High levels of concern in the UK over immigration expressed by public opinion through polling have been taken as a cue by political leaders, sections of the media and those opposing immigration to favour a tougher approach to immigration policy. The strong sentiment that migration must be reduced has been interpreted by the current government as a ‘mandate’ for their policy of reducing net-immigration.
Recent studies have attempted to look more closely at the question of public attitudes to immigration, yielding a much more nuanced picture. Rob Ford’s recent report, Parochial and Cosmopolitan Britain is a welcome addition to our knowledge of attitudes on migration. It highlights differences in attitudes according to the socio-economic profile of respondents published that hint to some optimism but also alerts to challenges about public opinion on immigration in the future.
We already know that opinion on immigration is not monolithic once you start asking about different types of migrants. Last year’s report by the Migration Observatory’s on understanding public opinion found that, when given the chance to differentiate between different types of migrants and routes where they would like to see reductions in levels of immigration, people tend to state a preference for reduction in low skilled workers, extended family and asylum seekers and much less appetite for reductions in students and high skilled workers. The paradox is that the government has strong policy levers for the latter but limited options on family, asylum seekers and low-skilled European workers so they are forced to make the largest cuts amongst those groups that public opinion actually do not see as a problem.
Rob Ford’s analysis is innovative in looking into the differences in attitudes between different population groups. His data, from the Transatlantic Trends annual survey on attitudes to migration across Europe and in North America, confirms that larger proportions of respondents in the UK have negative views on immigration than in most other countries. However, he also found that British respondents were also more divided in their views along generational and socio-economic lines. Young respondents, those that are better educated and financially well-off and the children of migrants tend to have more positive views than those who are older, less educated and poorer.
These factors often overlap, giving rise to distinct groups with varying attitudes to immigration:
‘The cumulative effects of these overlapping differences lead to a strong social polarization in immigration attitudes. At one pole are “parochial pensioners” who grew up in an immobile, mono-ethnic society where university education was a preserve of the elite, and contact with someone from another country was a rarity. At the other pole are the “cosmopolitan young”: highly educated, economically secure, and used to effortless travel across borders and regular mixing with people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.’
Ford suggests that in the future, as the young, cosmopolitan and educated replaces the older generation, tough policies towards immigration could alienate them as voters opening up a political space for more positive approaches on the part of political parties. On the other hand, older voters are much more likely to vote and political parties will be wary of losing their vote on this issue in the short term.
These conclusions could be tempered in two ways. The first, with regards to the older generation, is that more work needs to be done to find creative ways to reach older people who often find the changes brought about by migration more challenging. There are already examples of projects that try to bring this generation closer to new migrants to develop more personal relations with the newcomers and get a better understanding of who they are and why they are here. One example is the failte-isteach initiative in Ireland where older volunteers teach English to new migrants. This type of initiative builds on the fact that the elderly are often involved in community activities in their areas to bring them in contact with newcomers who can also benefit from their support.
The second issue is related to inequality. Britain is amongst the most unequal countries in the West and inequality seems to be increasing. Education and economic well-being, two factors identified by Ford, are important in this increase. Inequality is a big issue for migrants generally: they are often over-represented amongst those in low paid jobs and with poor housing and health outcomes. But Ford’s findings add another layer of concern about inequality to those direct effects: that higher inequality could bring harsher views on immigration amongst those who are at on the lower rungs. Perhaps it’s not the top concern when thinking about inequality but it is a further issue to think ahead, whether its permanence and growth mean an even more polarised debate on immigration rather than a convergence of views and attitudes.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.