Stories based on personal experience and distrust of economic statistics are central to negative perceptions of immigration in the UK. That’s the finding of new research reported on by Heather Rolfe, who leads the Social Policy team at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
Although the past five years have seen a big shift towards a more liberal attitude towards immigration in the UK, there is still widespread hostility. It’s a hostility that is often resistant to the facts around the net benefits of immigration.
One reason for this is that a significant chunk of people hostile to immigration discount evidence that contradicts their views. ‘Only’ half do, but that’s still a big chunk.
A second reason is that the costs and benefits of immigration are distributed unequally. Immigration is a net benefit for the economy and our country’s wealth but those benefits don’t flow to everyone, and in fact, the evidence points towards the less well off you are, the more likely you are to be one of the losers rather than gainers. There’s a failure of our political and social systems at the heart of this reaction.
But there is a geographic curiosity to this point. For those who are most vocal about how awful immigration is tend to be from areas where it is lowest. People in areas with low immigration don’t have as many positive stories of meeting immigrants to counter stereotypes, but they do have plenty of personal experience of public services under stress – which they blame on immigration. The genuine benefits feel remote, the claimed drawbacks feel close and personal.
As Heather Rolfe writes of the people in her research, from a heavily Leave voting area:
They saw the main impact of EU immigration as economic, in terms of impacts on jobs, wages, and public services and their views on this did not change as a result of considering the evidence. They recognised the need for skills, and not just highly skilled migrants. But the impact on public services was an issue of considerable concern which did not shift: many participants not only believed that some migrants were a net drain on public services, they also believed that some groups of migrants, though not necessarily from the EU, enjoy priority access to health and housing…
There’s a strong strand of argument that narratives, not facts, are most effective in forming and changing opinion. But we found the most influential narratives were generated by participants themselves, gathered in their daily lives and not through mainstream or social media. Our focus group participants had an implicit hierarchy of evidence, where personal experiences and anecdotes are at the top, followed by media stories and statistical information at the bottom. Participants had a store of such evidence from the accounts of friends, family and acquaintances, which they used to support specific and popular themes around migration impacts. These included migrants being given priority for housing, knife gangs and bogus asylum seekers.
Distortions, exaggerations and myths about immigrants are more powerful the fewer you meet. Hence their power and political impact is greatest in the areas with the fewest immigrants.
A bad mistake, however, would be to conclude, therefore, that such people are stupid and to insult them. For that’s to close down a debate people are willing to have – and to be persuaded in. As Rolfe adds:
Many participants felt they did not have enough opportunity to discuss immigration and that the current debate is polarised. They enjoyed taking part in the focus groups and said they welcomed the opportunity to hear others’ views. While there is clearly a selection effect, it may indicate a more general public interest in discussing immigration in some form of public setting, as suggested recently by British Future, and in improving the quality of the debate.
And we should also not ignore the role that facts can play in the immigration debate. Despite criticisms of [a fact-based] video, around half of participants who filled out the follow-up survey two weeks after the focus groups said that they felt they had learned something from it.
In other words, engage constructively, discuss don’t hector, and bring in personal stories to illustrate facts. That’s the way to continue the shift towards pro-immigration views in the UK.