The media just loves the immigration debate, and Nick Robinson's programme tonight (The Truth About Immigration, 21:30 on BBC2) is proving the perfect hook. The programme includes our most recent British Social Attitudes finding that over 3 in 4 of us (77%) want to see a reduction in immigration. Such a high figure is of course newsworthy and yet, here at NatCen, we know that this is not a sudden trend. Since we first asked this question in 1995, when levels of immigration were relatively low, at least two-thirds of the population has consistently said that they would like to see a reduction in immigration. Politicians were out of step with the public back then, concerned that debating immigration would be seen as racist. Now they are prepared to talk openly about it, but are still struggling to keep up with the more complex nuances emerging.
One pivotal development is a trend to be a touch less negative about the economic impact of immigration. In 2013, 47% said they felt that immigration to Britain is bad for the UK economy, compared with 52% in 2011. The complexity of Brits' attitudes is put into even sharper focus when we break these numbers down: 54% of those who said immigration could be good for an economy, and 55% of those who said it could be good for Britain's cultural life, still said that they would like to see immigration reduced.
It seems that politicians have got half the messaging right. These numbers underline just how unhappy we are with current levels and so electoral promises to cap or cut are well aimed. However, these figures also highlight a more discerning public - one that acknowledges the net benefits of immigration, but also questions the current level.
Admittedly, these are murky political waters to navigate. Compounding this is the complexity of the relationship between attitudes and party affiliation.
It's a divisive issue for Labour. 40% of Labour party supporters said they thought that immigration is bad for the economy but 36% believe it is good for the economy, and while 40% think it's bad for British culture, and almost the same proportion, 41%, see it is as good. The coalition, too, is divided. 53% of self-identified Conservatives believe cultural life is undermined by immigration into the UK, compared with 20% of Liberal Democrats.
Beyond party lines, there are also wealth and educational cleavages. 60% of graduates, for example, think that immigration is good for the economy in marked contrast to 31% of the population as a whole. Among those with no qualification, 85% want less immigration and the same figure stands at 88% of those in higher grade manual jobs.
But crucially, and this is something that the press have yet to pick up on, when it comes to wealth, it is not just the poorest who are the most concerned about immigration. Of the four income groups, it is only the highest earners that are set apart from the rest, with just 70% wanting to see a reduction in immigration. For the two middle income groups and the lowest this number is slightly high: around four in five want to see a reduction. So although the most well-off are slightly more relaxed, concerns about immigration are echoed up and down the income ladder.
As it always does, British Social Attitudes is able to shed light on what the public think, in this case, on what is set to be an electoral keystone. As it so often does, British Social Attitudes demonstrates the complexity of the challenge that politicians face in winning over the public.