Immigration and the ballot box

Immigration was the issue that failed to bark in the general election campaign. But soon after, it rose to become THE most important issue facing the country in the eyes of the British public, with anxiety at record levels – partly propelled by the refugee crisis. We end the year with it playing a key role in the upcoming EU referendum debate.

As we entered the election campaign in April 2015, immigration was seen as the second most important issue facing Britain, after the NHS, in our monthly survey. However, only around one in six people (15%) said that immigration and asylum were important in determining their voting behaviour (though for UKIP supporters this rises to 52%). This is not surprising given that no political party is seen as having a convincing policy on immigration, and nor are the traditional parties seen to differentiate themselves on the issue.

Only 27% felt the Coalition Government’s handling of immigration was better than the previous Labour Government – and 26% said it was worse, with the rest saying both were the same.

In addition to this, only a small minority (15%) think the policies of the party they supported completely reflected their views on immigration (although this varies between parties, with only 8% of Conservative supporters thinking their party completely reflects their views, rising to 46% for UKIP supporters). There are different reasons why the public think the parties don’t reflect their views on immigration: the Conservatives are seen as not tough enough, while Labour’s policy was unclear to their supporters. Across the board, very few supporters of any party think their party’s policies are too tough.

While the refugee crisis intensified concerns over immigration this summer, it is not the sole driver of this rise. Our data shows there is little appetite among the public for Britain to accept more refugees, even though half (51%) have great sympathy for the refugees attempting to come to Europe (23% do not). Just over a third of people (35%) think that the UK Government should increase the number of refugees it accepts from areas of conflict such as Syria or Afghanistan, compared with two in five (41%) who oppose accepting more.

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But when people are presented with actual numbers and asked whether the number of refugees should be increased above the 20,000 the UK has already committed to accept, support for accepting more falls significantly to 28%.

In order to convince the public it has a credible policy on immigration, the Government will need to demonstrate how it can restrict it. This brings us on to Europe. The ability to restrict the free movement of people across Europe will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the EU membership referendum. When asked how they would vote in the referendum if it was not possible to change the laws of the EU to impose greater controls on the free movement of people, the public become significantly more likely to say they will vote to leave, from 31% to 43% (those who would vote to stay in decreases from 52% to 36%).

This all points to the difficult task ahead, especially when the public has little confidence that the Prime Minister will get a good deal for Britain from other European leaders; two-thirds (66%) say they doubt that he will get a good deal. So for an issue that made little impact on the outcome of the 2015 general election, immigration may well be the issue that shapes the EU referendum.