Shifting Ground: Views on immigration during the long term and during election campaigns

A major new research study by Ipsos looks at how British attitudes towards immigration have changed over the long term and during election campaigns.

A new study by Ipsos looking at how British attitudes towards immigration have changed over the long term and during election campaigns is published today. The report, “Shifting Ground”, combines existing data with new findings from a longitudinal study which followed voters during, throughout, and after the 2015 General Election campaign in order to track changes in individuals’ attitudes.

The study finds concerns about immigration have indisputably risen over the long term. The importance of immigration as an issue facing Britain on the Economist/Ipsos Issues Index reached record levels in 2015, with 56% of the public mentioning it in September; the highest level ever recorded since the series started in the 1970s.

As well as growing concern overall, there were changes in the profile of people who are concerned about the issue. In particular, in the early 2000s there was relatively little difference between the oldest and youngest generations on concern about immigration, but in the last few years there is a growing generational divide with older generations having become much more concerned than younger generations.

Over time, immigration has also become a more political issue. Throughout much of the 2000s, newspaper readership and where people lived were the best predictors of how likely people were to think immigration was an important issue in our statistical models - with what political party you supported largely absent. But this has changed markedly in recent years, with political allegiance now being the most important predictor of concern about immigration.

Although immigration has become much more of a salient issue during successive general elections, it still remains a second order issue behind the economy and healthcare. Our unique longitudinal study shows little evidence that election campaigns themselves shift public views on immigration. Only 29% of the public noticed any discussion of immigration during in the last month of the 2015 general election campaign, and the impact of this on attitudes appears to have been minor.

The report also shows that there has been a shift in the perceived “taboo” around immigration. For many years a majority of the public said we weren’t talking about immigration enough. This has changed in recent years, with the majority of people now saying we are discussing immigration more now than at the time of the 2010 election – 57% say more and only 10% say less.

Nearly four in ten (37%) say we are still talking about immigration too little, but 27% now say we are talking about it too much and 28% about the right amount. This is a big increase in the proportion saying “too much” since 2011, when only 11% said we were talking about it too much, suggesting more public discourse has not brought about a happy medium, rather further polarisation.

Yet the fact people now feel we’re talking about immigration more is not driving better understanding of the issue. People overestimate the number of immigrants to Britain, and this varies between supporters of different parties. On average, in our study, people thought that 21% of the UK population is foreign born when the latest official estimate is around 13%.

The longitudinal study will continue throughout 2016, to measure how immigration attitudes change in the coming months as the refugee crisis continues to play out and the UK’s EU referendum keeps immigration control firmly in peoples’ minds.

Technical note

The research was conducted via the Ipsos online panel with British adults aged 16+ years. The first wave of the study was conducted with 4,574 respondents (fieldwork completed from 25 February to 4 March 2015). The timing and response rates for subsequent waves of the survey are outlined in the full report. 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 was then weighted to reflect these quotas.

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