Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 21 October 2014

UK immigration and social attitudes

In a previous post I speculated on how the disaffected voter could be both part of the UKIP story and also a factor behind the decline in the popularity of the LibDems. But what about UKIP’s two key policy areas: leaving Europe and stopping immigration?

As I noted last time, for most UKIP voters Europe itself is no big deal. It is an issue which will sit naturally with disaffected voters: if UK politicians seem remote to their interests, politicians in Europe will seem even more so. It is not an issue that a large number of voters will regard as all important in itself. Immigration is much more interesting. This post looks at what evidence we can get from surveys about voter attitudes towards immigration.

The first point to make is that a large majority of the UK public have always favoured tighter controls on immigration. (Interestingly, given SNP policies for an independent Scotland, a majority of Scottish voters also want less immigration!) What has changed over the last two decades has been the salience of the issue. (The charts in this post come from the three sources listed at the end.)

This chart is a little busy, but the green line is the number of people rating race and immigration as one of the top issues. The issue was nowhere until the end of the 1990s. Within the space of about four years its importance rose dramatically, and it has stayed as a key issue since around 2003.

The temporal link with actual levels of migration cannot be a complete coincidence.

Note that immigration from the EU only took off from 2004. So freedom of movement for labour within the EU, which is discussed so much in the media, is not the key to understanding voter concern about immigration.

Nor does concern about immigration appear to involve class. Any differences between the standard social classifications (A-E) and voter concern seems to be swamped by a common movement, as this chart shows.

There is, however, an understandable difference between income groups when they are asked why they are concerned about immigration. Those with low incomes tend to want to reduce immigration because of the perceived impact on jobs and housing, while those on higher incomes are more concerned about the impact on public services.

There are also two additional class related factors which do distinguish between voters attitudes towards the impact of immigration. The first is whether the voter has a university degree. For those that do, the majority believe that immigration has benefited the country both economically and culturally, while those without a degree think the opposite. Second, there is a clear correlation between concern about immigration and the newspaper people read. In addition, people seriously overestimate the extent of UK immigration, probably because of the impression they get from reading certain newspapers. To some extent this may be inevitable, as sensationalism like this or this may help sell newspapers to those who worry about immigration. However the fact that large sections of the UK press want us to leave the EU may mean that causality runs the other way, as I note below. (I do not see this as a simple right-left issue, as many on the right are against tight immigration controls.)

Location is also important. One widely reported result is that concern about immigration tends to be higher where actual levels of immigration are low. (An exception seems to be where asylum seekers are placed.) Many have noted that UKIP’s first MP is in a constituency where levels of immigration are very low. Chris Dillow mentions one poll that found that while 76% think immigration is a very or fairly big problem for Britain, only 18% think it is in their own area. Furthermore those with migrant friends were far more likely to be positive about the impact of immigration than those without.

So immigration for many is about a fear rather than perceived experience. The fear is fed not by official statistics but stories in the media. In that sense it is like crime. In the case of crime, the general perception is that crime is rising, even though for many years nearly every type of crime has been falling in the UK. This encourages politicians to focus on the appearance of action: most calculate that they are better off talking about 'cracking down' on crime than in celebrating its decline. With immigration, the political benefits of appearing to 'deal with the problem of immigration' are greater than arguing that, in average economic terms at least, immigration may not be a problem at all.  

Two things make immigration particularly toxic as a political issue. The first is that economic issues (jobs, housing, public services) can so easily be linked to it. However the first chart should warn against a belief that immigration concerns will disappear if real wages begin to rise. The second is the link with EU membership. While it is clear that public concerns about immigration became important long before immigration from the EU rose substantially, it suits those that want us to leave the EU to suggest that EU immigration is critical to public perceptions on this issue. For that reason, it seems unlikely that the political 'problem of immigration' is going to go away as long as the UK remains in the EU. 

If this last statement is true, there is an interesting implication. UKIP can continue to receive strong support by saying that they have the only certain way of 'tackling immigration', and this will be true whatever actually happens to the numbers (immigration is like crime). The question that then arises is whether the Conservative party can live with that. Promising a referendum and then staying in the EU may win the next election but it will not make UKIP go away. Instead the party may calculate that the only way of making the issue of immigration less toxic is to take the UK out of the EU. 

Sources for charts:

Oxford’s Migration Observatory, Ipsos-Mori and the British Social Attitudes survey.


  1. "Note that immigration from the EU only took off from 2004. So freedom of movement for labour within the EU, which is discussed so much in the media, is not the key to understanding voter concern about immigration".

