The National Conversation on Immigration

Rosie Carter - 17 09 18

Immigration has remained one of the most salient and divisive issues for the public in recent years, and a factor in many voters’ decisions in the EU referendum. Bridging the divide exposed by the EU referendum, it is critical we engage on ‘difficult issues’, and that we speak to everyone, including those who might not necessarily agree with us.

Over the last 15 months, HOPE not hate and British Future have carried out the largest ever public engagement, to better understand how we can rebuild public trust on this often divisive issue. We have held over 130 meetings, in 60 locations across every nation and region of the UK, with citizens’ panels made up of ordinary members of the public and with local stakeholders – such as local government business and civil society groups. Together with an open online survey and nationally-representative research conducted by ICM, it provides an unprecedented snapshot of what the public thinks about immigration now and what it would like to see in future.

Here’s what we’ve learnt.

What we’ve heard

Most people have balanced views on immigration
In contrast to the polarised media and online immigration debate, most people are ‘balancers’ – seeing both the gains that immigration has brought to Britain’s economy and cultural life, and also the pressures that it can place on public services like schools and the NHS, and on housing and integration.

Local differences and personal circumstance frame how people see immigration
Where a person lives and the conditions of their daily lives strongly influences how they see immigration. Hostile views towards immigration often emerged as an expression of broader resentments, a sense of external control and dissatisfaction with people’s own lives. In areas where socioeconomic conditions are more favourable, and there are more opportunities, less work will be needed to reach consensus on immigration than in areas where there is high level deprivation and isolation.

Immigration is a national issue, but that perceptions are often framed through a ‘local lens’. Where migration is seen as putting pressures on public services or is associated with badly-maintained private rental housing and neighbourhood decline, there is usually less public consent for immigration. Labour market impacts of migration on jobs and wages were less prevalent in our discussion, except when tied to specific employers, for example Sports Direct in Chesterfield.

Meeting a consensus and regaining public trust is possible, but it will require considerable effort, political commitment and resourcing
There is little trust in the Government’s ability to manage immigration, and in the government more broadly. Our conversations were often about much more than immigration, and building a consensus will require addressing these wider drivers of hostility.

Our conversations were often about more than immigration alone, but also about opportunity, about identity and about hope. Immigration policy cannot operate in isolation from other policy areas, such as housing and education.

The difference in online/offline debate and the importance of ‘difficult conversations’ and meaningful engagement
The online debate is distinctly different from public attitudes more broadly, dominated by extreme voices. We were able to contrast the views expressed in the citizens’ panels, the nationally representative ICM research and the online survey, open to anyone. 9,327 people took our online survey, but almost one-third (31%) of these people shared the most hostile views on immigration and just short of a quarter (23%) shared the most pro-migration views. In our nationally representative ICM research, just 15% shared views at either extreme of the spectrum.

Having open, balanced conversations with people about their concerns allows constructive debate, and avoids anxieties being driven underground, or online, where their fears can be amplified or exploited by those seeking to divide.

Where we’re connecting

Across the country, people see benefits of immigration
Typically, the citizens’ panels described the benefits of migration, the skills that migrants bring to the UK and the jobs that they fill. Migrants who work in the NHS were seen as personifying the best qualities of migration.

People not numbers
Despite numbers being at the forefront of political and media debates, most participants do not see EU migration primarily through a numeric lens. The citizens’ panels talked less about the rates of immigration than about issues such as criminal vetting, neighbourhood decline and welfare dependency.

Although about four in ten people want reductions to the numbers of low-skilled migrants from the EU, there is much support for low-skilled migration from the EU when it was deemed important for the economy. Nobody we spoke to wanted EU nationals currently in the UK to return to their countries of origin after Britain leaves the EU.

Contact matters
Where people have positive and sustained social contact with migrants, they are able to base their opinions on these social interactions, rather than ‘community narratives’ drawn largely from the media and peer group debate.

