Popular wisdom has it that Britain is a country which is tough on immigration. For people like me who campaign for a fair and humane immigration system, it can sometimes feel like swimming against the tide.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the popular wisdom is wrong. New data, released today by IMiX in partnership with Ipsos MORI, shows that the British public are positive about immigration and that there is fertile ground to build support for a more open and welcoming immigration system.
The data is the first wave of polling in a new project that will track the public’s views on all aspects of immigration – not just at one point in time, but over a period of months and years, so we will see trends as they emerge. What’s more, our data will tell us why people’s views are changing.
We think the data shows that the tide has turned and that immigration reform campaigners are speaking for the consensus view in Britain. Some examples: By 45% to 31%, British people agree that immigration is a positive for the country. Twice as many people agree that immigration enriches our culture and makes the UK a more interesting place to live (47% vs 24%). There was no sign of public consent for a cut in the number of people coming to the UK to work in professions as diverse as doctors, nurses, academics, computer and software experts, and care home workers.
Of those who say they have become more positive about immigration in recent years, half said the reason is that recent discussions have highlighted how much people who migrate to the UK contribute. There is a large section of the public (27%) whose brightening views of immigration have been driven by contact with people who’ve migrated to the UK, either at work or in their social life. Overall, half of Britons think immigration enriches the UK, while only a quarter disagree.
Meanwhile, negative stereotypes about people who migrate to the UK are on the wane – there’s been a drop of five points in the percentage of people who think either that migrants take jobs away from British people or that migrants take up scarce welfare services. And public satisfaction with how the government is dealing with immigration is at 11% to 57% dissatisfied (this has been steady over the past three years).
The percentage of people who listed immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain today has halved from 18% to 9% in two years. It’s likely part of this is down to displacement – Brexit is crowding other issues out – but it means that some of the heat has gone out of the debate.
What lessons are there for people who support a positive, constructive immigration system from these findings? The first is that we should be confident in our message, because we represent the popular position. The narrative that Britain is an anti-immigration country is wrong. We should be talking instead about building, mobilising and amplifying the supportive majority.
Second, is that campaigning done well makes a difference. Over the past year or so, two stories stand out: the Windrush scandal and the status of EU citizens already resident in Britain after Brexit. Both were notable for being humanising: throughout spring last year, barely a day went by without the newspapers splashing with photos of someone who came to Britain as a child, lived and worked here all their life, but found themselves at the sharp end of the Home Office’s hostile environment. Fears of the same treatment are now being raised by EU citizens who have been part of our communities for years.
The result is that the debate has been humanised. We’ve moved to some extent away from an abstract debate about net numbers towards one about values, people, and what kind of country we want to be. And the public has moved with us. Our job over the next 12 months has got to be to keep providing the human face.
There are challenges we must be aware of too. Talk of widespread anger in Britain might be overdoing it but the number of people who’re pessimistic about their future has increased (from 19% in 2016 to 23% today) and the number who think life is getting worse rather than better has gone up (from 49% to 58%). This pessimism isn’t translating into toughening immigration views, but we need to remain vigilant and continue to demonstrate that people who migrate to Britain contribute locally and nationally and enrich our lives.
Similarly, while public understanding that immigration is good for the economy is high, the feeling that economic growth benefits people personally is not – we found just 23% of people agreed it did, while 32% didn’t. This disconnect between the story of the net economy and people’s feelings about their local or personal economy can be fatal.
To people working on immigration reform, the picture our data paints should be, I hope, familiar but reassuring. The public is positive about immigration and we have a solid position from which to build winning levels of support for constructive reform. The challenge now will be to learn from what has worked in the past and to build campaigns based on what the evidence shows has an impact.
Alex Mitchelmore is the Media Manager at IMiX, the communications hub for the UK immigration and asylum reform movement