The headlines on UK immigration

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By Ruth Grove-White (MRN)

Public opinion polling is a popular activity these days. Policy-makers are anxious to be seen to be doing ‘what the public wants’ – especially on controversial issues such as immigration. As such researchers and lobbyists are keeping pollsters busier than ever, with varied results in terms of the credibility of data produced to support the conclusions drawn from them.

This week a number of public opinion polls were released which shed some undoubtedly gloomy light on attitudes regarding immigration and, as ever, leave a number of questions still open. In particular, I was reminded how difficult it can be for readers to understand the messages behind the headlines – an issue that I explored in a previous blog.

Anyway, without further ado, onto this week’s polls and their headline findings…

British Social Attitudes survey
The 29th annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) poll, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, was released on Monday. Involving over 3000 respondents, it has provided a thorough and robust tracking of public opinion on a broad range of social and political issues. There were no surprises in the findings on immigration given the negative tone of current public and political debate on the issue – but the written analysis provided by the BSA was extremely helpful in contextualising the data and understanding the possible patterns which it may reflect.

Overall, the BSA survey found that public support for some reduction in immigration to the UK overall has gone up, from 63% in 1995 to 75% in 2012. Given that annual net immigration levels have tripled during this period, this finding seems to suggest that public concerns about immigration remain high, regardless of actual migration levels. The poll also found that British public now views both the economic and cultural impacts of migration more negatively than in recent years – accompanying analysis suggested that the tough economic climate, and public debate about Islamic extremism and Muslim integration may have contributed, respectively, to these shifts.

The BSA findings also show that there are significant differences in the way that the public regards various groups of migrants. This reflects the findings of previous opinion surveys which have suggested that the public feels very differently about different migrant categories – a previous poll by the Migration Observatory also showed that the public often greatly over-estimates numbers of different migrant groups in the UK. The BSA results suggest that migrants’ country of origin is not a major determining factor in how the British public feels about them – but that their skill level is. Over 50% of respondents said that professional migration is a good thing. whether from Eastern Europe or Pakistan. Less than 20%, however, felt positively about unskilled labour migration from these regions.

Researchers also found differences in attitudes towards immigration depending on the respondents themselves. ‘Economically comfortable and socially cosmopolitan’ respondents were relaxed about migration, whilst ‘struggling, white working class voters’ were extremely anxious about it. They found that “attitudes have socially polarised over the [past] decade”, possibly reflecting the dual impact of concerns about immigration and the wider economy.

For more information on the migration polling, visit the BSA website; a very clear summary of the migration findings has also been put together by lead researcher Dr Robert Ford which you can find here.

Extremis Project poll
The Extremis research project also released public opinion poll findings this week. The team polled 1,725 British adults in late August (shortly after the end of the Olympics), with the aim of finding out whether specific policies would affect the way they would vote for political parties at the ballot box. At first glance the findings also made grim reading. 41% of all respondents would be more likely to support a party that pledged to halt all immigration into the UK. Almost as many (37%) would be more likely to endorse a political party that promised to reduce the number of Muslims in British society.

A key finding highlighted by the researchers was the ‘striking generational divide’ in attitudes towards multiculturalism and immigration. 60% of 18-to-24-year-olds would not be attracted to a party that pledged to stop all immigration. This stood in sharp contrast to the older respondents, where 54% of those aged 60 or above would vote for a party that championed such a policy. These findings have led analysts to call out to the Conservatives and Labour to better meet the more cosmopolitan outlooks of the next generation on issues such as immigration in future policies – although critics will argue that attitudes can change as people grow older and more data may be needed to understand this better.

Migrationwatch poll on students
Finally, the latest poll from MigrationWatch on public attitudes towards international students reminds us why public opinion polling results often have as much to do with the questioner as the respondent. They claim that their recent finding that “70% of the British public support a limit on foreign students” trumps the Migration Observatory finding last year showing that only 30% of the public wants to see student migration numbers reduced.

Could the responses to the MigrationWatch question possibly have something to do with the way the question was asked? According to the MigrationWatch website,

‘The question explained that about 250,000 foreign students from outside the EU arrive every year to study in Britain. They pay the full cost of studying and provide universities and colleges with valuable income. About one in five stay on legally after their studies and become long-term immigrants while others return home but, as there are still no exit checks, the number who have actually left is not known. Thinking about this, respondents were asked whether there should be a limit on foreign student numbers in British colleges and universities’.

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