Brexit was not a vote to pull up the drawbridge – but it offers a unique opportunity to address the public’s immigration concerns

Brexit was not a vote to pull up the drawbridge – but it offers a unique opportunity to address the public’s immigration concerns

Last year’s vote to leave the EU has frequently been misinterpreted as a mandate to pull up the drawbridge. There are also some who argue that the decision of Leave voters was primarily fuelled by racism, nativism or intolerance. But are these issues really that simplistic?

Open Europe has today published a new paper, Beyond the Westminster Bubble, which aims to understand what the public really thinks about immigration. We wanted to find out where public concerns really lie and what form of “control” would help address them. Our research combined a 4,000 person ICM poll across Great Britain with a series of focus groups in England conducted by Public First in the North East, North West, East Midlands, and West Midlands. The focus groups were comprised of those groups who have been described as the “just about managing” population, including primarily Leave voters.

We found that while the public do want greater control over immigration, they do not see Brexit as a mandate to close our borders to new arrivals. A majority (56%) of those we polled would support a system that allows immigrants to come to the UK on the condition that social and economic controls are in place, over a system that simply reduces the total number of immigrants arriving in the country (36%).  It is also not true that all Leave voters want a dramatic reduction in immigration: 43% preferred a flexible of controls to a flat reduction in numbers. 

Our focus groups also highlighted a crisis of confidence in the current system and called for more selective mechanisms than arbitrary targets and caps. They dismissed the government’s “tens of thousands” target as a meaningless “soundbite”, and stressed that an immigration system should place more emphasis on skills and the needs of the UK:

 “You can’t just set a number and then say that’s the right amount. You need to look at what people bring with them”

“It’s not about the cap; it’s about filling the roles that we need”

We found no evidence that public attitudes to immigration are driven primarily by racism and intolerance. By contrast, the public consistently ranked race, religion and sexual orientation as the least important factors to consider in determining entry to the UK. This was the case for both Leave and Remain voters, as well as those who consider immigration and top-three priority concern for the country. Instead, the public’s primary considerations were whether a potential immigrant has a criminal background, whether they have a specific job offer, and whether their job is in an area where the UK has a skills shortage.

On the whole, our poll showed that the public hold mixed views on immigration – most people see both its positive and negative effects on the country. Importantly, they don’t think about immigration in a vacuum. There is a general recognition that public policy problems – such as pressure on the NHS or schools – may be exacerbated by immigration, but have other important causes which the government needs to address. In almost all areas, the public believes government under-investment either equals or outweighs high-levels of immigration in explaining pressures on public services. This was particularly the case for local healthcare and social care services. The public as a whole wants to see the government use other policy levers to address such issues, for example by improving skills levels, arguing that this would reduce their concerns about the impact of immigration.

Our report highlights a lack of confidence in the current immigration system – the public does want a new policy approach to deliver greater control over immigration. However, this does not translate into pulling up the drawbridge. The public want a sensible and flexible approach to managing migration that includes increased background checks on those coming to the UK, and that takes into account the skills that a potential immigrant brings with them.

Although immigration is often seen as a polarising and divisive issue, there is common ground upon which to design a system that truly addresses the public’s concerns. Brexit now offers a unique opportunity to do just that.

The report “Beyond the Westminster Bubble: What people really think about immigration” can be downloaded from the Open Europe website here