Are minorities supportive of the government’s restrictive stance on immigration? Evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey by Rob Ford

In last year’s article in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21571208-ethnic-minorities-are-moving-marginal-constituencies-colour-votes) immigration is casually mentioned as one of the policies which alienated British ethnic minorities from the Conservative party. Yet, this is merely an assumption, as we know precious little on what minorities think about immigration. In this blog I discover the picture is complex- but the message that the current immigration policy is likely to hurt the Tories’ appeal to minorities stands.

Immigration has been at the top of the political agenda for much of the past 15 years, with large sections of the electorate rating it as one of the country’s most important problems, and a strong demand from these voters for tough action to reduce the inflow of migrants to Britain. How do Britain’s ethnic minorities fit into this picture? There are several reasons to suspect that they may hold more positive views. Many are migrants themselves, or the children of migrants, an experience which may make them more positively inclined to newer migrants seeking to settle here. Prejudice also plays a role in hostility to immigrants, and Britain’s minorities may be less likely to harbour negative feelings towards “foreigners” in general and more likely to have felt the sting of prejudice themselves. Finally, research suggests that a big source of opposition to migration is the perception that migrants threaten national identity and national culture. Minorities with distinct ethnic and cultural traditions should be less concerned about such change.

On the other hand, ethnic minority Britons are more likely to feel the impact of migration directly than members of the white majority group, as they are more likely to live in areas which experience large migration inflows and more likely to work in sectors where migrant labour is widely used. If opposition to migration is driven by voters perceiving a threat to their personal interests, then we might expect higher opposition among ethnic minority Britons. The recently published 29th British Social Attitudes survey featured a range of immigration questions which I helped to design, and with a sample size of 3,500, we have a large enough subsample of ethnic minorities to conduct a statistically meaningful examination of their views.

Table 1 Views of immigration levels: white and ethnic minority Britons

Whites Ethnic minorities Difference
The number of immigrants to Britain should be… % % %
Increased a lot /a little 3 7 +4
Stay the same 16 33 +17
Reduced a little 25 24 -1
Reduced a lot 55 29 -26

Weighted base

2904 407

Unweighted base

2995 316

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 2011

Table 1 takes a look at demands for a reduction in migrant numbers, which have formed the focus of much media and political debate. Nearly 80% of white Britons say they want migrant numbers reduced, and over half want the number reduced “a lot”. Ethnic minorities are more divided. 40% are either happy with migration levels or want them increased, while another quarter would like to see a small reduction in levels. Only 29% want to see large cuts implemented, around half the level found among whites.

Table 2 Views of immigration levels: white and ethnic minority Britons

Whites born in Britain EMs born in Britain Whites born abroad EMs born abroad
The number of immigrants to Britain should be… % % %
Increased a lot /a little 3 5 5 9
Stay the same 15 30 33 37
Reduced a little 24 23 29 26
Reduced a lot 56 39 31 23

Weighted base

2792 175 155 189

Unweighted base

2835 132 160 184

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 2011

Is this more liberal attitude the result of personal experience of migration? Table 2 breaks down attitudes by both ethnicity and country of birth. Both birthplace and ethnicity matter – native born whites demand much larger reductions in immigration than any of the other groups. On the other hand, majorities of all groups would like to see at least some reduction in migration levels, suggesting a widespread perception that the current level is too high.

Examining views about migration levels is potentially misleading, however, as many voters have a very exaggerated sense of the scale of migration to Britain, and people also tend to hold a default preference for lower migration regardless of actual levels. In table 3, we look instead at people’s views about the impact that migration over the past decade has had on Britain’s economy and on British culture. Here we find a stark divide between ethnic minorities and the white majority: while white voters are largely negative about the impact of migration, most minorities believe migration has had positive cultural and economic effects.

Table 3 Views of the economic and cultural impact of immigration, white and ethnic minority Britons

Whites Ethnic minorities Difference
Views of immigration impacts
Economic impact % % %
Very good 3 14 +11
Good 23 41 +18
Neither good nor bad 18 19 +1
Bad 33 15 -18
Very bad 22 11 -11
Net rating (good-bad) -29 +29 +58
Cultural impact % % %
Very good 6 17 +11
Good 25 39 +14
Neither good nor bad 16 25 +9
Bad 29 13 -16
Very bad 23 6 -17
Net rating (good-bad) -21 +37 +58

Weighted base

2,923 388

Unweighted base

2,995 316

Source: European Social Survey 2002, British Social Attitudes survey 2011

When we split the reactions down by birthplace, in table 4, we can again see that this is not just a matter of personal experience. British born ethnic minorities are much more positive about migration’s effects than native born whites, although they have some reservations about the economic effects of migration. Those born abroad are very positive about migration, although even among immigrants themselves ethnic minority migrants are more positive than white migrants.

Table 3 Views of the economic and cultural impact of immigration, white and ethnic minority Britons

Whites born in Britain EMs born in Britain Whites born abroad EMs born abroad
Views of immigration impacts
Economic impact % % % %
Very good 3 7 5 19
Good 21 38 45 43
Neither good nor bad 18 18 23 20
Bad 34 17 19 12
Very bad 23 19 7 4
Net rating (good-bad) -33 +8 +24 +46
Cultural impact % % % %
Very good 6 18 17 16
Good 24 36 38 41
Neither good nor bad 16 25 16 25
Bad 29 13 17 14
Very bad 24 8 10 4
Net rating (good-bad) -23 +33 +28 +39

Weighted base

2,792 175 155 189

Unweighted base

2,835 132 160 184

Britain’s ethnic minorities clearly take a different view on migration than the white population: they believe it has positive effects, on both the national economy and the national culture, and they are less concerned about seeing it reduced. These general outlooks are also reflected in a host of specific attitudes also probed in the British Social Attitudes survey: ethnic minority Britons are more supportive of asylum seekers, more likely to agree that migrants make an important contribution to public services, more likely to regard migrants as hard workers, and less willing to damage the economy in order to bring migration down.

The current Conservative policy framework on migration – with its relentless focus on reduction in migrant inflows- is thus unlikely to help the party improve its negative image with ethnic minority voters. Most do not regard migration as a problem, and many will be actively antagonised by the policy approach, and the hostile rhetoric which often accompanies it. Some will be reminded of the anti-immigrant, anti-minority stances of earlier Conservative politicians, reinforcing their distrust of the party. While a “tough” stance on immigration may appeal to many native born white voters, it also comes at a political cost – alienating voters in Britain’s fast growing ethnic minority groups. This will be important for all political parties to consider as rising diversity continues to change the face of the British electorate.

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