2019 marked a major change in Government policy on immigration. The Conservatives dropped their unrealistic target of ‘tens of thousands’ (although they are still committed to bringing numbers down). In September, the Ipsos MORI Issues Index showed spontaneous concern about immigration at its lowest level in decades (10%). But does this represent a softening of attitudes, or even support for more relaxed immigration policies in the future?

Since 2015, we have been reviewing the views of the British public on immigration and its impact on Britain, and the data shows that the public are becoming more positive. Since the vote to leave the European Union, views about whether immigration has had a positive or negative effect have inverted: in August 2019, almost half (47%) said that immigration has had a positive impact on Britain, compared to 34% in June 2015. A majority still want to see immigration reduced (54%), but this has also fallen significantly in recent months and is down from over two-thirds (67%) in early 2015.

But are attitudes really changing? As part of the same study, in December 2018 to January 2019, one in five people (21%) said they had become less worried or more positive about the impact immigration has had on Britain in the past few years. Upon closer examination of the people who say their views have changed, the data suggests three key reasons.
Firstly, concern is falling because there is a perception that immigration is falling or will fall in the future. Of those who stated that their views had changed, 41% were influenced by the belief that immigration will have less of an impact due to falling numbers of immigrants now or in the future. This reflects a persistent concern around numbers of immigrants arriving in Britain, and not necessarily a move towards more positive attitudes.

However, while most people state that they want to see the number of immigrants to the UK reduced, when asked about different occupations of people coming to the UK from the EU after Brexit, views are more nuanced – and most people want to see numbers of immigrants in key occupations stay the same or increase. In August, almost half of the public said they wanted to see numbers of doctors (47%) and nurses (49%) from the EU increase after Brexit, compared to 13% who would like to see numbers decrease. In comparison to 2018, there have also been significant increases in people who want to see the numbers of care home workers, students and construction labourers increase. The group of immigrants where people most want to see a decrease is bankers!

This leads us to the second reason: people in Britain are becoming increasingly aware of the contribution of immigrants. More than half (51%) of those who stated their views had changed attributed this to seeing the contribution of immigrants. These findings highlight the influence a positive narrative surrounding the contribution of immigrants has on public perception.

Almost half (49%) agree that immigration enriches British culture and makes the UK a more interesting place to live, compared to a quarter who disagree.

Lastly, there is a feedback loop: as people meet more immigrants they tend to be more positive. A quarter (27%) of respondents stated that they personally know more migrants socially or through work.

It does, therefore, appear that attitudes are softening in some quarters, with people in Britain becoming more aware of the contribution immigrants can make to society. It is not yet clear whether this reflects a significant reversal of attitudes, or whether the trend will continue.

With trust in the Government’s approach to immigration low (and falling – 58% of people are dissatisfied and significantly fewer (9%) state that they are satisfied compared to late last year) it may signal an appetite for a more honest conversation around immigration and its impact on Britain. It is a conversation we will need to have because immigration is fundamental to how the economy works, not least because of our ageing population. There are some signs here that the new Government may find it easier to talk about immigration in 2020.