How many people care about immigration?

I wrote this for Politico Europe, but they won’t have it, perhaps because it’s not OMG BREXIT enough. To update it, let’s note that Ipsos MORI reckons only 20% care about immigration and more people think they, personally, have benefited from it than not.

With ten days to go, the two Brexit campaigns are talking about almost nothing but immigration. Gone, the expansive talk about whether the “Norway model”, the “Canadian model”, or indeed the “Albanian model” so dear to Michael Gove’s soul would be preferable. Nobody is now pushing the virtues of unilateral free trade. Instead, it’s all about immigrants, immigrants, immigrants, or sometimes Turkey, a placeholder for immigrants.

This worries a lot of people. Immigration polls badly. Surely this is the Leavers’ strongest suit? The problem, though, is that something can be your strongest suit and still be pretty damn weak. Consider a chart I used back in April, 2015, for this Politico piece. Back then, using YouGov’s online poll, immigration was rated the No.1 issue nationally, with 50% of the public saying it was their biggest concern for the country.

If you asked them what they, themselves, worried about, well. Immigration plummeted from 50% to 20%, far behind the economy, the NHS, pensions, and tax. Even UKIP voters displayed the same effect, although the level was different. 90% thought immigration was the top issue for the country, until they had to put some skin in the game, when it came down to 49%.

YouGov’s most recent referendum poll, from the 6th-7th of June, hammers the point home. This was a forced-choice question, where the respondents had to pick one issue and one only. Only 20% of the public say immigration will decide how they vote. 31% say the economy. Another 31% say it’s:


Which is likely to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries

And 4% say it’s foreign policy in the classic sense. Now, Remain is camped all over the economy, which it’s hitting from all angles, and Leave has pretty much stopped even trying. We can try different assumptions about the vaguely defined “appropriate co-operation” question. If the Remain side is getting as little as a third of those, though, it suggests they are addressing about 45% of the electorate, with an upper bound around 60%. The problem with All Immigrants, All The Time is that only about 20% of the public care all that much.

Of course, perhaps there are so many more people worked up about immigration out there. They’ve managed not to show it at any general election in their lifetimes. But now der Tag is upon us, and they will rise like lions after slumber. Could happen, as we said in Yorkshire. Meaning: don’t hold your breath.

Daniel Kahneman, of Judgment under Uncertainty and Thinking, Fast and Slow fame, got his Nobel prize in part for his contribution to prospect theory, the study of how human intuitions about risk diverge from rationality. In principle, a 40% chance of gaining €100 should be worth exactly as much as a 100% chance of gaining €40. In practice, it’s much more complicated than that; the curve bends, so people generally prefer the sure thing even when the expected value is identical.

More interestingly, your decision depends on your starting point. If you’re in the money, rather than being more recklessly confident, you’ll pass up more chances. If you’re out of the money, though, you’ll tend to double down and pick opportunities with worse chances and bigger payoffs in order to chase your losses. Like: betting the farm on those 20%. That said, that YouGov poll does say 40% of the public think #Brexit would be good for the NHS. I stick by my call, but chance is chance.

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About Alex Harrowell

Alex Harrowell is a 33-year old research analyst for a start-up telecoms consulting firm. He's from Yorkshire, now an economic migrant in London. His specialist subjects are military history, Germany, the telecommunications industry, and networks of all kinds. He would like to point out that it's nothing personal. Writes the Yorkshire Ranter.