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Changing Attitudes, Changing Coalitions: The Politics of Immigration Before and After Brexit

Written by
Robert Ford, The Political Quarterly
Date of Publication:

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Cite this article: Ford, R. (2024), Changing Attitudes, Changing Coalitions: The Politics of Immigration Before and After Brexit. The Political Quarterly, 95: 224-233.


The British political landscape on immigration before Brexit had a number of stable features: the public disliked migration and politicians from both main parties tended to accept (if not actively support) higher migration levels than voters preferred. This mismatch generated electoral disruption when the issue rose up the agenda—in particular through mobilisation on the radical and far right—and this initially intense public scepticism was gradually being eroded by demographic change. Brexit has fundamentally changed this landscape, triggering major shifts in both public opinion and electoral competition over immigration. In this article, the past politics of immigration in Britain are reviewed, with an explanation of how and why Brexit prompted change. The implications of the new politics of immigration for the upcoming general election and beyond are also considered.


The politics of immigration in Britain has followed a recurring cycle. The public are sceptical of the benefits of immigration, and this skew in opinion is magnified by an imbalance in attention—anti-immigration voters care more, mobilising to demand controls when immigration rises. But governments find it hard to cater to this scepticism. The need to meet international commitments and address domestic economic pressures encourage governments to accept (if not always actively support) higher immigration levels than most voters say they want. This persistent failure to meet public demands is politically destabilising, seeing a series of radical and far-right politicians mobilise voters most hostile to immigration by campaigning against high inflows. When the electoral threat becomes serious enough, mainstream politicians impose new controls and voter attention turns elsewhere, until changes at home or abroad trigger another wave of immigration and the cycle begins again. Yet, while policy has oscillated between liberal and restrictive stances in response to competing pressures within and outside the electorate, the electorate has itself been changing, as long-term demographic forces drive the growth of more liberal attitudes and a slow decline of more sceptical social groups.

Some parts of the old cycle have recurred since Brexit, but with major variations. The public mood is no longer instinctively hostile on immigration and Brexit has also changed the electoral calculus for both main political parties—the Conservatives' post-Brexit advance has been concentrated among immigration sceptics, meaning the governing party is now more exposed to anti-immigration mobilisation, while its Labour opponents face less electoral pressure on the issue. Departure from the EU has also removed the main external constraint on immigration policy which, in theory, should make it easier for the Conservatives to shift policy when their voters call for control. But despite being more dependent on immigration, sceptical voters, and better able to cater to their demands, successive post-Brexit Conservative governments have instead adopted a liberal approach. Immigration levels have risen to record highs, driving a new wave of mobilisation amongst the reduced, but still substantial electorate, of immigration sceptics, triggering a series of initiatives from the Conservatives to win them back. These have largely failed. Meanwhile, the return of polarised arguments over immigration control has as yet had little impact on the popularity of the opposition Labour Party. This reflects the effects of demographic change, shifts in electoral coalitions and the post-Brexit liberal shift in attitudes which have combined to produce something new—a potentially election-winning coalition for Labour, dominated by immigration liberals. If current patterns hold, from 2025 Britain will—for the first time—be governed by a party more beholden to voters who see immigration as an opportunity than those who see it as a threat.

The postwar politics of immigration before Brexit

The overall balance of British opinion on immigration was clear from the moment polls on the topic began to appear in the 1950s: British voters didn't like immigration and wanted it strictly controlled. [1] A large majority said they wanted less immigration, regardless of the actual numbers arriving. An average of around four-fifths of voters expressed a preference for lower immigration in all polls from the 1950s through the 1980s. While this majority fell to around two-thirds in the decades before Brexit, the overall skew of opinion remained clearly towards 'control'. For every supporter of immigration there were at least two opposed. Majorities of the public expressed support for every immigration control policy mentioned and public judgements about the impact of immigration on Britain were nearly always negative. Majorities believed immigration generated unwelcome competition for jobs and housing, was a cost to the public purse and that the settlement of immigrants encouraged crime and social disorder. Only minorities saw immigration positively as a way to address labour shortages, a driver of innovation and growth, or a means to staff and support public services. This negative skew in attitudes was magnified by a second persistent trend—opponents of immigration always and everywhere care a lot more about the issue than supporters. [2] When immigration is high, sceptics mobilise to demand control, while supporters do little to defend more liberal preferences. The same imbalance is reflected in—and reinforced by—media coverage. When immigration is high, media coverage tends to be negative, with anti-immigration politicians and campaigns widely covered. [3] This further magnifies the signal sent to governments by the British public which, for many decades, was very clear and consistent: voters want immigration controlled and will be unhappy if they believe it is not being controlled.

