Is This the End of Britain's Obsession with Immigration?
Before Brexit it was the number one priority among British voters. Now, we're actively ignoring it.
Though politics has often been messy, the weeks and months following David Dimbleby's announcement that Britain would leave the European Union have felt more hectic than ever. Voters are more engaged in politics than they'd been in decades, and few people around Westminster have managed to get a single quiet week since the 23rd of June, 2016. Debates have been raging about the economy, the future of our relationship with the continent, trade, the NHS, national identity and everything in between – but there's something missing.
From Michael Howard’s "Are you thinking what we’re thinking?" slogan and Theresa May’s "go home or face arrest" vans, to Gordon Brown’s "British jobs for British workers" campaign and Ed Miliband’s "controls on immigration" mugs, the topic of immigration had dominated public discourse for over a decade. The Brexit vote was, in many ways, the logical conclusion of this national obsession, but after a snap election campaign where it was barely mentioned by any of the main parties, the issue has unexpectedly fallen flat.
In March of 2015, pollster Ipsos MORI found that the most important issue facing Britain was immigration, with 45 percent of respondents mentioning it; by September of the same year, it was still in the top spot, having risen to 56 percent. A month before the referendum, in May of 2016, the figure had fallen to 38 percent but was still people’s main concern – though the NHS and the EU weren’t far behind, at 33 percent and 28 percent respectively.
Fast forward to December of 2017, and the chart has been turned on its head. The EU and the NHS held the top spots, at 51 percent and 45 percent; education found its way to the top three, at 22 percent; and immigration ended up in joint fourth place at 21 percent, along with housing – its lowest in five years.
"One of the things which seems to have replaced immigration in the minds of voters is unsurprisingly Brexit, which leads to the question of whether it’s presenting the same product in a different package," says Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the university of Manchester.
"They might still be worried about immigration, but they now call that worry Brexit – 'I want to make sure we take back control,' which is a link UKIP and the Conservatives encouraged them to make. They recognise that they have voted for this thing directly and they believe, with some justification, that this binds politicians in a way they’re not normally bound."
This analysis chimes with what MPs are seeing on the ground. Though voters with concerns about immigration once made it clear to politicians that they had no trust in their ability to do something about it – Cameron’s repeated promise to bring net migration numbers to the tens of thousands being the main example – they now seem confident that their voices were heard.
There is no doubt that, in Boston, the most Leave constituency in the country, voters saw Brexit and immigration as intertwined issues, explains their Conservative MP Matt Warman. While people’s views haven’t changed overnight, however, he thinks the issue has lost its immediacy.
"Immigration remains an issue in the way it has been an issue for the last decade in Boston: there is still pressure on public services and concerns about social cohesion, and around how the town has changed in a very obvious, physical way," he says.
"In that sense, has the debate gone away? Not for a second. But there is definitely a sense that those people who have identified particular problems they would like to see fixed believe that the Brexit vote and the consequences will address their concerns."
Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill and former immigration minister, has been witnessing a similar mood in his constituency, which – according to estimates – just about voted to leave the European Union.
"Those voters who did worry about immigration now feel that that conversation has been had, and they know it’s not going to happen overnight, but they’re pretty confident that it will come in due course," he says. "What they could see was an overall trend that they wanted to reverse."
While these reports are anecdotal, there are signs that this feeling of accomplishment is a national trend. First, there were the results on the 8th of June last year, where UKIP hoped to succeed, then dramatically fell in on itself, failing to gain a single seat and watching its overall vote share collapse from 12.6 percent to 1.8 percent.
"The last general election was unusual in that immigration wasn't a dominant theme on the surface, but that's largely because Brexit has given the impression of a fundamental step-change," explains Sophie Gaston, the acting director of think-tank Demos. "The battle had been won, so the need to shake fists at the government was exhausted."
Another quiet change has come from the other group keen to emphasise the ills of immigration: tabloids.
While, once upon a time, the red tops and the Daily Mail would regularly splash on the supposed dangers of mass migration, the refugee crisis and freedom of movement, their fury now seems mostly directed at Brussels, as well as the Remainers closer to home.
