Nearly three quarters of British people believe there are too many immigrants coming into the country, according to an opinion poll published today.
A YouGov survey for The Economist suggests that record levels of immigration are now the principal concern of voters, ahead of public services, crime and terrorism.
The findings also indicate that groups normally regarded as holding more liberal views, including Londoners and the young, are as ill-disposed to immigrants as the majority.
The poll confirms what politicians have been noticing for months—that immigration has returned with a vengeance as a political issue after years of quiescence following the fierce controversies of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Labour has pursued an increasingly “open door” policy, with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, saying he saw “no obvious limit” to the numbers Britain can take.
Ministers believe the economy needs overseas workers and they contribute to the overall well-being of the nation. The poll suggests people are happy if the newcomers arrive to work but they draw the line when immigrants get preferential access to public services or benefits.
The Economist says: “The newcomers that grate are those who strain the delicate British sense of fair play: 85 per cent cite either asylum seekers or illegal immigrants as the main reason the country is being overrun.”
The nationalities most disapproved of, the survey says, are Iraqis, Pakistanis and Romanians. “They are thought to be bad news not because they take jobs or commit crimes, but because they compete unfairly for public services. Jumping the queue is always intolerable.”
Antipathy to immigration is not on racial grounds, with most people accepting that Britain is a multicultural country. “Britons are more blasé than other Europeans about the effect of immigration on national harmony,” The Economist adds. “Of those who reckon there are too many, only a quarter worry about racial balance.”
Professor John Solomos, of City University, London, said: “Britain has become a multicultural society; it just doesn’t want any more people to come in.”
One problem, the survey suggests, is that immigration has become associated with refugees and illegal entrants rather than with migrant workers after the huge rise in asylum claimants in the late 1990s, though experts say many of these were workers using the asylum system as a way in.
The latest findings suggest there may be a political dividend for any party taking a robust line on immigration, something the parties are also picking up from their polling and focus groups.
At the Tory conference in October, Michael Howard set out plans for the most radical overhaul of immigration policy for a generation. He said a Conservative government would place an annual limit on immigrant numbers and withdraw from the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.
Net immigration to the UK is about 250,000 a year and, for the first time, Britain is adding to its population by immigration. Government figures predict that the population will increase by 5.6 million over the next 30 years and 85 per cent of this rise will be due to immigration.