Many of those who voted to leave the European Union did so, at least in part, because they wanted to address the level of immigration in the UK. Three and a half years later, there is little in the way of agreement on how the issue should be dealt with.
Back in March 2019 Deltapoll surveyed Leave voters on what they thought was needed in order to honour the referendum. Top of the list was “Full control of immigration and borders”, which gained support from 83 per cent of Leavers.
When Deltapoll conducted a survey in January 2020, it was clear that a robust approach to immigration was not confined to those who voted to Leave. But at the same time the picture of public opinion was nuanced.
When asked about the new rules specifically for EU citizens nearly half (47 per cent) of British adults agreed that “EU citizens already living in the UK should have all their current rights maintained and they should not have to apply to stay in this country” — in line with announcements made by Downing Street. This figure rose to 64 per cent of Remainers, with more than a third of Leavers (37 per cent) saying the same.
A third (33 per cent) of British adults, however, agreed that “EU citizens already living in the UK should have to apply to stay in the country under the new immigration rules, and those who are not successful should have to leave this country”. This number included nearly a quarter of Remainers (23 per cent).
One in 12 would go further, that “EU citizens already living in the UK should not be allowed to stay and should have to leave this country”, including 6 per cent of Remainers.
Deltapoll also investigated attitudes to a “points-based system” by asking whether certain groups of people should be prioritised, whether everyone should be treated equally, or whether all immigration should be stopped.
The government’s preferred option — that specific groups should be prioritised — is the most popular option, but the British public are deeply divided. While 39 per cent preferred priority for specific groups, just over a third (34 per cent) said everyone wanting to come to live in the UK should be treated equally.
About one in six (17 per cent) said that all immigration should be stopped, including nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of Leave voters, but also one in 12 Remain voters.
In terms of which groups should receive priority, those with “experience in highly skilled jobs that are in demand in Britain” are most popular, along with “people coming to work in the National Health Service”. Just over half (54 per cent) of those who believe priority should be given to certain group thought that should include “people fleeing genuine danger and persecution in their home country”. At the same time, more people thought that Commonwealth citizens should receive priority than EU citizens. One in seven (14 per cent) thought that priority should be given to white people.
The views of the public on this issue could have important implications for the government. Most of those who voted Conservative last year favour Boris Johnson’s policy of certain groups being prioritised, but at 51 per cent it is a very slim majority. The same voters are then split almost down the middle on whether EU citizens should have their rights maintained.
Similarly, there are implications for the next leader of the Labour Party. Nearly six out of ten (59 per cent) Labour voters believe that the rights of EU citizens living in this country should be maintained, including more than two thirds (68 per cent) of Labour Remainers. In sharp contrast, nearly a third of Labour Leavers (30 per cent) believe that all immigration to the UK should be stopped.
Keeping these different groups within each party together represents a challenge, whatever the government decides to do.
Deltapoll surveyed 1,536 adults in Britain online between the 22nd and 24th January 2020. Data are weighted to be representative of the adult population of Britain.
The full results tables are available here.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Times