While the signal has been clear, successive governments have struggled to respond, as they have faced enduring constraints on action from their foreign policy preferences, international commitments and competing domestic demands. [4] The legacy of empire loomed large in early postwar foreign policy, shaping and constraining choices on immigration for several decades. The British Nationality Act 1948 conferred Commonwealth citizenship on hundreds of millions of people across the world. The act was designed to foster and maintain Britain's links with wealthier, majority white states of the 'old Commonwealth', but also granted immigration rights to huge numbers of poorer, black and Asian residents of current and former imperial territories. While successive governments chipped away at Commonwealth citizenship, it persisted as a significant driver of immigration and constraint on control for many decades. [5] A similar story unfolded with regards to European Union immigration. Here, once again, a central British foreign policy goal constrained immigration policy as the Blair Labour government opened up British labour markets to immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, then found itself unable to reimpose controls when the numbers arriving far exceeded expectations. [6] Britain's obligations as a founding signatory of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and of the 1951 Refugee Convention have also functioned for many decades as an external constraint on how British governments manage asylum immigration. This has been a regular source of political controversy, most recently as the Sunak government has pursued policies designed to deter asylum claimants, which are seen by many as in conflict with these international treaty commitments.

Domestic pressures also encourage governments to accept high immigration, despite public concern, a pattern so widely observed across developed democracies that a substantial academic literature has sprung up to examine it. [7] Whenever employment levels have been high, or public services have needed support, British governments have found it tempting to recruit immigrants. The needs of postwar reconstruction and acute labour shortages in areas such as transport and health led postwar governments to accept and sometimes even to encourage immigration from the Caribbean and South Asia, despite awareness of growing public opposition. One enthusiastic early supporter of migrant labour recruitment in the National Health Service was Enoch Powell who, in 1962, told his cabinet colleagues they could face down a pay dispute with British nurses because 'I can bring all the nurses we need from the West Indies'. [8] Labour governments of the 2000s similarly regarded high EU immigration as a valuable driver of economic growth, increasing the recruitment of skilled workers from outside the EU, as well as opening up British labour markets to citizens from new EU member states. In the last two decades, the university sector has emerged as another driver of immigration, with policy makers and voters alike seeing the merits of leveraging the strong international reputation of British universities to subsidise research and domestic teaching by recruiting foreign students and charging them higher fees.

The gap between the strict control many voters wanted and the more liberal policies governments delivered has been a persistent source of political volatility, as voters frustrated by government failure turning to radical alternatives has demonstrated. Anti-immigration campaigners claimed their first big political scalp in 1964 when Peter Griffiths, an obscure Conservative candidate in Smethwick, stoked local hostility to black and Asian immigration in order to defeat Labour frontbencher Patrick Gordon Walker. A few years later, a more senior Conservative—Enoch Powell—took up the cause of immigration control, attacking the settlement of Commonwealth migrants' spouses and children as 'a nation busily heaping up its own funeral pyre'. Powell's infamous speech ended his frontbench career, but transformed public perceptions of Conservative immigration policy—voters attracted by Powell's views on immigration may have won Ted Heath the 1970 election. [9] The following decade was rocked by the first large-scale mobilisation of the far right, as the openly racist and violent National Front (NF) campaigned on the streets and in elections. At the end of that decade, Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, took up the cause of immigration control, arguing that mainstream failure to address this issue was fuelling extremism:

There is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this … In my view, that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems. Now, we are a big political party. If we do not want people to go to extremes, and I do not, we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. [10]

Thatcher backed these claims with action, passing a sweeping reform to citizenship rules (the 1981 British Nationality Act) which finally severed the link between Britain and its former empire, completing a twenty-year process of steadily escalating controls over immigration, and introducing a policy regime which largely took immigration off the political agenda for the next two decades.

