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FUTURE POLITICS

Reality Check

What voters really think about immigration
James Blagden, Sebastian Payne
January 14, 2024
Reality Check

“It’s abundantly clear that Britons feel very strongly that they want immigration cut significantly and perceptions are wildly out of step with reality. There is no dichotomy between controlling and reducing levels, the public wants both. It’s critical for the Government to demonstrate to current and prospective Conservative voters that they can reduce numbers to regain trust on this vital matter.”

Immigration is one of the most pressing issues In the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave the European Union, its salience rapidly fell down the public’s priorities. But with net migration reaching a record high of 745,000 in 2022, a watershed moment in public opinion has been reached as politicians have failed to reduce the numbers. Onward’s new research paper, Reality Check, backed up by opinion polling by Stack Data Strategy, examines the public’s mood on immigration.

Public perception of immigration levels is wildly out of kilter with reality. When asked how many migrants entered the UK last year, the average estimate was only 70,000 – almost ten times less than the actual level of net migration and 17 times lower than the gross immigration number of 1.2 million. 

But every group still thought their perceived level of immigration was too high, with 76% thinking numbers should be lower than their estimate. This includes over three-fifths of 18-24-year-olds and two-thirds of degree holders, Remain voters and Londoners. On average, people want immigration to be three times lower than they currently think it is. Half of people want immigration below 10,000, and 80% want it lower than 100,000.

Nearly nine in ten constituencies want immigration levels reduced and controls tightened. Clacton is the most hawkish seat, with 67% of its voters wanting greater control and lower numbers. Bristol Central is the most liberal place in the country, with 55% wanting higher levels of immigration and a more relaxed system. Of the 75 seats where people prefer higher immigration and relaxed controls, 52 are in London.

The public is twice as likely to think immigration costs rather than benefits the NHS (66% to 30%) and that immigrants receive more benefits than they pay in taxes (69% to 28%). While a small majority (56%) think immigration has undermined society and culture in Britain, a large minority say it enriches communities (41%). People are equivocal on where immigrants should come from, with 49% saying from countries with a similar culture to the UK, but 41% supporting immigration from various cultures.

Reality Check shows a generational divide on the benefits and drawbacks of immigration, despite all age groups wanting numbers to come down. Young people are more supportive of cultural arguments for immigration but far more sceptical about the economic benefits than older voters. Two-fifths of 18-24-year-olds think “introducing new customs and cultures” is a benefit, compared to 15% of those over 75. But those under 25 are twice as concerned that immigration leads to lower wages for UK workers than the oldest cohort. 

Sebastian Payne, Director of Onward, said: “It’s abundantly clear Britons feel very strongly that they want immigration cut significantly and perceptions are wildly out of step with reality. There is no dichotomy between controlling and reducing levels, the public wants both. It’s critical for the Government to demonstrate to current and prospective Conservative voters that they can reduce numbers to regain trust on this vital matter.”

Jim Blagden, Onward’s Head of Politics and Polling, said: “Voters do not believe that immigration policy is working well. By two-to-one, people think it costs rather than benefits the NHS and that immigrants receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. They want a policy prioritising higher wages for UK workers rather than low-wage migration and relieving pressure on housing and public services.”



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