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01 June 2017

LSE: UK voters, including Leavers, care more about reducing non-EU than EU migration

Despite the argument that Brexit was about sovereignty and only secondarily about immigration, new data show the importance of reducing immigration levels – especially from outside the EU – to British voters.

Brexit leaders such as Boris Johnson have maintained a narrative that sovereignty, not immigration, was the key motivation behind the Leave vote. [...]

Yet academic research raises questions over this interpretation. First of all, immigration was key. Using survey data, Harold Clarke, Paul Whiteley, and Matthew Goodwin show that immigration is by far the strongest predictor of a Leave vote, and anti-immigration folk were more motivated to show up at the polls than others. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Evans and Jon Mellon find that UKIP and Vote Leave were able to successfully link the immigration issue, which voters cared about, to the EU question, which they didn’t, generating the electricity needed to put Leave over the top.

Second, and more surprising, is concern over non-European immigration. The problem of unrestricted low-skill European immigration was repeatedly flagged during the campaign, so many assume people voted Leave because they were primarily exercised by the issue of East European immigration. This turns out not to be the case. [...]

Over the past two decades, non-European immigration has usually exceeded European immigration. [...]

What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants: the blue bars representing desired levels of European immigration are higher than the red bars for preferred levels of non-European immigration among all British voters. This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data. [...] Similarly, younger people prefer more net immigration than older people, but, again, all want fewer non-EU than EU immigrants.

The same pattern holds for Leavers and Remainers. But Leavers are much more motivated by the immigration issue than Remainers and seek far lower numbers. As figure 3 reveals, the average Leaver in our data wants non-European net migration reduced from about 165,000 in 2016 to 36,000. In other words, they are calling for a bigger cut in non-EU than EU inflows.

These findings echo those of a recent study showing that the increase in non-European (BAME) respondents in a White British person’s local area in the 2000s was a somewhat stronger predictor of their support for UKIP than the increase in local European population. This suggests that in the wake of the 2015 Migrant Crisis, the threat of unchecked non-European immigration, alluded to in Nigel Farage’s controversial ‘breaking point’ poster, may have motivated some Leave voters. A keen sense of these sentiments may also have informed the government’s recent decision to increase the Immigration Skills Charge and raise earnings thresholds for those seeking to sponsor relatives from outside the EU.

Despite Vote Leave’s insistence that Brexit was mainly about sovereignty and secondarily about concerns over the unfair access to Britain enjoyed by EU migrants, our results suggest otherwise. These are the post-hoc rationalisations of a rider whose anti-immigration elephant is firmly in control.

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