The cycle of disruption began again in the early 2000s, as rapid economic growth and more liberal immigration policies brought high immigration and growing public discontent. Immigration returned to the top of the agenda for the first time in a generation, with between a quarter and half of voters in every year from 2003–16 naming it as one of their top political concerns. But successive governments were once again unwilling or unable to deliver strict controls. The New Labour governments' open immigration policies saw incoming Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron attempt to mollify immigration-sceptical voters with a pledge to bring net migration down 'to the tens of thousands'—a pledge which could not feasibly be delivered given his government's inability to control EU immigration. Cameron showed little interest in imposing costly controls on non-EU migrants either, so net migration numbers continued to rise, despite his pledge to cut them.

As in the 1970s, rising frustration about government failure to control immigration drove electoral breakthroughs on the radical right. The first was the British National Party (BNP), the openly racist successor to the 1970s National Front. While the BNP won more votes than the Front, its reputation for violence and hateful rhetoric limited its appeal to the most extreme voters. A much bigger and more consequential breakthrough on immigration came from a party founded to talk about something else. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) was set up in 1994 to campaign against Britain's EU membership, but surged in the polls in the 2010s when party leader, Nigel Farage, began a populist campaign linking EU membership to uncontrolled immigration. This was an easy argument to make, as EU membership was plainly driving high immigration and constraining the government's ability to control it. Linking migration to Brussels proved electorally potent: UKIP surged in the polls, took hundreds of council seats in the 2013 local elections, topped the poll in the 2014 European parliamentary election, secured the defections of two Conservative MPs and, in 2015, won nearly 4 million general election votes—though only one House of Commons seat. The growing external electoral pressure from UKIP, combined with mounting discontent on the Tory backbenches, forced David Cameron to concede to UKIP's primary demand—a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. When Cameron was unexpectedly returned to office with a Commons majority in 2015, he felt he had to deliver this pledge quickly or face rolling rebellions. The first referendum on EU membership for two generations launched at a time when public concern about immigration was running at an all-time high.

Immigration featured prominently in the long EU referendum campaign, with cutting immigration functioning both as a goal in itself and a central part of the Leave campaign's demand to 'take back control'. Analysis of voting patterns suggest this messaging was successful—opposition to immigration was one of the central motivations driving Leave voters and hence a key factor in Britain's eventual departure from the European Union. Once again, the cycle of immigration politics looked set to end, with escalating mobilisation of immigration sceptics forcing reluctant governments into a radical policy shift to impose controls and cut numbers.

Both the 1970s and 2010s thus saw waves of anti-immigration mobilisation drive electoral disruption, which eventually resulted in a radical policy shift. Yet, these surface similarities mask deeper structural differences between then and now, as three long-running demographic trends have slowly pulled public opinion in a liberal direction. [11] First, educational expansion has driven a steady growth in the graduate electorate. Graduates are consistently more pro-immigration than voters with lower levels of formal education. Second, Britain's ethnic minority communities have grown rapidly, both through immigration and natural increase, rising from one voter in twenty in the 1980s to one voter in six in 2021. While ethnic minority communities are not monolithically pro-immigration, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters are generally more positive on immigration than white voters with similar backgrounds. Third, the younger cohorts who have entered the electorate in the past few decades have more socially liberal values and more inclusive social identities than the oldest cohorts that are fading away. For example, the racial prejudices which drove some of the strongest opposition to immigration in the 1970s are far less widespread and intense in Britain today. [12] Generational replacement is pulling the electorate in a more socially liberal direction on a broad front, with more positive attitudes to immigration one part of this shift.

