Five things we learned when we asked British people what they thought about immigration

Tough on immigration? UKIP supporters are listening. Andy Rain/EPA

Snapshot polls can provide an indication of public opinion on a subject – be it policies, parties, or political personalities – at any given moment. But in order to understand how and why people’s views change over time, you need to go deeper.

That’s why Ipsos MORI is interviewing a large panel of respondents on their attitudes to immigration, both during and after the election campaign, with the support of Unbound Philanthropy.

So far, we have interviewed 4,500 members of the public for the first wave, and more than 3,700 for the second. Having such a large sample size allows us to look at smaller sub-groups, including followers of the key political parties. The third wave is being conducted now, and we will go back to people a final time after the election.

The latest results highlight six key trends in opinion.

1. Parties don’t represent the people

Only 15% of the public say that the party they support completely reflects their views on immigration. But this varies between parties; only 8% of Conservative supporters think their party completely reflects their views, compared with up to 46% of UKIP supporters.

A much larger proportion of people think their party reflects their views to “some extent”, although for each party except UKIP, around one in five people say their party does not represent their views very much or at all.

Most people don’t feel represented by their parties.

2. Tories seen as not strong enough, Labour unclear

We followed up those who said their party did not fully reflect their views on immigration and asked why. We came across a range of very different reasons.

The Conservatives’ policies are relatively clear to their supporters, with only 28% of respondents saying they are not clear. But 61% of Conservative voters say their policies are not strong enough.

There is a very different pattern for Labour, with more than half (52%) of the party’s supporters not clear on what its policies are, and only 32% thinking they are not tough enough.

Perhaps surprisingly, among the half of UKIP supporters who say UKIP policies don’t completely reflect their views, 35% say they’re not clear what they are, and half don’t think they are strong enough.

Hardly any supporters of any party think their policies are too tough.

Following up.

3. Cameron got it wrong on targets

Six in ten of the public (62%) think David Cameron was wrong to set a target to reduce net migration to tens of thousands, because this was something he couldn’t completely control. But this view splits clearly along party lines, with 50% of Conservative supporters defending the prime minister’s approach, despite its failure over the course of the last parliament.

Those intending to vote Labour are the most negative about the targets, with three-quarters (74%) saying he shouldn’t have set them, followed by 71% of UKIP voters.

The prime minister also gets little backing from his coalition partners, with 64% of Lib Dem supporters also saying he shouldn’t have set targets.

Targets prove unpopular, especially when broken.

4. Half of Britons want total control

Half of the public (49%) think we should have total control of who comes into Britain even if it means leaving the EU, while 38% think we should stay in the EU even if it means we don’t have that control

Overall, the public are more likely to agree that we should have total control of who comes into the country, even if it means leaving the EU, than to agree that we should stay in the EU even, if it means we lose that control of immigration.

But this link between our EU membership and control of immigration is a very clear dividing line between supporters of different parties: most Conservative (61%) and UKIP (92%) voters support the idea of taking complete control of our borders, even if it means leaving the EU. Most Labour (57%) and Lib Dem (64%) voters take the opposite view.

Immigrants in or UK out?

But this doesn’t translate into similar proportions of people thinking that UKIP has the only credible plan for reducing immigration. Half (51%) disagree that UKIP is the only party with a credible plan for reducing immigration, including 35% who strongly disagree. Lib Dem supporters are the most likely to disagree (66%).

That said, 29% do agree, and – as you might expect – 85% of UKIP supporters think that their party has the only credible plan.

Who supports UKIP’s plan? Surprise! UKIP supporters.

5. Some want more debate, some less

The election campaign has done little to satisfy the public when it comes to talking about immigration – and only a minority have noticed any discussion of the issue. As it stands, 22% of respondents think that immigration is being discussed too much – down from 27%, when they were asked a similar question in late February/early March.

There is, again, wide variation between supporters of different parties, with 68% of UKIP supporters thinking it has been discussed “too little”, along with 45% of Conservatives, 25% of Labour supporters and 22% of Lib Dems.

Haven’t you heard enough?

And only 23% of respondents remember seeing any media stories or political statements on immigration during the campaign period. This is pretty consistent across supporters of all parties, although Lib Dem supporters are slightly more likely to say they have seen immigration stories.

Media blackout or brain fade?

It’s safe to say that there has not been as much focus on immigration during the election campaign as some may have expected, given its importance as a national issue, and its prominence at the 2014 European elections.

But this is understandable given the positions of the different parties. The Conservatives have lost their lead in our measures of the “best party” on immigration, and will view any focus on it as helping UKIP. Labour has a difficult line to tread, with polarised views among their supporters from very concerned to very relaxed. This has left UKIP struggling to keep the attention on the issue, and they themselves have also had to broaden their appeal beyond immigration and our relationship with Europe. News stories of tragic events in the Mediterranean have also shifted the tone of media discussion.

This has left the national debate on immigration in stasis –- but it will need to be returned to after the election. It is still one of our most polarised debates, and it is crucial to big decisions which need to be made, particularly on our position in Europe.