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Immigration - the right thing to be talking about?

While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past.

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration in Ipswich on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Most British people want less immigration and support the government’s intention to reduce it. Many will say it is among the most important issues facing Britain (below the economy of course). But when we ask people about problems where they live, only 18 per cent say it is an issue. Keith Vaz kept the debate about immigration alive last weekend following speeches from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and a party political broadcast from Ed Miliband in recent weeks. Immigration is an issue the media and politicians talk about, but how important is it to the public? Do politicians lead or follow on immigration?

A truism of public opinion research is that in any focus group, on nearly any subject matter, you can guarantee that immigration will be raised. There is resentment towards migrants who many feel accept low pay and poor conditions, therefore undercutting Britons in the labour market. That feeling of unfairness comes about because they are seen to be avoiding 'contributing' to the system, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of living in Britain. The difficult economic climate and hardship that many Britons and Britain itself have fallen into only hardens those attitudes.

That resentment was underlined in a 2011 poll for the BBC's Future State of Welfare, which found that three quarters of British adults agreed that there are some groups of people that should have their benefits cut. It will come as no surprise that immigrants came top of the list of who to cut from, above those claiming over £400 a week in housing benefit, the long-term unemployed and those on incapacity benefit.

This suggests that David Cameron’s announcement that migrants will lose their benefits after six months unless they have a chance of finding work will attract popular support. There is more evidence to suggest it will go down well in an Ipsos MORI poll for the UK Border Agency from 2009 in which three in four Britons agreed that "migrants should not have full access to benefits until they become citizens", while the Transatlantic Trends series from 2011 shows that most Britons think it is very important for migrants with low education to be allowed into Britain on the condition that they do not use any social benefits. The fact that the figures since Cameron’s speech show that his cuts would affect a minimal number of migrants will matter less; the gesture is an important one, the detail will be heard less.

But why is immigration once again top of the political agenda? All three leaders have addressed the issue in the space of a few weeks. While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past. Ipsos MORI analysis covering the period from 2000 to 2006 showed that spikes in public concern about immigration were closely related to spikes in media coverage of immigration – as is often the case with other issues such as the NHS and crime. So are our politicians ahead of the curve on this occasion or are they simply trying to out-manoeuvre each other?

Immigration has been a strong suit for the Conservative Party, rated as the best party on immigration every time Ipsos MORI has asked the question. However, in September last year, their lead over Labour on immigration was only seven points, where previously they had enjoyed double digit leads (a record lead of 29 points in 1978). Ed Miliband’s admission that Labour did not do enough on immigration is surely an attempt to close that gap even further. David Cameron's focus on immigration, and benefits, will be seen as an attempt to counter recent unrest among his own supporters and he’s picked an issue important to Conservative and UKIP voters (many of whom used to be Conservatives).

Politicians are often accused of spending too much time talking about issues that do not matter to the public. While the economy is the main issue concerning voters, immigration, in different guises, does matter to people. Whether it is because they are struggling to get a job or because of the perceived strain on the welfare state and public services, for many it is also about fairness. It is not that the British public unanimously sees immigration as a bad thing, but many object to immigrants' perceived lack of contribution to the system and their undercutting of domestic workers. David Cameron, on this issue, has chimed with public opinion.