All of these changes have contributed to the slow liberal shift in views about immigration, evident when we look at trends over several decades. For example, the share of voters saying immigration is 'too high' fell from over eight in ten in the 1960s and 1970s to under two-thirds in the decade prior to Brexit, finally to around half in the most recent years. Opinion about the economic and cultural impact of immigration has swung from strongly negative to modestly positive over the past two decades, while views about immigrants from specific regions and groups show a steady erosion of opposition in the 1980s and 1990s, with the largest decline in opposition to non-white migrants from poorer regions, reflecting the broader decline in societal racial and religious prejudices. [13]

Two forces were, therefore, in tension in the years running up to Brexit. Sustained high immigration and government inaction had mobilised anti-immigrant voters who demanded control. But, the anti-immigration constituency itself was slowly shrinking, while the quieter, less organised pro-immigration electorate was growing. The demographic balance still favoured the sceptics in 2016, helped by their greater willingness to mobilise on the issue. But, at some point, the cumulative effects of demographic change would begin tipping that balance the other way.

The politics of immigration after Brexit: changing attitudes, changing pressures, changing coalitions

There have been four major changes in the politics of immigration in the years since Brexit. First, a large positive shift in public opinion about immigration and its effects, and a sharp decline in the salience of immigration as a political problem. Second, post-Brexit policy changes have given government greater capacity to exercise control over immigration. Third, successive governments have opted not to exercise this capacity, instead responding to post-Covid domestic and international pressures by liberalising immigration rules and accepting substantial humanitarian inflows. Fourth, the resulting record-high immigration levels have produced a partial reversal of the post-Brexit decline in public attention, as immigration sceptics have once again mobilised to oppose high inflows. However, the political implications of this mobilisation are now very different, owing to post-Brexit changes in the parties' electoral coalitions. The political risks from immigration have risen for the Conservatives, but fallen for Labour. The failure of the Sunak government's 'stop the boats' campaign, which has backfired on its authors, provides a useful case study, illustrating key features of the changed post-Brexit political landscape on immigration.

The British public have become more positive about immigration since Brexit. This positive shift is broad, with large shifts in judgements about economic and cultural impacts, a substantial drop in the share of people who want immigration levels cut and positive shifts in views of many specific migrant groups. The political salience of immigration also declined sharply, with the share of voters naming the issue as a top concern falling from 45 per cent in 2016 to around 10 per cent in 2020–22. [14] This shift was not, at least at first, the consequence of any post-Brexit change in policy or outcomes. Positive changes in many attitudes were already evident in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, before the terms of Brexit had even been agreed, and while pre-Brexit immigration flows continued much as before. Nor has this liberal shift been fully unwound in response to the record immigration flows seen in the most recent post-Covid years. Negative views have ticked up somewhat on some measures, but public support for immigration remains higher than before Brexit despite record immigration levels. In particular, there has been a sharp rise in support for immigrant recruitment into the lower paid and lower skilled professions where widely reported labour shortages have emerged in the years since the EU Withdrawal Agreement was implemented. [15] The broader causes and longer-term implications of this liberal shift remain unclear and the robustness of the change is therefore uncertain. Demographic changes have contributed, but changes in the composition of the electorate are too slow to explain such a large and rapid movement, while liberal shifts have been observed in all demographic groups. The narrow Leave victory in the EU referendum may have produced liberal shifts on both sides of the Brexit debate for different reasons, with Leave voters feeling more willing to accept immigration following reassurance that British governments will now control it, while Remain voters mobilised to defend immigrants from the perceived intolerance of Brexit supporters. [16] Voters of all persuasions may also have anticipated that Brexit would reduce economic competition from immigration by imposing a more selective system with tougher controls imposed when and where demand for labour was low, and the prevention of migrants coming to look for work. Whether such perceptions will persist is unclear.

