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13 November 2014

Has anti-immigration feeling peaked?

Many voters the main parties have lost to Ukip are now gone for good.

By Tim Wigmore

Ukip’s looming victory in the Rochester and Strood will be the latest reminder of the potency of immigration in British politics today. As the latest Ipsos MORI Issues Index survey reminds us, the public considers immigration to be the most important issue facing Britain today.

Yet the notion that Britain is united in anti-immigrant hostility betrays Ukip’s inconvenient truth: May 2015 might mark the high point of the public’s concerns with immigration. The Britain of tomorrow stubbornly clings onto the unfashionable view that immigrants tend to be culturally beneficial, hardworking and help the perilous finances of UK PLC by bringing in more than they take out.

Age is the great dividing line in the immigration debate. 20 years ago, concern about immigration was relatively equal between different age cohorts. Now it is overwhelmingly the preserve of the elderly: 51 per cent of over 65 year-olds consider immigration to be among the most important issues facing the country today, compared with 23 per cent of under-25s.

Perhaps most significant is the educational divide. As this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey found, 60 per cent of graduates think immigration has benefited Britain economically, compared with 17 per cent of non-graduates. As well as being better educated, those at university are more likely to develop friendships with foreign people and go on to study or work abroad. In time, Tony Blair’s target that 50 per cent of young people go to university might just be the single greatest roadblock to Ukip’s advance. Despite the trebling of tuition fees in 2010, there are more young people studying at university today than ever before.

The rise in university students is not the only reason to suggest that anti-immigration feeling may soon have peaked. Paradoxically, people become less concerned by immigration as they are exposed to more of it. 64 per cent of the white British population in the 10 per cent least ethnically diverse wards think that immigration should be “reduced a lot” compared to 44 per cent in the 10 per cent most ethnically diverse wards.

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If London represents the future of Britain, it is one that should terrify Ukip. The 2011 Census found that 37 per cent of Londoners were born outside the UK, and only 45 per cent of London’s population was white British. The capital was a palpable exception to the embrace of Ukip this year. Perhaps, as Ukip communities spokeswoman and deputy chair Suzanne Evans suggested, London is simply too “cultural, educated and young” for the party.

This should all pose a warning to political parties about trying to mimic Ukip’s rhetoric on immigration. Ultimately, tub-thumping on immigration, and perpetuating myths rather than challenging them, will lose more votes than it gains. Many of those voters lost to Ukip are now gone for good. Chasing forlornly after them will only alienate the rest of the electorate.