Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

Changing Attitudes, Changing Coalitions: The Politics of Immigration before and after Brexit

Robert Ford


Christoffer Engström

| 7 mins read

The politics of immigration in Britain has followed a recurring cycle. The need to meet international commitments and address domestic economic pressures encourage governments to accept higher immigration levels than most voters say they want. This persistent failure to meet public demands is politically destabilising, enabling far-right politicians to mobilise voters hostile to immigration. When the electoral threat becomes serious enough, mainstream politicians impose new controls and voter attention turns elsewhere until the cycle begins again.

Yet recently it seems the cycle may have been broken. The effects of demographic change, shifts in electoral coalitions and the post-Brexit liberal shift in attitudes have combined to produce something new—an electoral coalition for Labour where, for the first time, voters who see immigration as an opportunity outnumber those who see it as a threat.

The postwar politics of immigration

Since polling began in the 1950s, British voters have wanted immigration strictly controlled. An average of four-fifths of voters expressed a preference for lower immigration in all polls into the 1980s, whilst subsequent polling has remained in favour of ‘control’.

However, successive governments have struggled to respond to this as they have faced enduring constraints on action. For instance, the legacy of empire loomed large in early postwar foreign policy as the British Nationality Act 1948 conferred Commonwealth citizenship on hundreds of millions of people across the world, whilst EU membership in the 2000s opened up British labour markets, and domestic pressures consistently encourage governments to accept high immigration.

These constraints have prevented politicians from responding effectively to voter demands for control, generating political volatility. Anti-immigration campaigners claimed their first big political scalp in 1964 when Peter Griffiths, a Conservative candidate in Smethwick, stoked local hostility to immigration in order to defeat Labour frontbencher Patrick Gordon Walker. A few years later, Enoch Powell took up the cause of immigration control, attacking the settlement of Commonwealth migrants’ spouses and children as ‘a nation busily heaping up its own funeral pyre’. After a decade was rocked by the first large-scale mobilisation of the far right—the openly racist and violent National Front (NF)— Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, took up the cause of immigration control, passing the 1981 British Nationality Act which severed the link between Britain and its former empire and introduced a policy regime which took immigration off the political agenda for the next two decades.

Immigration returned to the top of the agenda again in the 2000s. As in the 1970s, rising frustration about government failure to control immigration drove electoral breakthroughs on the radical right. The most consequential breakthrough came from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which surged in the polls in the 2010s when party leader, Nigel Farage, began a populist campaign linking EU membership to uncontrolled immigration. UKIP took hundreds of council seats in the 2013 local elections, topped the poll in the 2014 European parliamentary election, secured the defections of two Conservative MPs, won nearly 4 million general election votes, and forced David Cameron to concede to the Brexit referendum. Immigration featured prominently in the subsequent Leave campaign, both as a goal and a central part of the campaign’s demand to ‘take back control’. Once again, the cycle of immigration politics ended with immigration sceptics forcing reluctant governments to impose controls.

Demographic change

Yet, these surface similarities between mobilisation against immigration in the postwar years and more recently mask demographic trends that have slowly pulled overall public opinion in a liberal direction. First, educational expansion has driven a steady growth in the graduate electorate. Second, Britain’s ethnic minority communities have grown rapidly, rising from one voter in twenty in the 1980s to one voter in six in 2021. Both graduates and ethnic minorities tend to be more supportive of immigration. Third, younger generations in Britain are more socially liberal and the racial prejudices which drove some of the strongest opposition to immigration in the 1970s has faded away.

The politics of immigration after Brexit

The post-Brexit changes to the parties’ electoral coalitions explains why Labour has had little to fear from the Conservative party’s recent attempts to mobilise public opposition to high immigration, most notably the high profile ‘stop the boats’ campaign focussed on irregular migration across the English Channel.

Immigration control campaigns no longer appeal across the traditional partisan divide as they used to, as most Labour supporters are now positive about immigration and/or unconcerned by it and focussed on other issues. It is very different for Conservative voters though. In the months running up to the 2024 election campaign, immigration was the number one issue issue for Tory voters in IPSOS-MORI polling, but was not even in the top five issues for current Labour voters. ‘Stop the boats’ was supposed to put the Conservatives on the front foot by painting Labour as out of touch with everyday voters’ concerns, but instead it has reinforced the Conservatives’ image with swing voters as an out of touch party talking only to its own hardline supporters. While Labour looks to have little to fear from the government’s ‘stop the boats’ campaign, the party’s strategists will remain anxious about the electoral risks ahead from immigration. Electoral geography means immigration sceptics are overrepresented in Conservative-held Labour target seats, and voters across the political spectrum report low trust in Labour’s ability to manage the issue.

Immigration in 2024 and beyond

The trends pushing the electorate in a liberal direction on immigration will continue, as the electorate becomes more ethnically diverse, university educated and socially liberal. Hardline campaigns for cuts and control which appease noisy sceptics will come with growing political risks if they are perceived by the growing constituency of immigration liberals as costly, cruel or intolerant. But immigration is also an issue where voters have enduring concerns about parties’ competence and ability to deliver, which will make it a tricky issue to manage even if voters are on balance more open to high immigration in principle. Yet while the questions of who we admit to the country and on what terms will remain contentious, the politics of immigration may well look different in years to come, as the tone and substance of the debate over newcomers shifts in response to the changing values and priorities of the electorate at large.

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    Robert Ford

    Robert Ford is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe.

    Articles by Robert Ford