Conventional wisdom in Westminster has long been that tougher border policies are rewarded at the ballot box, with Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer winning praise from Ukip founder Nigel Farage on Tuesday after claiming the UK must end its “immigration dependency”.
But voters’ views of immigration have become increasingly positive since prior to the Brexit referendum, with Ipsos finding for the first time this year that – of those with an opinion on the matter – a majority now believe immigration levels should either increase or stay the same.
This contrasts strongly with the situation in February 2015, when 67 per cent wanted immigration reduced, versus just 20 per cent who wanted it to remain the same and 10 who wanted increased levels.
As a result, new analysis of swing voter intentions by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank suggests that the UK’s two largest political parties both would boost their electoral chances by adopting a more open immigration policy.
By doing so, Sir Keir Starmer’s party would attract 5 per cent of the public, while only repelling 2 per cent. The Conservatives, meanwhile, would attract 3 per cent and repel 2 per cent.
Furthermore, adopting a harsher stance on immigration would attract just 1 per cent of voters to Labour, the research found – while repelling 11 per cent.
For Rishi Sunak’s party, it appears that setting out more punitive policies could now alienate as many swing voters as they attract – flying in the face of his stated hopes of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda and potentially extending the scheme to other countries.
“There has been a sea change in public opinion on immigration in the past decade,” said the report’s co-author Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
This shift unlocks “a centre ground majority for an immigration system which combines clear and well enforced rules with open flexible policies to maximise the gains from immigration, compassion to those fleeing conflict and generosity to those who have made their homes in Britain”, he said.
“The public value the social and economic contributions of immigrants and support reforms to better recognise these contributions through more open, flexible criteria for entry and easier pathways to settlement and citizenship for those who have made their homes in Britain.”
The fervour around the topic of immigration appears to have largely subsided in recent years – with just 9 per cent citing it as a political priority in 2022 compared with 44 per cent in 2015.
Conversely, with efforts to contain what the Bank of England warns could be the worst recession in nearly a century now dominating the political agenda, a large majority of the public believes that immigration supports economic recovery rather than hinders it, IPPR said.
The public now favour an immigration system which is well managed, recognises contribution, and exercises compassion, IPPR said, suggesting that a new approach based on “rules-based openness” could win broad public backing and progress the post-Brexit debate over immigration.
The think tank proposed a culture shift at the Home Office to make policymaking more transparent, the creation of easier pathways to settlement and citizenship for migrants, and of exemptions in the “points-based system” for jobs with economic and social value – as opposed to a strict approach based only on skills and salary.
“The transformation in public attitudes now provides an opportunity for a new consensus on immigration policy,” said Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at IPPR.
“The public expect a well ordered and carefully managed system of immigration, but they also want the system to be flexible, responsive and compassionate. An agenda on immigration and asylum which captures this perspective could command broad public support.”