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2 June 2023

Why are voters so relaxed about record immigration?

And, perhaps more importantly, for how long will that attitude last?

By Ben Walker

The net migration figure for the calendar year 2022 was 606,000, and 488,000 the year before. Though the methodologies were different, it was just 260,000 in the 12 months up to June 2014. “But I thought we voted Leave,” cry the Faragistas.

Net migration today is largely driven by non-EU arrivals. (Net migration from the EU is in the negative.) Remarkably, voters appear unbothered by this. The UK is less opposed to immigration today than it was ten years ago and less keen on closing Britain’s borders entirely. The proportion wanting cuts to the number of immigrants has fallen from 67 per cent in February 2015 to 43 per cent last year. Most agree migration is a net benefit, both to the economy and – more importantly, for shaping long-term views – to society. But still, voters are heavily in favour of much tighter controls than whatever they regard is in place today.

Yet people don’t seem to be voting to reflect this belief. Where is the Reform UK party, the successor to Ukip? Where is Nigel Farage? Why haven’t Leavers rallied back to the Conservatives, teased with weeks of “Stop the boats” and whatever Suella Braverman can put in a press release? There has been some discernible rallying in the Tory base – Labour’s lead has dropped from 20 points to 15 – but these numbers are small fry. What’s happened?

It should be evident. The country is concerned with other things. Immigration has given way to anxiety over prices and wages and the whole economic order.

But it won’t stay like that forever. Consumer confidence, which was rock bottom in the winter and early spring, is recovering. There is still some way before there is a return to normality, but I suspect that once Britons are more comfortable economically other issues will return to prominence. Don’t forget, Britain voted for Brexit while consumer confidence was above 100, when more people were confident about their financial situation than not.

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Britain has moved on from 2013. We are a lot less sympathetic to anti-migrant sentiment than we used to be. But the median Briton is still pro-restriction, much more than they are pro-freedom of movement, and the financial squeeze may be masking this. Watch this space. Immigration will be back.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

Read more:

One easy trick to reduce net migration

How does UK net migration compare with the rest of Europe?

Labour’s immigration opportunity

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