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  1. Election 2024
13 June 2015

What do ethnic minority voters think about immigration?

How do ethnic minority voters differ on immigration from the public at large?

By Ryan Shorthouse

Attracting the support of ethnic minorities has been a challenge for the Conservative Party, with support traditionally lagging behind Labour. For this reason, the recent news that the party significantly boosted its share of the vote in the recent election has provided Conservatives with (another) reason to be cheerful.  

This is an encouraging sign, but complacency would be a mistake. The Conservative Party needs to be asking itself what more it can do to further strengthen its appeal to ethnic minority voters, especially as they are set to rise significantly as a proportion of the electorate in the coming years.

In our new report published today, we found that changing the party’s immigration policy is one of the top changes which would encourage ethnic minority individuals not intending to vote Conservative to consider it. Nearly a quarter of such individuals select ‘changing immigration policy’, behind only changing NHS policy and changing economic policy.

But what changes do ethnic minorities want to see on immigration? Our new report, Understanding how ethnic minorities think about immigration, explores their attitudes towards immigrants and the immigration system in detail.

It is true that a high proportion of ethnic minorities, like the wider population, believe that the level of immigration is too high and that numbers should be reduced. But we wanted to examine how important this policy aim is relative to others. The results are interesting. When asked what the main characteristic of an ideal immigration system would be, 40 per cent of ethnic minorities choose ‘a system that is well managed and efficient at keeping out illegal immigrants’. Prioritising immigrants who will contribute to Britain’s economy and society is also widely regarded as important, with 25 per cent saying that it is the main characteristic of an ideal immigration system. This is markedly higher than the proportion who cite either fewer immigrants or no new immigrants at all, which we found to be relatively less important for ethnic minorities.

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In other words, getting more contributing immigrants is more important than a cap on numbers. Indeed, the policy which ethnic minorities would most like to see introduced (they picked two) to improve the immigration system is extending the time before which immigrants can receive benefits (43 per cent), much more popular than withdrawing from EU free movement (16 per cent) or tightening the cap on non-EU migration (22 per cent). This suggests that the Prime Minister is right to prioritise restricting access to in- and out-of work benefits in negotiations with EU partners.

Integration also shone through as an important priority for ethnic minorities. An overwhelming majority (88 per cent) of ethnic minorities agree that it is important that new immigrants make efforts to integrate into British society. To this end, 31 per cent of ethnic minorities support free English language classes for immigrants.

Importantly, these policy priorities chime with those of the wider population. While there are differences in emphasis, with ethnic minorities less focused on reducing the number of immigrants than the wider population, there is no separate policy offer which political parties need to make to ethnic minorities. .

However, ethnic minorities do have distinctive views to the wider population on immigration. First, ethnic minorities are markedly more welcoming of different types of immigration than the wider population. 93 per cent of ethnic minorities do not want fewer international students admitted to the UK, compared to 80 per cent of the wider population. 84 per cent of ethnic minorities do not want a reduction in the number of skilled manual workers admitted compared to 74 per cent of the wider population. When considering particular types of immigrants, from skilled workers to asylum applicants, ethnic minorities are more inclined to embrace their arrival than the wider population.

Furthermore, ethnic minorities are far more positive about both the economic and cultural impact of immigration on Britain. For instance, while 72 per cent of ethnic minorities agree that immigration has provided skills for the economy, only 42 per cent of the wider population agree. In turn, 45 per cent of ethnic minorities agree that immigration has depressed wages for British workers compared to 60 per cent of the wider population. This is especially interesting given that ethnic minorities are more likely to be in relatively poorly paid occupations, and are more likely to work for less than the living wages. In fact, in our polling, we found ethnic minorities more likely to agree to every suggested positive effect of immigration than the wider population and equally, less likely to agree to every suggested negative effect.

It has been suggested that there is little difference between ethnic minorities and the wider population on immigration. This is contradicted by our evidence. Ethnic minorities are more welcoming of immigrants and more positive about the impact of immigration.

Of course, ethnic minorities are not a homogenous group. Interestingly, our report finds differences in attitudes among different ethnic groups.  Black Caribbeans and Black Africans are particularly welcoming of different types of immigrants. Chinese people are the least welcoming in this regard. There is also evidence to suggest that those from white minority backgrounds are more likely to view immigration as economically successful – for example, agreeing that most immigrants pay tax – whereas those from non-white minority backgrounds are more likely to see it as culturally successful.

Political parties should focus on developing a narrative on immigration that ensures that the positive contributions, both economic and social, that most immigrants make to Britain are articulated. This does not mean ignoring the challenges that immigration brings, but it does mean getting the balance right in the way that immigration is discussed. Rather than pursuing an unbalanced agenda that focuses primarily on caps and further clampdowns, it should develop a policy agenda that prioritises immigrants who contribute and that places competent management of the system at the forefront of debate. This will appeal to ethnic minorities as well as the wider population. 

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue and David Kirkby is Senior Research Fellow for Bright Blue. 

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