BSA 41: Immigration

Changing attitudes, policy preferences and partisanship

This British Social Attitudes chapter examines how attitudes to immigration have evolved and how the demographic distribution in attitudes is changing
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UK Border sign after Brexit. Shows signs for UK citizens and another for EU and other citizens.


Migration to Britain and concern about it have been high over the past two decades, despite pledges from successive governments to reduce immigration and the control of immigration being central to the ‘Leave’ campaign and a priority for the governments who negotiated Brexit. Large changes to policy were introduced at the start of 2021. Using data from three different surveys, this chapter examines how attitudes to immigration have evolved over the past two decades, whether we are seeing increased polarisation in attitudes, and whether the public, and supporters of different political parties, are united or divided over the policy initiatives the current government has taken in response to the recent sharp increase in migration. 

Key findings 

Attitudes becoming more positive 

From 2014, attitudes to immigration and its impacts have become much more positive, although there has been a slight reversal since 2021. 

  • In 2014, 14% thought that “many people” of the same ethnic/racial background as the majority should be allowed to come and live in Britain; by 2020/21 this proportion had reached 35%. 
  • In 2014, 30% thought that immigration has a positive impact on the economy; by 2020/21 this figure had increased to 59%. 
  • In March 2019, 53% thought that immigration had a positive impact on the economy, down to 40% by June 2024. 

Policy preferences link with underlying attitudes

Support for policies enabling or restricting migration vary depending on the context; however, those who are more positive about immigration are more likely to back ‘open’ policies. 

  • 56% support the return of free movement rights, while 22% oppose this. 71% think the government should set limits on student migration (29% oppose this).
  • Among those who rate the economic impact of immigration positively, 84% support the return of free movement. This is the case for 16% of those who rate its impacts negatively. 

Conservative and Labour supporters more divided 

Over the past decade, both Conservative and Labour supporters have become more positive about immigration and more supportive of open policies; these changes have been much more marked among Labour supporters, meaning the two groups are more divided now than in the past. 

  • In 2011, 21% of Conservative supporters viewed the effect of immigration on cultural life positively, compared with 32% of Labour supporters. By 2021, this proportion had increased by nine percentage points for Conservative supporters (to 30%) and by 31 percentage points for Labour supporters (to 63%).
  • Between 2013 and 2024, support for asylum seekers being allowed to work increased by five percentage points among Conservative supporters (from 46% to 51%), compared with an increase of 29% among Labour supporters (from 50% to 79%).