Election Countdown

How to make voters support immigration

Public demand for a reduction in immigration has fallen since Brexit, even though net immigration has increased. What can progressives learn from this?

April 22, 2024
Image: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Here are three questions that are blowing in the Westminster wind. Are deportations to Rwanda a good idea? Should we need to show our photo ID in next week’s elections? Will our hospitals and care homes have enough staff in the years ahead? These are tricky matters, and they are connected by a paradox. It concerns public attitudes to immigration. Resolve the paradox and we can attempt rational answers to all three questions.

In 2010 David Cameron promised to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands” a year. He failed. Net immigration in 2015 was 330,000. Two-thirds of the public thought this was too high. Public concern about immigration helped to propel Britain towards the Brexit referendum. We voted to “take back control”—of our borders most of all.

However, since we left the EU, net immigration has headed up, not down. In the past two years it has been more than double the pre-referendum level. Here’s the paradox. Far from clamouring more loudly for cuts in the numbers allowed into Britain, voters have shifted in the opposite direction. In the latest of Ipsos’s roughly annual surveys, conducted last July, demand for a reduction in immigration had fallen 18 points since 2015 to 49 per cent, while the number wanting the numbers to stay the same or rise was up 14 points from 30 to 44 per cent. An anti-immigration majority of more than two-to-one had contracted to almost level pegging.

Other tracker surveys tell the same story. According to the latest European Social Survey, “while [British] views towards immigration remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2014, they began to become far more positive from 2016 onwards and, in 2022, British people expressed the most positive views towards immigration since the survey began.”

Why? A clue comes from a YouGov survey 10 years ago, as the pressure grew to leave the EU. One of the arguments for ending freedom of movement was that Britain was being overrun by welfare tourists from across the Channel: people who came simply to claim out-of-work benefits. 

At that time, an estimated 2.3m people born elsewhere in the EU were living in Britain. YouGov asked respondents how many they thought were claiming such benefits. The median answer was 400,000. Among Ukip supporters, the figure was 800,000. Only 15 per cent said fewer than 100,000. In reality, the government was paying out-of-work benefits to just 60,000 EU-born residents—less than 3 per cent, compared with the 17 per cent believed by the general public, and the 35 per cent believed by Ukip supporters. The fear of welfare tourism far outstripped the reality.

What has happened is that the terms of debate have shifted since Brexit. It is less about scroungers and more about workers. More attention is being paid to the economic and social impact of immigrants, notably those who work in hospitals and care homes. Eighteen months ago lpsos found widespread support for generous allowances to fill vacancies in a whole range of jobs including construction, hospitality and fruit-picking as well as the NHS.

This was underlined by a Deltapoll survey last autumn in the seats gained by the Conservatives in the last election—mainly in “red wall” areas where voters were keen to “get Brexit done”. Even here, a 53-40 per cent majority said they would allow any EU citizen to come to Britain if they had a job to go to. The majority includes as many as 46 per cent of Leave voters.

Of course, views might change. A future government seeking to lower the barriers between the UK and EU would need to sustain the current majority in favour of admitting EU workers. The point, rather, is that it’s a battle that can be won. 

For both main parties, the immediate political challenge is how to stop the boats. Here is a classic example of competence mattering more than policy. Rishi Sunak is suffering not because voters say flights to Rwanda are a bad idea but because they think the plan won’t work. A Savanta poll last month for the Daily Telegraph found that 48 per cent liked the policy in principle but just 22 per cent believed it would reduce the number of migrants crossing the channel. As many as 68 per cent thought it would either make no difference (52 per cent) or actually cause numbers to increase (16 per cent). No wonder that when Savanta asked respondents to rate the government’s record on 13 issues immigration came last, below even the NHS.

For the Tories to recover, it won’t be enough for the planes to start taking off. Sunak needs clear evidence that deterrence is working, and far fewer boats are crossing the Channel. Failure cannot be excused by saying “it seemed a good idea at the time.”

Labour’s problem is different. It has always opposed the Rwanda plan. Its challenge is to find an alternative. The accusation it will face—and is already facing—is that it has no way to deter people who hope to live perfectly well in Britain in the informal economy, unnoticed by officialdom. If the Rwanda plan won’t stop this pull factor, what will? 

Enter the debate about ID cards. Those of us voting in next week’s elections will have to prove our identity. Millions more will do so for the first time at the coming general election. On its own, it’s an unnecessary solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. But it’s unlikely to be reversed and could set a useful precedent. Is there a case for a national identity system that gives us access to all the benefits of citizenship?

Elements of this already exist. We need evidence of our identity when we open a bank account, get a job, claim welfare payments and so on. Other countries are already joining the dots to make life easier for citizens as well as to prevent fraud and other crime. Estonia is in the lead. Its ID “cards” exist in many forms, including on smartphones. Could we develop a system that does not intrude in our daily lives but makes it harder to live completely under the ID radar? If so, we could start to deter people living in dreadful conditions in northern France who spend thousands of pounds to risk their lives to cross the Channel in search of a better life.

According to YouGov, 54 per cent back “the introduction of a system of national identity cards in Britain”. Just 27 per cent oppose it. The majority has held steady since before the last election. In the long run the popularity of such a reform will rise or fall depending on how well it works. But for the moment, Labour needs to offer an alternative to the Rwanda plan at the coming election. A fresh approach to the rules and benefits of British citizenship might be more popular than many think.