we showed the dramatic divide in social attitudes between generations, with those under 45 likely to hold liberal attitudes on issues like gay rights, international aid, and immigration, whilst older people are more likely to hold opposing views. This appears to be a cohort effect – it’s not driven simply by people becoming less liberal as they grow older – meaning that ‘open’ attitudes are likely to win out over the long-term. But it is not yet clear whether this explains all of the apparent liberalisation in immigration-related opinion. Nor is it clear whether these changes are a Brexit-related blip, or are truly here to stay.

Nonetheless, the aggregate data cited above masks significant demographic variation. Much of this variation is predictable – for example, there are strong divisions in attitude by age, level of education, and voting pattern. Whilst 56% of young people in our poll assessed the impact of immigration to be positive, this fell to 28% for those aged 75 and older. Whilst 52% of degree-holders viewed the impact as positive, this fell to 35% for those without a degree. And whilst 54% of Liberal Democrat voters identified a positive impact, this fell to 19% for those intending to vote for the Brexit Party.

A less predictable variation relates to the close link between immigration attitudes and place. Though regional attitudes may be partially ascertained through using a proxy (e.g. ‘Leave’ vote), our polling supports a commonly-held assumption – namely, that London and Scotland are more supportive of immigration than other areas, with 53% positivity in London contrasting with just 32% positivity in the East of England.

However, the importance of the connection between views on immigration and place stretches further. For example, analysis of British Election Study reveals two key trends: (1) employment-related concerns on immigration correlate to local deprivation, rather than to levels of immigration, and; (2) immigration tends to be more popular in the communities that experience it.

These findings are critical to bear in mind when developing immigration policy, as they demonstrate the tight link between immigration attitudes and local circumstances – a link already discussed by Hope Not Hate, whose research shows that all of the 100 local authorities with the greatest affiliation to the ‘active enmity’ tribe regarding immigration were located in residential parts of towns or the outskirts of cities.

Furthermore, by introducing questions relating to regional and / or spatial inequality into immigration surveys, it has been possible to tease out just how interdependent the two issues are when it comes to public opinion. Despite a majority viewing immigration as bringing a positive impact in the aggregate, our polling highlighted a widespread view that these positive impacts have not accrued to people’s respective area of residence. For example, 51% of respondents agreed with the statement that “some parts of the country have benefited from immigration, but not where I live”. An even larger majority (71%) opined that “the UK government prioritises London and other big cities over the rest of the country”.

Available data on immigration attitudes has improved substantially over recent years, in large part due to the work conducted by British Future, the Migration Observatory and others. Nevertheless, given the strong role of place-specific factors in shaping opinion, work remains before we possess a reliable evidence base of micro-level attitudinal data. However, our polling attempts to make some headway.

What this polling does show is the desperate need for policymakers to recognise the close link between spatial inequality and cohesion, and to develop policy that answers that link. The proposal for a Migration Dividend Fund to invest £4.7 billion per year (equal to the annual contribution of European migrants to the UK) in towns and small cities positioned on the wrong side of a growing geographic divide, is far from being a solution to all Britain’s problems of regional inequality. But it provides a sensible place to start.

See the polling tables here.