"Stories like 'immigrants kill the Queen’s swans' in the Daily Star seem to have disappeared," says Charlie Beckett, the director of the LSE’s media think-tank, POLIS. "Tabloids don’t feel a lot of traction with those stories because, if anything, the story around immigration is nearly the opposite now – it’s fruit farmers saying 'we don’t have enough people'. The real story, the steam’s gone out of it. There’s a limited capacity for the media – they can’t do everything at the same time, and they’re now concentrating their fires on the saboteurs and the negotiations. It’s become very Westminster-centric.
"They’re very responsive to the agenda in Parliament, and they feel their work is done, and I think they’re right – there’s no indication that the British public will change their mind, or [that] either political party [will] change their mind. The direction of travel is clear."
Does this mean immigration has now disappeared as an issue, swallowed up by Brexit and never to be seen again? Not quite.
For a start, legislation around the future of immigration policy should make its way to Parliament at some point in 2018, which might, along with slanted coverage of the debates, bring it back into the mainstream and the forefront of voters’ minds.
"There is an urgent need, from an economic point of view, to sort out things like the agricultural workers scheme," says Matt Warman. "At some point there will be headlines saying 'visas for x hundred thousand people', and if you were the Daily Express or the Daily Mail you could spin that into 'government caves in to demands of pro-EU forces of evil'."
This is also a worry for Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Migrants. "With Brexit, there is so much on the agenda, and even though immigration is a huge part of that agenda, it’s not yet arrived in the legislative timetable, and it will this year," he explains, "so we’re expecting it to return to centre-stage."
Singh remains pessimistic on the issue, and says that the campaigning group hasn’t seen a mood change in the country, even if there’s been a lowering of the volume.
"We still do see a lot of misleading coverage, misleading rhetoric from the usual suspects, pitting different people of Britain against each other – and what we don’t see is any discussion of the more positive stories coming in," he added.
As for the public, they might well start caring about immigration again further down the line, once we know exactly what Brexit will look like. Though voters are, for the time being, willing to have some faith in the process, no government could ever strike a deal with the EU which satisfies every kind and flavour of Leave voter.
“Voters are still withholding judgement because they don’t know what Brexit is actually going to look like, and they’re probably to some degree engaging in a game of projection about this abstract situation of negotiations”, explained Rob Ford. “We’ve not yet reached the stage where those expectations get punctured.”
When it does, things might get ugly: though according to Ford, voters tend to think “oh, politicians promise all sorts of things on the campaign trail then go do what they want”, they do seem to sincerely believe that MPs’ hands are now tied by the referendum result.
While UKIP are currently a mess, and apparently care more about infighting and the unglamorous details of leader Henry Bolton’s private life, it might be worth keeping an eye on them.
“UKIP’s most obvious reentry into the political discussion comes at that point where voters see what deal has been offered and they’re not happy about it, because then they can do what they’ve been trying to do since June 24 which is to scream “betrayal of the people!”, Ford continued.
“They’ve been saying that endlessly and no-one is giving them a hearing so far - the window of opportunity hasn’t opened for them quite yet, but it doesn’t mean it won’t.”
There is, however, another possible scenario. According to an interim report published by the Home Affairs select committee and think tank British Future on Monday, voters don’t seem to care as much about non-EU migration, considering it is quite well controlled and not as much of an issue.
As for EU migration, they mostly want an end to free movement and smaller number of immigrants coming in: the former will almost certainly be a part of the Brexit deal, and the latter has already started happening.
The Office for National Statistics said the number of people moving to live in the UK long-term had fallen to 230,000 in the year ending in June 2017, the largest drop since records began.
Meanwhile, research published by the Institute for Public Policy Research showed that most of those migrants moved to more liberally-minded London, with the rest of the country seeing barely any increase in net migration at all.
Pro-immigration advocates might want to keep their fingers crossed for the foreseeable future, as the possibility of an end to the Westminster and Fleet Street war against migrants might come to an end, at least for now.
“The one thing that overarches all of that is that the Bostonian problem is how rapidly the town changed over a fifteen year period”, said Matt Warman. “The main thing that solved those issues is on the one hand investment, on the other it’s simply time.”
“You do have this weird scenario where the tensions in Boston are considerably diminished compared to, say, ten years ago, that is partly because of real government action, partly because of the result of the Brexit vote, but primarily because of the adjustment of people working out what a modern town like Boston is like.”