    That's not quite right. 2004 saw the expansion of the EU, giving nationals of 10 states formerly part of the Eastern bloc the benefit of EU freedoms. With minimal charity, it becomes clear that popular claims about the effect of the freedom of movement for workers are really claims about the numbers of people who are able to exercise that freedom.

  2. IIRC UKIP started out as a "cut EU red tape" party so that financiers like Sir James Goldsmith who basically created and financed UKIP could increase their profits without an overseer moderating their behaviour. As this idea didn't really get hold of the UK population in any great numbers, they switched to more emotive subjects, and what can be more emotive than immigration?

    Interestingly, the reference to highest anti-immigrant feeling existing in areas of lowest immigrant numbers is entirely matched by the Swiss experience, except for those border areas where immigrants enter through - Ticino in Switzerland, Kent/Dover area in the UK. I have personal experience of immigrant hatred too - visiting a Homebase store in Dover in a non-UK registered car I was asked forcibly by one of the Homebase staff "What are you doing over here? You should be back in your own country!" The fact that I was indirectly contributing to his wages by spending money with his employer clearly didn't register with him; far worse was the fact that he *thought* I was foreign. But just because he was wrong on so many levels did not make his fear any less real. And that's what the cynical Euro-sceptic power hunters play on: Fear, Greed, Envy.

  3. IRC UKIP started out as a "cut EU red tape" party so that financiers like Sir James Goldsmith who basically created and financed UKIP could increase their profits without an overseer moderating their behaviour"

    You don't recall correctly, no.

    Ukip has always wanted the UK out, hence the name.

    Goldsmith was associated with the Referendum Party, a quite different organisation.

    1. I accept your correction, but the aim of leaving the EU was surely common to both parties. Goldsmith was Eurosceptic, as is Farage's UKIP now.

  4. "Promising a referendum and then staying in the EU may win the next election "

    Something has gone wrong with this sentence, which makes no sense.

    There is simply no way the Tories can get even close to winning the 2015 election. The structural barriers to their winning are insurmountable.

    That they know this is reflected in a number of populist policies that make no sense

    (i) The bonkers proposals to repeal the HRA and replace it with a Birtish Bill of Rights.

    (ii) The fiscal policy proposals that are wholly implausible.

    (iii) The crazy suggestion that it could be possible to renegotiate free movement of persons in the EU (Ed Balls was suggesting the same this week. Nobody serious believes that).

    Parties only put forward stuff like this when they know they won't be in any position to carry them out.

    The problem is not 2015: the Tories will easily lose that. The problem is 2019/20. It is hard to imagine how the Labour party under its current leadership can make a success of government. That makes Tory chances of success in the election after the next one good. If these foolish policies remain in place by then, there is a real prospect of serious damage being done.

    But, that is democracy (something S W-L doesn't have much time for).

    Blaming 'the media' for people believing foolish things is like blaming the weather. It had a certain plausibility back in the days when Fleet Street dominated the means by which people gained information about the world around them. None at all in 2014.

    1. You don't need to convince everybody, so while newspaper sales have fallen, they are still over 5 million per day. That's not nothing. People who don't read papers anymore do watch TV news and as SW-L has said here before, this medium is just as likely to misreport and misrepresent facts in order to generate "good television" in the form of a heated argument. In this new age the newspaper columnists perhaps influence even more people with their eloquently rabid attacks of others' views on programmes such as Newsnight or Question Time, Sky News and even Channel 4 News.

  5. Doesn't the English press sell most of its product to consumers in English speaking countries, mainly the UK, and most other business groups that fund the Tory Party sell their goods into the EU?

    Krugman blog November 2, 2012 'Karl Rove’s Mission Accomplished':

    "Well, what if we’ve been misunderstanding Rove? We’ve been seeing him as a man dedicated to helping angry right-wing billionaires take over America. But maybe he’s best thought of instead as an entrepreneur in the business of selling his services to angry right-wing billionaires, who believe that he can help them take over America. It’s not the same thing. And while Rove the crusader is looking — provisionally, of course, until the votes are in — like a failure, Rove the businessman has just had an amazing, banner year."

    I see that education on the first graph above peaks in interest at the start of 2008, just as the crisis hits, and then falls back into something of a sink hole.

    Murdochisation: Rove, Gove, Rove, Gove?

  6. I think it is unhelpful to put race-relations and immigration together as the graph does. I think a lot of the race relations were intensified by events in the early 2000s relating to black Britons and police-relations and focus on problems related to fanatical Islamic schools etc in the tense international security environment that followed 9/11.

