To what extent is immigration a top issue for Britons?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
December 06, 2023, 11:08 AM GMT+0

One in five Britons say that immigration is one of the top issues facing the country while not saying the same of the economy

The Conservatives clearly see immigration as a key strand in their re-election strategy next year. An immigration pledge features among Rishi Sunak’s ‘five priorities’, and the government attempted an ill-fated ‘immigration week’ earlier in the year. The issue returns to the top of the agenda this week with tougher visa restrictions aimed at reducing immigration numbers.

Immigration has been creeping up the list of the public’s priorities since early this year. A new wave of our ‘most important issues’ question now finds immigration in second place overall – tied with health on 41%, but behind the economy on 54%.

But is immigration a first tier or second tier issue to the public? Is it something that they’re concerned about, but ultimately the economy is a higher priority? Or is it outright their main concern?

We followed up our standard ‘most important issues’ question – which asks respondents to choose up to three issues – with a second question asking what is the single biggest issue Britons see facing the country.

The economy continues to sit at the top on this question, with 30% of the public saying it is the single most important issue facing the UK today. However, immigration moves into a solitary second place, at 20%, compared to 13% for health.

Of the 41% of Britons who say immigration is one of the top issues facing the country, fully half say it is the single most important issue. Only 22% who include immigration in their list of top issues go on to say that they think the economy is the single most important issue.

Among those who included the economy in their list of top issues, 56% go on to say it is the single most important issue – just 14% give that title to immigration.

Combining responses to the first (multiple choice) issues question also allows us to dig further into the interplay between the economy and immigration as an issue.

Doing so reveals that one in five among the public (21%) see immigration as a top issue while not saying the same of the economy.

By contrast, one in three Britons (34%) included the economy among their top issues while not including immigration – and a further 20% included both the economy and immigration in their list of top issues

A separate one in five (22%) say neither the economy nor immigration are a top issue facing the country.

Immigration is the number one concern among Conservative voters

Among those who voted Conservative in 2019, immigration is clearly the top issue. Two thirds (66%) chose it as one of their top issues, with 38% saying it was THE most important issue. The economy comes second in each case, at 55% and 28% respectively.

By contrast, among 2019 Labour voters, immigration languishes in a 19% joint-fifth on the multiple choice question, with a mere 4% considering it to be the single most important issue facing the nation.

With an eye to the coming election, looking to those 2019 Conservatives who are currently thinking of jumping ship to one of the party’s left wing rivals, while immigration is still clearly important (46% say immigration is A top issue facing the country), it is not a top tier issue: only 8% think it is THE top issue facing the country.

These Conservative defectors are far more likely to see the economy as a top issue, with 65% including it in their shortlist and 41% branding it the single most important issue.

By contrast, those currently thinking of leaving the Conservatives for Reform UK are far more fixated on immigration as an issue. Fully 90% of this group say immigration is one of their top issues, and 73% say it is the singular most important issue.

Indeed, as many as half (51%) of those defecting the Tories for the more right-wing party say that immigration is a top issue while not including the economy in that category.

Among those who voted Conservative in 2019 but are currently unsure who they would vote for – a group previous YouGov research indicates are largely likely to return to the party at the next election – 63% say immigration is a top issue, effectively tying with the economy on 61%. They are similarly split on which issue represents the number one national problem: 32% say so of immigration compared to 31% for the economy.

Time will tell whether recent immigration reforms and any other schemes enacted before the election are able to draw back some of these wayward Conservative voters. The numbers to date have not been promising for the party: YouGov tracker data shows that 87% of 2019 Conservative voters think the government is handling immigration badly, and that only 33% think they are the best party to manage the issue (the lowest score of this parliament).

YouGov polling for The Times also shows that just 28% of 2019 Conservatives say the Tories are the party that best reflects their views on immigration – and this figure falls to 17% for Sunak himself.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty

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