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25 July 2023

Voters love the Illegal Migration Bill

Polling suggests the public is more unsettled by small boat crossings than Twitter would have us believe. Why is that?

By James Johnson

There are causes that get broad levels of support in Britain. Love for the NHS. Admiration for the monarchy. Fixing potholes. Here is another: approval of the government’s Illegal Migration Bill.

A recent poll by the firm I run, JL Partners, for the British Foreign Policy Group think tank proves as much. At the start of June we asked a representative sample of 2,000 British adults the following question: “The UK’s Illegal Migration Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords. The bill would see those who enter the UK via unauthorised routes removed to their home country, or a ‘safe’ third country, such as Rwanda. Do you support or oppose this policy?”

The answers were resounding: the British public support the bill by more than two to one, with 54 per cent in support and 23 per cent opposed. This is particularly high among Leave voters (77 per cent support) and Conservatives (78 per cent), with six in ten over-45s backing the new law.

But it also extends to those who you might suspect would vehemently resist a bill that has been pilloried on Twitter and by the academic left as an act of evil. Twice as many 18-44-year-olds support the bill as oppose it. Londoners back the bill by 48 per cent to 26 per cent. Labour voters approve of the bill by a margin of six points. Remain voters support it too. Every major group in British society is more likely to back the government’s plan than oppose it. That is the reality.

Some have suggested that the question was worded in a biased way. Though no question on any subject can ever be perfect, I think it was about as balanced as is possible. As to the charge that the word “illegal” may have made a difference, back in April we tested two versions of a similar question – one without the word “illegal”, one with it. The results were the same: majority approval of the policy.

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Why is the public so supportive? Illegal crossings to the UK sully a touchstone British value: fairness. People who work hard, day in and day out, and feel they are struggling – with their bills, their rent or housing status, their jobs – do not feel they are getting support from the government. So when they see migrants able to come here, access services, get on to housing lists, and be put up in hotels – they see what they perceive as the government rolling out the red carpet for others, ahead of them. With most voters, including those on social benefits who are a key part of Labour’s base, that does not sit right.

Voters do not want immigrants to be discriminated against, or for treatment to be inhumane. And people are open to refugees entering through existing schemes, such as the Ukraine route. But voters also endorse the basic logic of the bill to deter future migrants from entering the country illegally.

Some, such as Sunder Katwala of the British Future think tank, argue that the public are “balancers”. When you dig into their attitudes, they take a more nuanced position: supporting legal routes, allowing access to those who are originally from wartorn countries. Or sometimes they have a low level of awareness of the specifics of the bill itself. This is all true. But to argue that this is the ultimate public perception around immigration is to misunderstand public opinion.

Tony Blair spoke of the difference between two types of conversations with voters: the “three-second conversation” and the “three-minute conversation”. Have the immigration conversation for three minutes with a voter and the analysis of Katwala and others is probably right. But the problem is that many voters do not spend three minutes thinking about immigration – or, really, any government policy. The snap, three-second reaction to the issue of illegal migration is that it is unfair and that something should be done about it, fast.

On any policy, you can ask people complicated questions in surveys and get interesting answers, but most would have never even thought about such levels of nuance in the past. Take the social care policy in the 2017 election, an issue in which the same dynamic worked in Labour’s favour. When voters were polled on the detail, they were supportive. But when the three-second version became “the dementia tax”, it fell apart. Immigration is the same.

To gain politically from the issue of illegal immigration, the government will need to be able to show progress on it. Whether they can is doubtful. But if they are able to, do not underestimate the damage this might do to Labour. In today’s Britain, support for the Illegal Migration Bill is a hidden, quiet consensus.

[See also: Is immigration policy going anywhere?]

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