It’s good to talk, but also to listen. How listening to the public can add light rather than heat to the immigration debate

  • Election 24
  • Immigration

Dr Heather Rolfe, Director of Research and Relationships, British Future 

In this piece, Heather Rolfe of the think tank British Future argues that using evidence – including on public attitudes – could calm the debate on immigration and pave the way for constructive policy solutions.  

Recent research shows UK attitudes to immigration are among the most positive internationally and have moved significantly in a positive direction for almost ten years. But you wouldn’t know this from the current political debate.

Immigration is likely to feature strongly in the pre-election debate and there’s a danger that it could add more heat than light.

Don’t make promises that can’t be kept 

Public confidence on immigration is hard to gain and easy to lose. Years of failed promises to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands have taken their toll. Recently, concerns about the number of people arriving in small boats, alongside the absence of workable solutions, has left the public disillusioned. In August the British Future/Ipsos immigration tracker survey found two-thirds of people are dissatisfied with the way the Government is dealing with immigration, the highest level in the tracker’s history.

Attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees are currently polarised, and so is the asylum debate. Workable solutions are needed. At British Future we have developed ten policy proposals which our research suggests could gain broad public support. Guided by the principles of ‘control and compassion’ they include faster decisions, more and safer returns, a new humanitarian visa and cooperation with the EU.

Policies on immigration for work could meet employer needs and public preferences

Policymakers often assume that the public wants less immigration and employers always want more. Yet evidence suggests that the public recognises the need for employers to recruit from outside the UK. This becomes most apparent when people are asked about specific occupations, as the table shows.

Would you prefer the number of migrants doing the following jobs to be increased, remain the same or reduced?

Our August 2023 tracker found almost eight in ten people in favour of increasing the number of migrant nurses and doctors, or keeping them the same. Almost three-quarters support this approach for social care and seasonal agricultural workers. Perhaps most surprisingly, most people would also support at least continuing current numbers of migrant recruits in construction, teaching, universities, road haulage, hospitality and IT. The public doesn’t just value highly skilled migration, or to meet the needs of services rather than business. They see the need for lower skilled too.

Attitudes have become more positive since 2015 and in 2022 we asked why this was.  More than four in ten (42%) who said they were now more positive said discussions about the role of migrants since the referendum had highlighted the contribution of migrants to the UK. The pandemic also played a role in this shift, with more than half saying it had made them more aware of the role of migrants in key services such as health and social care.

The pandemic also saw other concerns become more prominent, in particular the economy. Labour and skills shortages contributed to slow recovery. In 2022 British Future’s attitudes survey for its 10th anniversary found 53% in agreement with the statement ‘Immigrants’ skills and labour are necessary to help Britain’s economic recovery’ and 23% with the alternative  ‘Immigration to Britain will damage Britain’s economic recovery by taking away jobs from people already living here’. As the table shows, this is almost the reverse of our original survey in 2012.

In the space of ten years, immigration lost salience and migrants were seen as part of the solution to the challenge of economic recovery rather than a problem. This change in perspective gives more scope to use immigration as part of future strategies to assist employers and grow the economy.

Resist tough talking

Politicians like to say their opponents have lost control of immigration: think of Labour’s 2015 ‘controls on immigration’ mug and stone tablet. More recently in June when record levels of net annual migration were announced, Labour politicians criticised the government for losing control both of asylum seekers and migrant labour.

The loss of control message appeals to politicians because it taps into people’s concerns, especially those who voted Leave to exert greater control of the UK’s borders. Our tracker survey finds consistently that the public favours an approach which prioritises control. It also shows that that almost half would like to see numbers reduced (22% would like them increased and 22% to stay the same).

A future government may find it hard to substantially reduce levels of net migration, and be itself accused of ‘losing control’. Unemployment remains low and employers report persistent shortages. In some sectors, for example health and social care and agriculture, they are of very long standing and are hard to resolve. Others, for example finance, IT and Higher Education, need an international workforce for innovation and growth. It also seems likely that the UK may need to open its doors to new groups needing safety and sanctuary.

It was also planned migration, rather than loss of control, which led to record net migration figures. These included migrants from Hong Kong, Ukraine and of social care workers and students, all routes with broad public support and which meet the UK’s obligations and economic needs.

It’s good to talk, and for politicians to listen

When our tracker respondents were asked what has made them more positive about immigration than at the time of the referendum, discussions they had about the contribution of migrants was top of the list. Other research shows that people are keen to leave the disputes of the referendum period behind and would welcome a less heated debate. Politicians from all sides should welcome and respect that preference, since it creates the conditions for a more constructive debate. This has to include listening to the public over difficult topics, such as asylum and pressures on housing and services.

The public has found talking about immigration helps. It’s time for politicians to tone down the rhetoric, listen to the public and find workable policies which can gain public consensus. Our research findings suggest this may be easier than they think.

About the author

Heather Rolfe is Director of Research and Relationships at British Future. She was previously Head of Research at Demos. Prior to that she led the social policy team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research where her work focused on the economic and social impact of migration, including public attitudes.


Image credit: Fons Heijnsbroek, Unsplash