    Immigration concerns at the moment relate more to jobs and wages, congestion, housing and public services. Uncontrollable inward labour flows, rather than say, asylum seekers are seen as the problem. These flows come from Europe. It is not race-related at all. In fact many UKIP supporters and those calling for reduced immigration are not white Britons.

    Also UKIP support is high in parts of Kent and Essex that lie outside the London commuter belt. Many people living in these areas are actually Londoners who were forced to these areas due to the high costs of lving in London and the unavailability of council housing in London.

  7. If EU immigration were banned completely, would it stop the 53% of immigrants coming from outside the EU? Just questioning why the EU factor is statistically relevant.

    1. Because it is the part of immigration the government cannot control and is increasing in its importance as non-EU immigration is brought down. The Government can increase or decrease highly skilled migrants or those entering on humanitarian grounds (Iraqi/Syrian refugees etc) with non-EU immigration, but it cannot with EU immigration. And EU immigration is particularly sensitive as it is seen as impacting on wages and employment opportunities for native low skilled and low paid labour. Eastern European immigration tends to also be highly elastic. The Government does not want to see a recovery without reductions in unemployment and higher wages.

  8. There is something a bit troubling about this column. In the second paragraph you dismiss Europe itself as an issue with most UKIP voters: "for most UKIP voters Europe itself is no big deal". You don't actually present any evidence for this. You don't even have a line for Europe as an issue in any of your charts, so we can't compare it to the other issues - immigration, education, NHS, etc. It makes me wonder why Farage wastes his time banging on about Europe all the time, if UKIP voters just don't care. And those millions of clicks on his Youtube videos. Hmm.

    And then, having dismissed Europe as an issue for UKIP voters, you proceed to analyse the UKIP in terms of immigration - with 'race" thrown in, again with little evidence. In fact, according to your own charts, concern about "immigration" seems to have risen more or less as immigration from Europe has risen. When immigration was mostly non-EU, concern about immigration was low, so just how this gets to be a 'race' issue and not a Europe issue is a bit puzzling.

    Full disclosure: I am pro-immigration and would group myself with those with a degree that see mostly positive aspects to immigration. I just don't quite see the logic of this column.

    1. As this post says, I gave the evidence that Europe is not a key issue for UKIP voters in an earlier post. Of course Farage wants to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately the only time series I could find on what voters thought was important combined immigration and race - if anyone has a time series for just immigration please let me know. Concern about these two issues rose in the late 90s when non-EU immigration rose - EU immigration rose after 2004.

  9. Your report could have mentioned the Channel queues to get into Britain which naturally raises the question why do the immigrants want to come to Britain rather than France. This then becomes, easily, an economic issue.

    But the post does not touch on values. Immigration is thought by many to impact on values. If immigrants come from a corrupt country there is likelihood that Britain will become more corrupt.

    1. The question is actually "why do SOME immigrants want to come to Britain rather than France". We have quite a low level of immigration by the standards of many EU countries. Those queues are a tiny percentage of the immigration into Europe.

    2. If possible could you give the numbers from within Europe to EU countries and then numbers from outside Europe to the EU countries.

    3. Most Romanian immigrants want to live in France because of the very similar languages; even Romanians working in parts of Switzerland often prefer to live in France. Similarly France attracts huge numbers of immigrants from the former French colonies such as Algeria, Morocco, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. These people are not interested in coming to the UK.

    4. "The question is actually "why do SOME immigrants want to come to Britain rather than France". We have quite a low level of immigration by the standards of many EU countries. Those queues are a tiny percentage of the immigration into Europe."

      Because many people study English as a second language, Although the Migration Observatory has noted that England has no universal training programme to skill workers making them unproductive and uncompetitive. The absence of transitional controls also has formed a large Polish community which acts as further conduit for Polish immigration (and Poles have a high propensity to emigrate). Ironically Poland, a poorer countries are training workers at their tax payer expense to come and work in Britain.

  10. Your explanation that it's media driven irrational fear is the typical PC leftist explanation. The UK is simply 10 years behind with this narrative, it's not going to help you.
    I have a different explanation: it's about a culture clash between original population and immigrants, and this is the same all over Europe. And because the culture clash is larger with non EU immigrants (that in several countries have been in majority uneducated, low skilled immigrants), than with EU immigrants, this explains why the attitude already changed against immigration before the wave of Eastern European immigrants.
    In fact, as Eastern European immigrants integrate easier, and are mostly better educated, I think the anti immigrants sentiment is still mostly about non EU immigrants.
    Because of the race card being played, this anti immigration sentiment was mostly ignored by politicians, and the history of colonialism made it more difficult to refuse immigrants entry or select them on skills.
    Typical Western immigration countries without this burden of history, have less of problem with selecting immigrants on skills, I believe this should be the future for the EU too for non EU immigration.

