Will the coronavirus pandemic change public attitudes to migration?

Polling suggests half of voters want to see lower levels of immigration after the pandemic – but some in Labour expect that opposition to soften.

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One of the big questions facing both the Conservatives and Labour is how immigration policy might change once the free movement of people from the EU ceases when the transition period ends later this year.

Officially, the government’s preference is for a points-based system that judges EU and non-EU migrants, yet precise details are scarce. What is clear, however, is that such a regime might actually increase net migration.

Labour, meanwhile, has yet to commit or even sketch out the broad contours of its own policy. Last year the party conference passed policy demanding the retention and extension of free movement, but its manifesto made clear that it would end, as did their manisfesto in 2017.

Keir Starmer suggested free movement to and from the EU ought to stay during his leadership campaign, but Nick Thomas-Symonds, his home secretary, would not be drawn one way or the other in an interview with Sky on Sunday.

But what do the public want – and might attitudes be shifting because of the coronavirus pandemic? New polling by Redfield and Wilton Strategies for the New Statesman reveals that 50 per cent of voters want to see the government adopt a policy that results in fewer people coming to the United Kingdom once the outbreak is over.

Almost one in four – 39 per cent – wish to see a policy that results in about the same number of people settling in the UK, while 12 per cent want a more liberal regime that drives up inward migration.

Preferences are heavily split along partisan lines, with 73 per cent of voters who backed the Conservatives in 2019 favouring lower immigration. Just 26 per cent of Labour voters took the same position, with 55 per cent instead favouring no change in levels of immigration. Nineteen per cent want to see more inward migration.

The number of Tory voters who say they are receptive to anything but a more draconian approach is far lower. Twenty-two per cent want to keep immigration at about the same level, while only 8 per cent back higher levels of immigration.

Figures such as those might well influence the thinking of a Labour leadership that is keeping a close eye on public opinion, and calibrating its policy responses accordingly.

Some on the frontbench, however, believe the months to come could see the popular mood shift to a more pro-migration consensus if further pressure on the NHS highlights its reliance on migrant healthcare workers, and if a drop in seasonal migration into the agricultural sector leaves – in the words of one shadow minister – “food rotting in the fields”.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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