While the positive shift in attitudes predated post-Brexit policy shifts, the changes implemented since may have consolidated the more liberal mood. The British government opted to end all free movement rights for EU citizens in 2021, rejecting any form of Brexit which would have required retaining this constraint on immigration policy. Instead, the existing 'points-based system' was extended to cover EU migrants, who also lost most of their rights to access government support as, like non-EU migrants, they must now arrive on visas which contain a 'no recourse to public funds' clause excluding them from access to most forms of welfare benefits. The uniform points system in place since 2021 gives the government high discretionary control over labour immigration through adjustment of the detailed menu of 'points' needed to secure a visa. This system accords with public preferences, with polling showing strong support for a selective system, with rules responding to immigrant resources and labour market demands. The government has also sought to exert greater control over irregular and refugee immigration through a series of reforms aiming to deter asylum applications, facilitate the detention and removal of irregular migrants and enable the deportation of asylum applicants to Rwanda. Great control has also been exerted on the immigration of dependants through increases in the income threshold needed for sponsors to bring relatives. This is alongside restrictions on the ability of students and care workers to bring dependants, all of which have been curtailed via the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, the Illegal Immigration Act 2023 and Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024.

While post-Brexit governments have greater discretionary capacity to reduce immigration and increase selection, until recently their exercise of these powers has served to increase immigration rather than reduce it. Governments have responded to external and internal pressures by liberalising many immigration rules, encouraging migrant recruitment into sectors facing severe shortages and accepting substantial humanitarian immigration. Several factors have combined to increase net migration levels to record highs in the years since Covid restrictions on travel were rolled back: more liberal rules for labour migration, increased immigrant recruitment in health and social care, growing demand for foreign students to address a fiscal crisis in the university sector, and humanitarian inflows from Ukraine and Hong Kong. [17]

Strong demand, liberal rules and humanitarian initiatives have combined to push net migration levels to record highs, yet the public and electoral response to this has so far been relatively muted. The salience of immigration has risen, but it remains a less pressing concern than it was in the decade before Brexit and public attitudes about the effects of immigration remain more positive than before. This may in part be because the largest inflows driving the overall rise in immigration all enjoy strong public support. The public have long accepted university recruitment of foreign students, which many do not think of as immigration at all, but instead the provision of a profitable service which subsidises university teaching and research, though ever-rising numbers and more liberal rules for post-study work may be testing the limits of public consent. British voters are even more positive about immigrant workers in the NHS and social care, who are seen as a valuable resource to help relieve chronic labour shortages and improve stretched and failing services. The public have also become more accepting of liberal labour migration rules in general, with greater support for migrant recruitment into a wide range of roles. There is also strong public support for recent policies which have led to large humanitarian flows of migration from Ukraine and Hong Kong. [18]

While each of the largest constituent groups driving the recent surge in immigration enjoys high public support, record inflows have mobilised opposition in the declining, but still substantial, immigration-sceptical electorate. The salience of immigration has begun to rise again, from a low of under 10 per cent in 2021 to over 20 per cent in recent polling. Support for the radical right Reform UK party has risen sharply, driven by strong support among the most anti-immigration voters. While the cycle of high immigration driving rising demand for control and then mobilisation by the radical right looks like a case of history repeating, the partisan implications are now different. The two post-Brexit Conservative election victories were driven by the recruitment of immigration-sceptical Leave voters, meaning the incumbent government is more exposed to anti-immigration backlash. The electoral incentives for Labour have shifted in the opposite direction—demographic change and electoral sorting have combined to produce a dramatically more pro-immigration Labour electorate. While Labour has won over a lot of immigration-sceptical voters in the last few years as the party's overall popularity has risen, its current voter base remains strongly pro-immigration overall—more so than any previous winning coalition. The Sunak government's failed 'stop the boats' campaign provides an illuminating case study in how these changes in the landscape of opinion have transformed the electoral dynamics of immigration.