    1. For the record I did not say, and was careful not to say, that it was an irrational fear. So I'm not sure the explanation/analysis in your second para is very different from mine.

    2. This is not about race. As your chart shows it is about sheer numbers - historically high rates of immigration. The government has reduced non-EU immigration as much as it can, but it has not met its target for overall immigration reduction. This has put the focus on uncontrollable EU immigration. In the context of a recession and the fact that this involves inflows of cheap labour, EU immigration has become politically toxic - and has played to UKIP.

  11. No doubt voters in the UK (and elsewhere) have very distorted views of the facts on immigration and crime (and most things), particularly driven by media agendas. But note that while voters will always always always tell you that crime is "up", no matter how "down" it is, it doesn't make crime a salient political issue - evidence perhaps that voters are in some latent sense moored to "fundamentals" (assuming crime would be salient if there were in fact a crime epidemic).

    Likewise, the charts here seem to suggest that while people's factual assessment of immigration may be all over the place, the rising political salience of it is consistent with rising immigrant "flows" and "stocks". So while I think you make an interesting and not implausible case that the EU-immigration link may be significantly a political-media construct, I'm not convinced that an actual reduction in immigration wouldn't reduce the salience of the issue (though I suspect the ethno-cultural composition of immigration also matters).

    1. I think you make some important points. If it is an issue about pressure on public services, then at the aggregate level the concern is simply wrong, because of the demographic characteristics of immigration. If it is an issue about jobs or housing then focusing on net immigration is correct, but if it is about cultural diversity then it is more important to focus on immigration inflows. There seems to be plenty of speculation, but rather less research.

  12. My guess is that Cameron will get out of his position between a rock and hard place in his position with EU partners by negotiating a provision where EU immigrants will not be able to claim benefits.

    Of course, the fact that EU immigrants do not claim benefits seems to be too much for the media to understand. As is the real problem: inflows of cheap labour are occuring at historically high levels at the same time as(well at least the perception that) wages for low income earners are falling.

    Conservative and Labour will keep saying they are cracking down on immigrants claiming benefits. People know that is not the problem, and so does Farage. It is only the media and a few members of the neo-liberal chattering classes who don't.

    It only plays to UKIP's cards.

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  18. Hi Mr. Simon

    Would a controlled & restricted immigration be the best possible solution for UK in dealing with immigrants?
    Should the UK leave the EU to gain more independence on decision-making for immigrants whether EU or non-EU coming to the UK?
    I think it would be because if the UK tighten their borders then the immigrants who would most probably be on welfare would have a less chance of coming to the UK. This means that less economic burden on unemployed people and less chance of crimes due to lower unemployment. A controlled & restricted immigration would be great to the UK because there would be more immigrants with education and value who are willing to pay taxes and contribute to the UK society should be allowed to be in the UK. That is not to say I am against immigration but take those immigrants who are more valuable to the UK society (Be selective on the immigrant and selective in a sense of what skills or would the immigrant be interested in doing a job for the UK) and have some amount of low-skilled immigrants if there are still jobs remaining in the UK depending on the amount of jobs taken by native British population.This is effective because it would cause a drop in unemployment since the UK would not be taking much low-skilled immigrants in that they eventually outnumber the available jobs in the UK which would cause unemployment and take those immigrants in who are willing to work hard to improve and pay taxes to the British government. Some immigrants would be on welfare while others do jobs to help run the British economy. Thus with a controlled & restricted immigration the UK should be able to not take in immigrants who would be dependent on welfare only and not be willing to do jobs or even try to get a job to help the UK.
    I think it would be beneficial for the UK to leave the EU (European Union) because the UK would get more independence from the EU which means the UK can control how much amount of the EU immigration they can take instead of the EU giving all EU countries with the ultimate freedom to move anywhere in Europe without much restrictions as compared to a non-EU member citizen. In my opinion what eventually happens is a lot of Eastern Europeans would come in greater numbers to the UK and other Western European countries. That might lead to more or less the same problems with a massive influx of any immigration to UK such as anti-social behavior leading to crime, welfare on unproductive people, unemployment rising and government being forced to spend hopelessly on poor immigrants to help them get a job but that would depend entirely on the immigrant's interests or goals instead of the government spending their revenues on something more useful such as hospitals, schools, universties, parks, cinemas etc?

    So Mr. Simon I would love to hear your thoughts and views on these two questions:

    1)Would a controlled & restricted immigration be the best possible solution for UK?

    2)Should the UK leave the EU to gain more independence on decision-making for immigrants whether EU or non-EU coming to the UK?


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