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Immigration continues to be a top issue of importance to Britons

Immigration continues to be a top issue of importance to Britons
The Politics Wire Blog
This month’s Ipsos MORI Issues Index shows a four point jump from January in the number of people who consider race relations/immigration an issue of importance to Britain. The issue is now on a par with unemployment and only the economy is seen by the public to be a more significant issue at present. Immigration is nearly twice as important as crime, education, inflation or poverty/inequality; it is three times more important an issue than the EU.

We will see next month whether this is a momentary peak, as we saw in July 2012 or indicative of a steeper upward curve. Even if the former, a glance at the Index’s historical trends is proof that immigration has been a pertinent issue to Britons for some time.

Foremost among those attaching importance to immigration are people above the age of 55, who are more than twice as likely as adults below the age of 35 to see immigration as a crucial issue to Britain today. The significance of age in shaping views is illustrated in the chart below. Irrespective of socio-economic background, we see the importance of immigration rise in relation to age, which is true of February’s findings and of the aggregated Issues Index data for 2012 as a whole.

Issues Index: Race relations/immigration as an important issue(age within social grade) 

In trying to explain this, we might, amongst other things, point to the fact that high rates of immigration has been a feature of the adult lives of people in the 18-34 age group, and it is perhaps understandable that they should appear more at ease with the transformations immigration has brought to British society since the turn of the Millennium. The significance of age in determining attitudes on this issue will be one area of focus in an Ipsos MORI report into public attitudes to immigration, due to be published later this year.

In political terms, the influence of age in forming views on immigration makes this a crucial issue for the Conservative half of the Coalition in particular. The Conservatives support base has an older demographic profile than that of Labour or the Liberal Democrats, such that people intending to vote Conservative at the next election are significantly more likely to regard immigration as important compared with Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters.

However, recent uncertainty about the number of extra migrants that might arrive in Britain once Romania and Bulgaria are granted freedom of movement across the EU in 2014 – the surrounding debate being the likely cause of this month’s rise in the Issues Index for immigration – threatens to undo the Coalition’s continuing efforts to bring down net immigration. As a member of the EU the British Government is unable to impose its own restrictions on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. This could play into the hands of UKIP if immigration from the two countries reaches anything near the upper estimate of 50,000 per year currently being voiced by Migration Watch. In this scenario, UKIP’s platform of independence from Europe and lower immigration could look increasingly coherent and appealing to a greater proportion of older people, more concerned than their younger counterparts about the impact of high immigration.

Whatever the consequences of granting greater freedom to Romanians and Bulgarians to move about within the EU, the continuing importance of immigration to Britons, as shown by the Index, will make sounding persuasive on immigration an electoral necessity in years to come. Needless to say, that is much easier said than done.
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Ipsos MORI has been polling the public since the 1970s, giving us long term trend data about political attitudes and public opinion.

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