Shifting Ground: Attitudes towards immigration and Brexit

Ipsos publishes the report of its longitudinal study, Shifting Ground, which finds Britons are becoming more positive about immigration.

The author(s)
  • Glenn Gottfried Public Affairs, Ipsos North
  • Alexandra Palmqvist Aslaksen Ipsos Public Affairs, UK
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A new Ipsos report based on research for Unbound Philanthropy sheds light on how the British public’s attitudes towards immigration change over time.

The longitudinal study, carried out during 2015 -2016, found that we are becoming more positive towards immigration, despite the majority of people still wanting levels reduced. The two last waves focused on immigration and Britain’s relationship with the EU. The final wave explored a wider set of social and political attitudes to explain why the public voted as they did in the 2016 referendum.

The report uncovers eight key findings from the study:

1. People have become MORE positive about immigration in the last few years

Over the seven waves, the proportion rating the impact of immigration on Britain as positive increased (to 46%) and the proportion saying negative decreased (to 34%), and those scoring it as neutral remained relatively stable.

2. BUT the majority of people still want immigration reduced

In the final wave of the study in October 2016, we found six in 10 people (60%) overall wanting to see immigration levels reduced – almost identical to the first wave in February 2015, so although the public has grown more positive towards immigration, the majority still to want numbers reduced.

3. Those who are most open to immigration are most stable in their views 

The study showed that those who have the most positive attitudes towards immigration changed their opinions the least. This group is the most consistent in their opinion and at the individual level, with less movement from wave to wave per person.

4. There are few demographic or attitudinal differences between those who have become more positive or negative about immigration

Surprisingly, there were no major differences between demographic groups in those who changed their attitudes. The most striking attitudinal sub-group difference was that those who said they were “living comfortably” on their present income became more positive about immigration (31%) compared with those who said they were “finding it very difficult” to live on their current income (23%).

5. Sovereignty and anti-immigrant feeling drove the EU referendum vote, but this is closely tied to a broader sense of distrust of the system and nostalgia

The Leave vote was primarily driven by nativist (i.e. putting the native born population first) and anti-immigration views, such as believing that immigrants take away jobs from real Britons, and a feeling that one is a stranger in one’s own country. Nativist and anti-immigration sentiments in turn are driven by views such as not valuing a diversity, and not believing it is important to listen to others’ perspectives.

6. BUT there is not one type of Leave or Remain voter, demographically or attitudinally

Using a segmentation technique, the study revealed a spectrum of Leave and Remain voters, from different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds. The seven segments, three remain, three leave and one split, demonstrate that you cannot stereotype Leave and Remain voters, as their political and social attitudes varied significantly. For example, the most pro-Remain group were also actually the most likely to say they were finding it difficult to live on their income.

7. Brexit has revealed new political fault lines – but other traditional party political divides remain

Our large sample size in the study allowed for analysing four groups of respondents further: Conservative Remainers, Conservative Leavers, Labour Remainers, and Labour Leavers. The analysis shows how there are three areas of issues

  • ones where the referendum vote is a greater unifier than party support – for example, nostalgia and distrust of experts was stronger among Leave than Remain voters, regardless of whether they are Labour or Conservative voters
  • ones where party lines are still strong – for example, a sense that the economy is rigged in favour of the rich and that austerity has hit them hard is stronger among Labour than Conservative voters, regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum
  • and issues where party support and referendum vote interact – for example, there is a gradient from Conservative Leavers at one end to Labour Remainers at the other end on issue such as whether society should emphasise collective welfare, opposition to political correctness, support for gay marriage, views on the death penalty

8. The “system is broken” for a large majority of people, but it is when this sentiment is combined with a sense of personal threat that it affects behaviour

Although a majority of people believe that they system is broken (64%), only half of that (29%) believe they do not personally benefit from economic growth in Britain. When we look more closely at the group who believe the system is rigged by those who said they benefit from economic and those who do not, the analysis shows that it is when individual feels the system works against them personally that their attitudes and behaviour are most affected. For example, two-thirds (64%) of those who feel they personally don’t benefit from economic growth think others receive priority over them compared with 44% of those who think the system is rigged, yet personally benefit from economic growth.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director at the Ipsos Social Research Institute said:

Immigration has been one of the key issues facing the country for the last two decades. Our findings show that over the last two years, there has been a shift to more positive views on the impact of immigration, with a bigger change taking place after the EU referendum. However, the proportion of people wanting immigration levels to be reduced overall remains unchanged. Concern has not gone away, although some may be reassured by the Brexit vote, and others who were more positive about immigration may have been galvanised to express a more positive view. The close relationship between immigration and the Brexit vote is also confirmed by the study, with concern about immigration by far the biggest driver of how people voted in the Referendum.  And in turn the study emphasises that it is often cultural concerns – such as not valuing diversity, opposition to political correctness, nostalgia – that are most associated with this anti-immigrant view, more so than economic concerns.


Technical notes:

  • The research was conducted via the Ipsos online panel with British adults aged 16+ years, on behalf of Unbound Philanthropy.
  • The first wave of the study was conducted with 4,574 respondents (fieldwork completed from 25 February to 4 March 2015).
  • For Wave 6, the panel was topped up with new members enable greater sub-group analysis.  The final wave of the study comprised 4,071 people and fieldwork was completed 13-20 October 2016.  In total, 1,301 people completed all seven waves of the study.
  • Quotas were applied in the first wave to achieve a representative sample of the population across Great Britain including age, gender and region.
  • Each of the subsequent waves were then weighted to reflect these quotas.
The author(s)
  • Glenn Gottfried Public Affairs, Ipsos North
  • Alexandra Palmqvist Aslaksen Ipsos Public Affairs, UK

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