Bobby Duffy, MD of the polling organisation Ipsos MORI, is well placed to explain how complex the answers to this question are.
Speaking at a recent Migration Matters Trust roundtable, Duffy noted that immigration is a long-standing concern among the British public. Nevertheless, the issue is surrounded by myths and misconceptions – and people’s attitudes are surprisingly nuanced and flexible.
Asked how many immigrants there are in Britain, respondents guessed more than double the true total – 25% of the population, as opposed to the real figure (from the 2011 census) of 13%.
Asked why they thought immigration was so high, people gave as their top reason the view that those entering the country illegally weren’t being counted. When told the census figure, 46% of respondents said they still believed that immigration was “much higher than 13%”. 56% thought that people coming into the country illegally weren’t being counted.
Those interviewed also had a skewed view of current types of immigration, exaggerating the number of asylum-seekers and consistently underestimating those entering the country for study, work and family reasons.
Beyond these misperceptions, however, the views of the public on immigration are far more nuanced than is usually reported in the press. Only one in five respondents thought that immigration had adversely affected them personally. And while there was a strong majority view that immigration from the EU was bad for the NHS (55% as against 27%), a majority also believed that immigration was good for culture and society in Britain (42-36%) and for Britain’s economy (46-30%).
Overall, there are much more positive attitudes to the immigration of skilled than unskilled workers. For business, the key concern is the ease of visa-free recruitment from across the EU.
Our understanding of these issues is further deepened by a new study looking at attitudes to both immigration and Brexit. Among its startling preliminary conclusions is the fact that, in essence, the system is broken for everyone – a majority of those for and against Brexit think that the British economy is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, and that life is getting worse. Differences arise over issues such as competition – leavers much more than remainers believe that certain groups are getting preferential treatment.
Finally, attitudes to immigration are strongly differentiated by age. The generation born since 1980 is much less concerned about the issue than older people. This finding is further backed up by an Opinium survey reported in the Guardian, showing that people aged 18 to 34 put immigration at the bottom of their list of priorities for the Brexit negotiations.