'Stop the boats': a case study in political failure

Over the last two years, a familiar political scene has unfolded—a government under pressure from high immigration and rising public concern has looked to reassure voters with a high-profile pledge to reassert control. Rishi Sunak's promise to 'stop the boats' has ensured that political discussion and media coverage of immigration have focussed on irregular migrants arriving in Britain on small boats across the Channel, though such arrivals constitute only a small portion of overall immigration. The pledge had three goals: to reassure anti-immigration Conservative politicians and voters; to split off immigration-sceptical voters from the Labour Party; and to see off a potential challenge on the radical right from Reform UK. In the first eighteen months after it was launched, the 'stop the boats' campaign failed on all fronts—anti-immigration MPs and voters became angrier, no support was won back from Labour and the radical-right insurgency accelerated. The comprehensive failure of 'stop the boats' casts light on what has changed about immigration politics, as well as what has not.

The biggest cause of failure was familiar—in making a pledge his government could not feasibly deliver, Rishi Sunak repeated the error of his Downing Street predecessor and current Foreign Secretary, David Cameron. While reducing small boat crossings is feasible, stopping them entirely is not. By heavily promoting 'stop the boats' as one of his five key pledges, Rishi Sunak made an impossible promise that was doomed to fail, just as David Cameron did when he pledged to reduce net migration to 'tens of thousands' without any credible policy to do so. Sunak found, as Cameron had before, that if you direct media and voter attention to a clear and simple pledge, then fail to deliver, it gets noticed. Sunak has made his situation worse by proposing draconian changes to asylum rules which went further than almost all earlier immigration control campaigns in threatening to breach Britain's international treaty obligations. These changes are also unlikely to 'stop the boats', but they have antagonised British judges and more moderate Tory MPs, thus ensuring legislative gridlock and Conservative infighting.

The 'stop the boats' campaign has also done more harm than good electorally, reflecting both old and new features of the political landscape. The familiar story is that failure to deliver on promises to control immigration further antagonises anti-immigration voters and boosts the radical right. This has happened, yet two new features have worsened the electoral damage done to the Conservatives. The first is that Sunak's government started in a weaker position with the public on immigration than any Conservative government in over fifty years. Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher's strident campaigns cast a long shadow, with the Conservatives regarded by immigration-sceptical voters for many decades thereafter as the mainstream party most likely to deliver immigration control. That reputation began to falter following Cameron's failed net migration pledge, before recovering in the wake of the EU referendum. By the time Sunak took over, the Conservatives' reputation as the party of immigration control had collapsed entirely and the Labour Party was preferred to the Conservatives on immigration for the first time in generations. A year-and-a-half-long campaign for policies which most voters judged expensive, impractical and likely to fail then further eroded the Conservatives' competence ratings and increased Labour's poll leads on the issue.

A second new feature of the electoral landscape—the post-Brexit changes to the parties' electoral coalitions—explains why Labour has had little to fear from the 'stop the boats' campaign. Past immigration control campaigns cut across traditional partisan dividing lines, as most voters in both parties' support bases had negative views of immigrants. This is no longer the case. A large majority of Labour supporters are positive or indifferent about immigration and its effects, while the strongest opponents of immigration are now concentrated in the Tory base. The 'stop the boats' campaign has indeed mobilised immigration sceptics, with opponents of immigration becoming much more focussed on this issue since it was launched. But now the immigration sceptics prioritising the issue are largely existing Conservative supporters, while the immigration supporters focussed on other issues include most of the swing voters the Conservative government has lost and needs to win back. By the early months of 2024, immigration was the top issue named by current Tory voters in MORI polling, but wasn't even in the top five issues for current Labour voters—at a time when Labour's polling lead was above twenty points. 'Stop the boats' was supposed to paint Labour as out of touch with everyday voters' concerns, but in a changed landscape it instead serves to frame the Conservatives as a party talking only to themselves.

