Immigration has become one of the most politically salient issues in the UK.
Labour and the Conservatives have been competing to take the toughest stance. UKIP have enjoyed a surge in support on the back of their pledge to take the UK out of the EU and reduce immigration, and tonight may win their second seat in the House of Commons. But the drivers of anti-immigrant sentiment and support for populist parties, such as UKIP and the BNP, are complex.
As part of our ESRC sponsored Chalk + Talk series, Professor Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, addressed these issues by presenting the findings of his recent research for the think-tank Demos into the white British response to ethnic change.
Using survey, census and focus group data, Professor Kaufmann looked at attitudes amongst white British people towards immigration and intentions to vote for UKIP or the BNP. These attitudes and intentions vary by local area. Contrary to what one might expect, the desire amongst white British people to reduce migration is highest in areas with the fewest minority ethnic residents. Similarly, voting for UKIP and the BNP is higher in areas with fewer migrants (and higher in former Labour seats). Areas with many minority ethnic residents also have more tolerant white British residents. But this is not because anti-immigrant white Britons tend to leave diverse areas – the ‘white flight’ effect – as they are no more likely to do so than pro-immigrant white Britons.
What then are the reasons for these local differences? One key explanation is that the rate of demographic change matters. If an area has recently been through a rapid change in its ethnic composition, its white British residents are more likely to oppose immigration, and to vote for a party who appeals to this sentiment.
Professor Kaufmann also found support for the ‘contact effect’, where people have more tolerant attitudes towards other ethnic groups when they have more frequent social contact with them. However, living in a largely white British local area, but being surrounded by a much more diverse wider area, was associated with greater opposition to immigration and higher levels of far right voting. This may be because local residents find the high levels of diversity in the surrounding area threatening.
Many boroughs in outer East London have high levels of UKIP and BNP voting, and strong opposition to immigration, but few minority ethnic residents. This could be because the boroughs are too ethnically homogenous for the ‘contact effect’ to have much impact, yet when locals travel to the surrounding, highly diverse areas, some can find this diversity threatening.
Professor Kaufmann delivered a positive message for relations between immigrants and the existing UK population in the long-term: as immigrants and their descendants become more established, they become more like the existing population, and differences disappear. But demographics, and demographic change, matter in two important ways. First, the speed of change matters. Local areas that have gone through rapid change are more likely to attract BNP and UKIP votes, and residents are more likely to oppose immigration.
Second, the level at which demographic change occurs is important. Contact between people of different ethnic groups in a local area can increase tolerance. Yet having few minority ethnic residents locally but a large number in the wider surrounding area can create a sense of threat..
At the national level the key may be to spread demographic change evenly across different parts of the UK. Professor Kaufmann’s findings imply that, if immigration is spread fairly evenly across local areas, and change does not happen too rapidly in any one area, opposition to immigration – along with BNP and UKIP voting – are likely to decline.