Having a decent debate
Fairness was a core value around which people shaped their opinions. People want an immigration system that is fair to migrants, and to receiving communities.

Many people we spoke to felt uncomfortable at the politicised and polarised nature of the immigration, which they did not feel reflected their views, and valued our conversations which offered space for balanced debate. People want a decent debate that draws on evidence and avoids emotion, which does not use derogatory terms or stereotypes.

Where we’re not connecting

Anxieties about immigration often reflect broader resentment
Participants who were more confident about their own opportunities in life were less likely to see immigration as a threat than people in more precarious positions. Often hostile views centred around loss, or something that had been taken away: of status and civic pride, secure employment and optimism about the future.

Changing the minds of people with these resentments will take addressing the broader drivers of hostility, as well as engaging with people where they are. To understand the complex matrix that triggers these view.

Trust in the Government and politicians is incredibly low.
Just 15% of respondents in the nationally representative ICM research felt that the Government had managed immigration into the UK competently and fairly. People want politicians to engage with their communities more, to be held accountable for their mistakes, and to be honest about immigration.

Integration frames how immigration is seen
Integration played a big role in how people constructed their views. Integration has been an uneven success in the UK, with come communities more cohesive than others. Integration problems were often linked to specific locations in the UK, regional cities or particular neighbourhoods where different groups were not seen to mix. Where integration was seen to be working and people had meaningful contact with migrants and people of different ethnicities to themselves, they shared more positive views on immigration. Getting integration right is key to winning public support on immigration.

Anti-Muslim prejudice is widespread
We are concerned about the prevalence of anti-Muslim prejudice, which we found to be widespread in parts of the UK, particularly in places where the local population has little social contact with Muslim communities.

Anti-Muslim prejudice took different forms, with a tendency to stereotype Muslims as a homogeneous community whose values and lifestyle are incompatible with the British way of life.  In some citizens’ panels, participants talked about Muslims “taking over” UK cities. They believed that British culture was under threat because people were forced, usually by schools and councils, to pander to “political correctness” and the sensitivities of Muslims.  Anti-Muslim prejudice underpinned broader views about immigration. In many places, the citizens’ panels’ attitudes to Muslims impacted on how they saw refugees and sometimes references to Muslims and refugees were mixed or conflated in the discussion.

What next?

The National Conversation on immigration shows that meeting consensus on immigration is possible, but it will require significant efforts and resourcing. Our report makes over 40 recommendations as to how public trust can be restored. Challenging rogue landlords, extending ESOL provision and improving the performance of the Home Office will all have a significant impact in communities where residents are struggling to accommodate newcomers.

But the National Conversation offers broader lessons on how our interventions should work, to tackle the strong tide of anti-immigration sentiment.

Our research shows that our intervention must take place at multiple levels.

At an individual level, we need to be prepared to have difficult conversations, to talk about immigration and integration. If people are to change their minds, they need to feel comfortable discussing their anxieties, and be given the opportunity to develop their understandings of the issues at hand.

At a community level, we need to build resilience, to develop inclusive identities, and bring people together to dispel fear, and champion what we have in common.

At a local level, we need to address integration, to make sure that the infrastructure and public services can cope with the needs of growing and changing populations, and to show leadership on celebrating our towns and cities as inclusive places.

At a national level, we need to address inequality that drives resentment and hostilities, to show positive leadership that challenges prejudice rather than plays to it, and we need to institutionalise dialogue; to shorten the distance between Westminster and ordinary people, and to ensure that everyone’s voice gets heard, not just those who shout loudest.

The National Conversation on immigration has taught us a lot. We have a lot to share, but we also have a lot to learn as to how we can apply these lessons.

With the release of our final report, we want to use this opportunity to invite comment and engagement, to open up a conversation with our supporters, with civil society, and with local and national government. If you want to join us in taking these lessons forward, please contact [email protected] 


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