At the time of writing, Rishi Sunak has just prevailed in his long battle to deliver legislation enabling the central plank of his 'stop the boats' plan—a scheme to send asylum applicants to have their claims processed by the central African autocracy of Rwanda. Yet, even if Sunak succeeds in getting the first flights off the runway before the general election, his 'Rwanda scheme' is doomed to fail. No more than a handful of 'small boat' asylum applicants can feasibly be sent to Rwanda. The government's oft-repeated claim that the scheme will function as a deterrent is a triumph of hope over reason—people risking their lives to get to Britain will not be put off by a miniscule risk of being diverted elsewhere. Nor will the 'Rwanda scheme' work as a declaration of intent: immigration-sceptical voters' trust in the Conservatives is now so low, so reinforced by repeated failure, that they are unlikely to believe claims that success is just around the corner. [19] Nigel Farage and his colleagues in Reform UK will continue to make bigger and bolder promises, safe in the knowledge they will never have to be delivered. Labour will continue to campaign on the domestic issues which have fuelled their rise to a dominant position in the polls and will frame the 'Rwanda scheme' as a desperate ploy by a failing government. Sunak's pledge was supposed to revive his party's fortunes. Instead, it has become an albatross around his neck.

Immigration in 2024 and beyond

While Labour looks to have little to fear from the government's 'stop the boats' campaign, the party's strategists will remain anxious about the electoral risks from immigration. Labour's base is now pro-immigration, but electoral geography magnifies the voice of sceptics. Immigration-liberal groups— graduates, ethnic minorities and the young— cluster together in big city seats where Labour is already dominant. Immigration sceptics are more evenly spread and overrepresented in Conservative-held Labour target seats. This provides one reason for caution. The greater focus and passion of immigration sceptics provides another—immigration control is a deal breaker for many such voters, while support for immigration and immigrants wins few votes on its own. While the current Reform UK advance is heavily concentrated among Tory voters, Labour will worry that a resurgent radical right will eventually begin peeling unhappy voters away from the Labour column, as UKIP did in 2015. [20]

Labour will therefore prefer to avoid talking much about immigration in the election campaign, focussing instead on promises for enforcement and control designed to reassure immigration sceptics when they do. Yet, while a majority pro-immigration electorate offers few campaigning advantages, it may prove valuable if Labour prevails in the election and takes office. Like its predecessors, an incoming Labour government will face internal and external pressures to accept high immigration inflows. Making the case for liberal policies will be easier for a government with a majority pro-immigration electorate. The incoming government will have an easier task than its predecessors when looking to convince supporters of the merits of migrant recruitment to shore up public services and ease labour shortages, the value of foreign students as a means to support British higher education, and the importance of meeting Britain's international humanitarian commitments. But, public support for immigration is seldom unlimited or unconditional. An incoming Labour government will also inherit both record-high immigration levels and record-low public trust in the immigration system. The goodwill of even its more liberal voters may not last long if Labour is perceived to have broken promises or lost control, while the stronger feelings and lower trust of immigration sceptics could soon generate another vocal campaign for restrictions.

Greater mobilisation and more favourable electoral geography will continue to give immigration sceptics an outsized voice, but organisation cannot turn back the tide of demographic change. The trends pushing the electorate in a liberal direction on immigration will continue and, as the electorate becomes steadily more ethnically diverse, university educated and socially liberal, the electoral calculus on immigration will continue to shift. Hardline campaigns for cuts and control which appease noisy sceptics will come with growing political risks if they are perceived by the growing constituency of immigration liberals as costly, cruel or intolerant. There are already signs of this, with recent polling showing that many of those giving the government bad marks on immigration are now immigration liberals who oppose control policies they see as cruel and intolerant. [21] The need to foreground cuts and control has been the political imperative on immigration for generations. Immigration sceptics will continue to demand such reassurance in future, but governments will need to balance that against the need to convince immigration-liberal voters that they are delivering a fair, flexible and economically beneficial immigration system. While the question of who we admit to the country and on what terms will always be contentious, as it speaks to basic questions of who we are and what we value, the politics of immigration may well look different in years to come, as the tone and substance of the debate over newcomers adapts to the changing values and priorities of the electorate at large.

