In August immigration overtook the economy as the issue voters said they were now most concerned by, as tracked by YouGov. It is the engine driving support for parties like UKIP, and the BNP before them.
But does the way someone lives make them more or less likely to favour immigration? This is the question Demos tackled this week, with new research on how the papers you read, national identity you hold and social groups you exist within shape the way you view the issue.
Opposition to immigration cuts across ethnic lines, but concern is highest among the white British majority. Our research has focused on the attitudes of this group, as distinct from the British population as a whole or specific ethnic minorities.
The figure below shows how different factors – age, quality of work, the ethnic mix of the community someone lives in – are associated with white British attitudes towards immigration.
The length of each bar is an indicator of how important a particular characteristic is for predicting either support for, or opposition to, immigration. If the value of the bar is small (as with, say, age), there is not much of a relationship with attitudes towards immigration. But if is large, as with not trusting people or the degree to which a person mixes with other racial groups, it is a strong predictor of attitudes.
The more red a bar, the stronger the link between a factor and opposition to immigration. The more blue a bar, the stronger and more favourable an attitude.
There are three factors which stand out for those who are anti-immigration: low trust, identifying as English rather than British, and reading tabloid newspapers. These all have z-score above 10, which describes how far from a typical, unrelated relationship each factor is. Whites who are only friends with other whites are also likely to oppose immigration.
Who you are friends with and what type of papers you read are a very strong indicator of your likely attitude. White Britons are in turn most likely to favour immigration if they mix frequently with people from other ethnic groups and read broadsheet papers.
These are the factors most strongly linked with the way someone is likely to think. Other factors, like the type of work someone does, or the ethnic mix of their community, are less strongly related, but can still be explored.
Who you are friends with and what type of papers you read are a very strong indicator of your likely attitude.
Young whites are less opposed to immigration than older whites, but when we control for the other factors listed here, the effect of age is not especially pronounced, which may come as a surprise. In a similarly surprising finding from the full report, those from the lower supervisory and middle class are more opposed to immigration than those highest and lowest in the class structure. Indeed, UKIP’s voting base comes predominantly from the central rungs of society, rather than the top and bottom of the ladder.
A person’s local area also shapes their view of immigration, if not as strongly as the papers they read or people they know. Wards average around 6,500 people. Whites in urban wards with high population turnover are more tolerant of immigration than those in rural, close-knit wards. This brings into question the view that crowding and population pressure are principal sources of anti-immigration sentiment.
At a ward level, more ethnic minorities in an area is linked to more tolerant white attitudes to migration. But at the local authority level – with populations between 100,000 and 200,000 – a larger share of minorities spurs greater anxiety.
Thus white British voters in rural Cumbria or the Scottish highlands, or in Inner London or Leicester, are more relaxed about immigration than residents of ex-urban areas such as Havering or Thurrock in London, or Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham – largely white boroughs proximal to diverse cities. Election strategists should take note.
Ultimately, the research reinforces some stereotypes and challenges others. The picture is more nuanced than conventional narratives about the rise of Ukip sometimes suggest. A growing spread of minorities both lowers and raises opposition to immigration, suggesting residential integration is unlikely to have much effect on white British opinion of immigration at the national level.
Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of the Demos report Changing Places, which was launched at this week’s Conservative conference at a roundtable attended by Immigration Minister James Brokenshire.