Raphael Malek: Beware the idea that immigration is no longer an issue
Immigration reform is likely to be a key lens through which voters assess any Brexit deal secured by Theresa May.
“We are just a small island”; “We’re already overcrowded”; “We should get our own house in order first”: these are statements we’ve heard countless times in BritainThinks focus groups over the years (irrespective of the intended topic of the research). According to Ipsos MORI’s Issues Index, immigration has been in the top three issues facing the country for voters since at least 2007 and was the single biggest issue in 2016. Asked by the same pollster in June 2016 which issues will be most important in helping them to decide how to vote in the EU Referendum, ‘the number of immigrants coming into Britain’ came top.
And, after the referendum results were announced, Theresa May appeared to listen, making the end of free movement one of her negotiation red lines. Setting out her initial position in the Lancaster House speech, she said, “Brexit must mean control of number of people coming to Britain from Europe.”
Since then, immigration appears – at first glance – to have largely disappeared as an issue. Whereas 48% cited immigration as one of the most important issues facing the UK in June 2016, only 20% did so in June this year (behind Brexit, the NHS and roughly level with crime, education and housing). Meanwhile, an immigration white paper has been delayed to the end of the year and there has been little political debate about what immigration policy should be post-Brexit.
One theory is that the public have become more positive about immigration, possibly due to having been exposed to arguments in favour of it in the post-Brexit debate. Optimistic Remainers may even be hoping that this shift might lead to an acceptance of freedom of movement in exchange for softer Brexit terms – or a change of mind on the merits of Brexit altogether.
This theory depends on the assumption that voters are paying close attention to the post-Brexit debate. By contrast, BritainThinks’ Brexit Diaries research suggests they have actually tuned out. “You get the same old faces in; I’ve kind of lost interest in the content of what they’re saying” said one voter in our focus groups; “I know I should concentrate on all this and should take it all in, but it just doesn’t really bother me at the minute” said another.
When Ipsos MORI surveyed the minority of people who claimed to feel more positive about immigration since the EU Referendum (around 20% of the public), fewer than half of them said that this was as a result of being more aware of the benefits of immigration – and it is possible that these were voters who were already more positive than average to begin with. A larger number said they felt more positive about immigration because there are already fewer migrants coming to the UK post-referendum or because they are reassured fewer immigrants will come to the UK after leaving the EU.
Some might have assumed that the Windrush scandal could have led to a spike in positivity for immigration, as the public were made aware of the detrimental impact of a harsh system. While it is true that much of the public was outraged by Windrush according to an Ipsos MORI poll in May, the majority thought it was a result of Government incompetence and not because of hardline rules on immigration. Indeed, the poll suggested that voters support the hostile environment policy by 3 to 1. This may explain why the popular policy remained in place while Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary responsible for its bungled implementation, resigned.
There are some indications of a longer-term trend of increasingly positive assessment of the impact of immigration, as evidenced by the most recent British Electoral Survey. But this is a slow, gradual shift, linked to increased higher education participation and the simple fact that a higher proportion of voters know migrants personally (or are migrants themselves). It is also logically possible for some voters to both feel somewhat more positive when assessing the impact of immigration to date and still want more control over immigration.
Put simply, it appears as though the issue of immigration has not disappeared but has simply been suspended for now, temporarily superseded by Brexit as voters assume it is being dealt with. But our research suggests that immigration reform will be a key lens through which voters will assess the Brexit deal that Theresa May returns from Brussels with. If her deal does not provide an end to freedom of movement and some measure of control over immigration, the (already decreasing) chances of it being considered a good deal are very low indeed – and immigration will likely be back at the top of the political agenda.
As one Leave voter in a BritainThinks focus group earlier this year warned: “Brexit was sold to us on two issues, immigration and NHS. And it raises questions now: where’s everything that was promised?”