[1] M. Sobolewska and R. Ford, Brexitland: Identity, Diversity and the Reshaping of British Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020; Z. Layton-Henry, The Politics of Immigration: Race and Race Relations in Post-War Britain, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 1992.

[2] A. Kutsov, 'Do anti-immigration voters care more? Documenting the issue importance asymmetry of immigration attitudes', British Journal of Political Science, vol. 53, no. 2, 2023, pp. 796–805.

[3] G. Evans and J. Mellon, 'Immigration, euroscepticism and the rise and fall of UKIP', Party Politics, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 76–87.

[4] R. Ford, W. Jennings and W. Somerville, 'Public opinion, responsiveness and constraint: Britain's three migration policy regimes', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 41, no. 9, 2015, pp. 1391–1411.

[5] R. Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Post-War Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000.

[6] W. Somerville, Immigration Under New Labour, London, Policy Press, 2007; E. Consterdine, Labour's Immigration Policy: The Making of the Migration State, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

[7] G. Freeman, 'Modes of immigration politics in liberal democratic states', International Migration Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 881–902; G. Lahav and V Guiradon, 'Actors and venues in immigration control: closing the gap between political demands and policy outcomes', West European Politics, vol. 29, no. 2, 2006, pp. 201–223; Ford, Jennings and Somerville, 'Public opinion'.

[8] Hansen, Citizenship, p. 9.

[9] R. Ford, 'Powell and after: race, immigration and politics in Britain 1964–1979', in O. Esteves and S. Poiron, eds., The Lives and Afterlives of Enoch Powell: The Undying Political Animal, Abingdon, Routledge, 2019.

[10] M. Thatcher, TV Interview for Granada World in Action, 27 January 1978;

[11] Sobolewska and Ford, Brexitland.

[12] R. Ford, 'Is racial prejudice declining in Britain?', British Journal of Sociology, vol. 59, no. 4, 2008, pp. 609–636; I. Storm, M. Sobolewska and R. Ford, 'Is ethnic prejudice declining in Britain? Change in social distance attitudes among ethnic majority and minority Britons', British Journal of Sociology, vol. 68, no. 3, 2017, pp. 410–434.

[13] Sobolewska and Ford, Brexitland; R. Ford, 'Accept-able and unacceptable immigrants: how opposition to immigration in Britain is affected by migrants' region of origin', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 37, no. 7, 2011, pp. 1017–1037.

[14] L. Richards, M. Fernandez-Reino and S. Blinder, UK Public Opinion towards Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern, Migration Observatory, COMPAS, University of Oxford, 28 September 2023;; R. Ford and M. Morris, 'A new consensus? How public opinion has warmed on migration', Institute for Public Policy Research, 23 November 2022;

[15] A. Menon, ed., Migration to the UK after Brexit: Politics, Policy and Public Opinion, London, UK in a Changing Europe, 2019;

[16] C. Schwartz, et al., 'A populist paradox? How Brexit softened anti-immigration attitudes', British Journal of Political Science, vol. 51, no. 3, 2021, pp. 1160–1180.

[17] M. Sumption, P. W. Walsh and B. Brindle, Net Migration to the UK, Migration Observatory, COMPAS, University of Oxford, 22 January 2024, p. 9;

[18] S. Ballinger, 'Britons welcome Hong Kongers as figures show UK issues over 110,000 BN(O) visas', British Future, 26 May 2022;; L. Tryl and T. Surmon, Welcoming Ukrainians: The Hosts' Perspective, More in Common, 13 March 2023;

[19] H. Rolfe, S. Katwala and S. Ballinger, Dilemmas of Control: what does the Public Think about Immigration and how should Politicians Respond?, British Future, September 2023;

[20] Sobolewska and Ford, Brexitland, ch. 7.

[21] P. English and B. Mann, 'What concerns the British public about immigration policy?', YouGov, 3 November 2021;