Immigration topped concerns for Brexit voters

The UK's center-right tabloids helped make Brexit a reality. Now the British government is courting EU journalists to generate better PR. [Gideon/Flickr]

Migration was the main motivation for almost half of Leave voters in the Brexit referendum, but areas with the most immigrants tended to vote Remain. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Nigel Farage said, “I would rather Britain was poorer with fewer migrants.” This opinion was clearly shared by those Brits that voted Leave on 23 June. Ignoring warnings from the IMF and the OECD about the dire economic consequences of Brexit, large numbers of UK citizens voted based on migration.

The impact of European regulations on the competitiveness of UK businesses, Britain’s exposure to Greek debt and the risks associated with the eurozone’s other unstable economies were only marginal issues for most Leave voters.

By far the most important thing for them was to regain control over the legislative process, particularly immigration policy. Close to half (47.8%) of those who voted to leave the EU did so because they believed it was “the only way we can control our borders and set our own immigration policy”, according to a Survation poll conducted for ITN.

Theresa May backs border controls

These opinions are reflected in the strategy of the UK’s first post-Brexit Prime Minister Theresa May. Despite her opposition to Brexit, May has let her European partners know that she is prepared to sacrifice access to the single market in order to keep control over migration. The United Kingdom has been a member of the customs union for 43 years.

Beyond the question of immigration, the 23 June vote to leave the bloc was an expressed a broader desire to take back control of the whole legislative process: they want all UK laws to start and finish in Westminster.

Anti-immigrant voters from least multicultural areas

But the anti-immigrant vote is not as simple as it may appear on the surface. According to the Guardian, “the highest levels of Remain voters were in areas of highest net migration”.

The British newspaper argued that the driving force behind the leave vote was fear of immigration, rather than immigration itself. A claim supported by the fact that “some of the strongest Leave areas have had the fewest recent new immigrants”.

London provides the clearest example of this phenomenon. The UK capital, which absorbed one third of the 330,000 new arrivals to the UK in 2015, voted massively in favour of remaining in the EU. Lambeth (Greater London) is home to some 4,600 immigrants that arrived in 2015, and 78% of residents voted Remain. On the other hand, Castle Point (Essex) saw just 81 new arrivals the same year and voted 72% in favour of leaving the EU.

What about a referendum re-run?

The result of the 23 June vote came as a shock to many. Some even proposed a re-run of the vote in the hope that Leave voters would see the error of their ways. Especially as the Leave camp only won by the finest of margins (51.9% to 48.1%).

Survation asked Brits how they would vote if the referendum was held again. Once again Leave came out on top (44.3%), pushing Remain into a close second place (43.6%). As in June, the undecided voters (6.6%) would make the difference.

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