Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 4 February 2020

What causes concern about immigration

It is part of folk lore among politicians and most social scientists that concern about immigration is governed by the number of immigrants. So how do we account for the decline in the relative salience of immigration since the EU referendum (source)?

There are of course many explanations for this decline. Perhaps people now see the benefits of immigration after all the post-referendum talk of nursing and doctor shortages. A rather more straightforward explanation is that people think that by leaving the EU the immigration 'problem' is being solved (i.e immigration numbers are much reduced). If it is the latter, then their knowledge is incomplete.

Immigration from the EU has declined dramatically, which is not surprising, but this has been partly offset by a significant rise in non-EU immigration (source). Are people really more concerned about EU immigrants than non-EU immigrants?

Roy Greenslade notes that the newspaper articles full of stories of immigration peril have all but disappeared. He writes
“It was the press phenomenon of the age 10 years ago, and for at least the following six years – right up to the EU referendum. Since then, however, immigration has all but disappeared from newspaper pages.”

Could it be that the explanation for the diminished salience of immigration is the very simple one that it is no longer in the news?

The folk law comes from the fact that the increase in concern about immigration at the turn of the century coincided with the increase in immigration numbers, first from outside the EU and then from the A8 countries joining the EU. However, as I note here, there is a two or three year lag between the initial increase in immigration and public attitudes. The lag is much shorter with a time series for the number of stories in the press about immigration.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Much of the concern about immigration is in areas that see very few immigrants. If people are getting their information ‘first hand’ from friends or relatives living in areas of high immigration you might expect a relatively short lag between numbers and concern, but if people are getting their information from the media you would require some change in how the media covered this issue before salience changed. Or to put it more crudely, salience to some extent is inevitably going to reflect what is ‘in the news’.

This does not mean salience is completely divorced from what people think. You could fill newspapers with stories about the housing problems of the very wealthy and it is unlikely that housing would start climbing the salience ranking. It is also true that rising immigration numbers helped newspapers write stories of 'floods' and 'waves'. But what it does mean is that if stories about immigration start disappearing, salience will gradually decline.

The more interesting question is why newspaper headlines about immigration, which in newspapers like the Sun and the Mail were explicitly or implicitly hostile to immigration, should decline sharply after the referendum vote. Roy Greenslade writes
“Yet the undeniable truth, the sad, sick, unvarnished truth, is that migration is off the media’s central agenda for two reasons. Firstly, it is no longer a political issue. With the pro-Brexit vote having been achieved, there is no need to keep on injecting the same poison into public debate. Job done. Secondly, seen from the newspaper editors’ perspective, it is not a sales-winning topic at present. No need to play to the gallery. There is no “value” in running anti-immigrant stories.”

In other words, newspapers are not publishing alarming stories of waves of non-EU immigrants coming to the UK because there is no political or sales motive for doing so. It is like saying if people who are hostile to immigration think leaving the EU means job done then let them. Increasing immigration salience was politically important for these newspaper owners while Labour was in government and to push the Tory government to support Brexit, but no longer.

Which, in turn, is why a Conservative government not led by Theresa May and without immigration targets can contemplate a fairly relaxed immigration regime, as Jonathan Portes notes. The other reason is that opposition to immigration (rather than salience) has been declining since a couple of years before the referendum, as the Migration Observatory also shows. Since 2017 more people think immigration has had a positive impact on the UK than think the opposite.

As Rob Ford notes, we don’t know why the public are feeling more positive about immigration, but equally too many have failed to notice how things have changed. I would add that too few also realise how changes in the salience of immigration tells us a lot about what has been in newspapers, and rather less about the underlying views of voters or, indeed, the number of immigrants coming in to the UK.


  1. I sometimes read these blogs and find a real lack of desire to understand issues. Rather a desire to confirm prejudices. This will only polarise. Brexit is a disaster, but we must learn from this and try and understand the real reasons why it happened.

    We have to move beyond 'blame the media'. The print media wants to sell newspapers. It writes what people want to read. Sure press barons have a political agenda, but they are still primarily driven by their bottom line. Murdoch is absolutely a pragmatist. The old adage about him is correct: he backs a winner.

    Of course there is a lag between high rates of immigration and its ranking as a political issue. People will respond once they notice it. It won't be linear, and when they do of course it will spiral and may explode. This is often how things work - think of financial markets.

    John Howard, the former Australian prime minister, not someone I like, but someone who understood public attitudes to immigration. He ran a tough anti-immigration stance in the elections, but once in power actually expanded immigration. Back in the 2000s he said, that it was not the numbers of immigrants that posed public concerns, it was a lack of control of immigrants. Clearly this message got to number 10, perhaps through a number of ex-Howard advisers. People are less concerned now because they feel the government is now addressing immigration.

    Please stop repeating this line that non-immigrant areas are the most anti-immigrant. Firstly it is a gross generalisation (think of Boston, Peterborough etc.) and secondly it does not even attempt to understand what local concerns are driving immigration concerns.

    Merkel had it right. Don't increase immigration under stealth. Make the compassionate case - especially for refugees. She got majority support, even if the hard right opposed it. The fact is she got the support of the middle ground.

    We also need to learn from the poorly informed advice given to Blair over the expansion of the EU, and how this was handled. We have clearly paid the ultimate price. Again, we need to learn from it, not blame the media etc.

  2. Interesting post. Think its folk lore, not law though!

  3. “Are people really more concerned about EU immigrants than non-EU immigrants?”

    Yes, I am personally. Non-EU immigrants have to meet particular criteria to enter the country but EU immigrants did not. Consequently, the working class poor were more directly impacted by EU immigration than non-EU immigration in terms of competition for employment and accommodation. EU migration has now fallen and the ONS reported for 2018 that the lowest paid occupations enjoyed the highest earnings growth.

    Either way, unless we are planning to run a laissez faire economy, it is important that the Government has some control over the size and skill mix of the countries workforce. The Labour Manifesto promised to create one million climate jobs, but it did not explain how it would ensure that those jobs would benefit the current UK population rather than attract an additional one million migrant families from the EU.

    “The more interesting question is why newspaper headlines about immigration, which in newspapers like the Sun and the Mail were explicitly or implicitly hostile to immigration, should decline sharply after the referendum vote.”

    It is because many of the previous abuses have now ceased. There were job agencies that advertised British jobs exclusively in Eastern Europe. Some British people applied for the jobs and were told they were ineligible until the agencies were told that they were acting illegally. Even the Guardian reported an instance where 400 foreign workers were housed in large barges moored off Grimsby docks and that the Unite general secretary Derek Simpson complained that employers were excluding UK workers from even applying for work on certain contracts.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.