Immigration Attitudes in British Electoral Politics


In the UK and across Europe, many policy-makers and the public alike are concerned with increased immigrant populations, yet also troubled by the attempts of radical right wing parties to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment to mobilize voters and push rightward on policies on immigration and on integration of immigrant populations.

This project purchased space on a national, multi-wave survey of the UK population for a questionnaire examining British attitudes toward immigration.  Experiments, both on this survey and in a laboratory setting, that are designed to show how political debates might either mollify or exacerbate anti-immigrant sentiment, and also under what conditions radical right political parties might be able to mobilize anti-immigrant attitudes politically, in order to influence election outcomes or to pressure policy-makers into restricting immigration or immigrants rights.


Research Objectives:

Writ large, this project addresses crucial questions about the role immigration plays in shaping British elections, in terms of both election results and the issues upon which election campaigns are contested. With ever-increasing numbers of immigrants residing in the UK and Europe, public opinion among native populations continues to favour tighter restrictions on the number of immigrants and on their rights as resident, to the concern of European policy-makers.

Far right wing parties have won unexpectedly large portions of the vote in several elections around Europe by tapping into anti-immigrant attitudes, although not yet in the UK. How should politicians and scholars understand public concerns about immigration—as ethnic prejudice, cultural pride, or a defence of economic interests? 

Better understandings of the psychological roots of anti-immigration sentiment has crucial implications for political and policy questions: what sorts of rhetorical and policy concessions to right-wing views must mainstream parties make to maintain public support? Are there pro-immigration arguments that might matter to publics predisposed to oppose immigration? And can the BNP make inroads in British or European elections without a “Reputational Shield” against accusations of racism by political opponents?

More specifically, we tested propositions derived from a political psychological model of intergroup attitudes that sees individuals’ political choices as shaped by

1) their latent views or images of immigrants,

2) their perceptions of social norms against prejudice, and

3) the political and normative context in which these views are expressed. 



Comprehensive modelling of racial attitudes in political context has been developed in the US but never before adapted for a European context. The model is explicitly interdisciplinary, based on decades of social psychological research on “dual attitudes”. The model specifies immigration attitudes as the joint product of social norms against prejudice and individuals’ latent perceptions or “schemas” of immigrant groups. 

The survey questions used in this project, therefore, were designed to measure both of these components—on one hand, motivation to comply with social norms against prejudice; on the other hand, mental schemas of immigrant group. The laboratory experiments measured both as well, and tested how well our survey measures approximate cutting-edge laboratory techniques for assessing latent “schemas”.

The investigation of immigration questions through a psychological model requires accurate measures of the two key components of the model. To measure the first construct in both the survey and the experimental lab, we use a questionnaire measuring “motivation to control prejudiced responding”. This questionnaire measures both internal and external motivations to act without prejudice, showing that some are motivated primarily by pressure from others to appear non-prejudiced, while others are motivated by an internalized commitment to reject racism.

The second building block reflects individuals’ mental images of immigrant groups. Here we took two approaches to measurement. We used for the first time in this context the well-validated Affect Misattribution Procedure, in which participants are shown a picture of people of a different ethnic group, and then ask to rate an image of a neutral pictogram (such as a Chinese character) as more or less pleasant than average. The process is repeated a number of times for each participant to get a more reliable reading. Participants inevitably displace their feelings about the images of people onto the ratings of the pictogram, even when they are explicitly told to avoid doing so.  This means that the ratings of the pictograms accurately capture the participants’ feelings about the ethnic group depicted in the photos. Finally, political behaviour depends on context and debate as well as underlying psychological dispositions.  Thus, we used experiments, both in the lab and on our survey, to examine the political effectiveness of different rhetorical appeals to anti-immigration sentiment.  For example, our “message-messenger” experiment tested the relative effectiveness of arguments for and against a minority integration policy, when these arguments were made by different political actors (BNP, UKIP, Conservatives, unlabeled “politicians”).


Key Findings:

Motivation to Control PrejudiceThe social norm against prejudice, particularly when internalised by individuals as motivation to avoid prejudice, is an important factor in dampening preferences for restrictionist policies concerning immigration, asylum seekers’ rights, and minority integration.

Implicit Attitude measurement – The Affect Misattribution Procedure can be adapted for the European context, providing plausible indicators of automatically-activated affective responses toward majority and minority groups, as well as particular attitude constructs such as the headscarves worn by some Muslim women.

Reputational ShieldsArguments for a policy that works against Muslims (by preventing formation of Muslim schools) were more effective when framed in anti-prejudiced terms and presented by political actors without widespread reputations for racism (i.e., in the British case, by parties other than the BNP).



Academic articles:

  1. “The Anti-Racism Norm in Western European Immigration Politics: Why We Need to Consider it and How to Measure it,” with Elisabeth Ivarsflaten and Robert Ford, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 20: 421-445 (November 2010).
  2. “‘The Better Angels of our Nature’: How the Anti-Prejudice Norm Affects Policy and Party Preferences in Great Britain and Germany,” with Robert Ford and Elisabeth Ivarsflaten, under review.
  3. Blinder, Scott, and Lydia Lundgren. 2012. “Examining the Roots of Perceived Group Threat: Motivations, Dispositions, and Context.” (conference paper – see below)



 “Examining the Roots of Perceived Group Threat: Motivations, Dispositions, and Context.” Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, April 2012

“Implicit Intergroup Bias, Social Norms Against Prejudice, and Party Support in the UK and Germany,” European Consortium for Political Research conference, Reykjavik, August 2011. Also presented at International Society for Political Psychology Annual Scientific Meeting, Istanbul, July 2011.

“Social Norms, Gut Reactions: Experiments on Majority-group Attitudes Toward immigration,” COMPAS Work-in-Progress Seminar, May 2011

“The Politics of Migration in the UK: Catering to a Public of (at least) Two Minds,” COMPAS seminar presentation, January 2011.

 “Contemporary Immigration Politics in Western Europe Reconsidered: The Impact of the Norm of Racial Equality,” International Society for Political Psychology Annual Scientific Meeting, San Francisco, July 2010.

 “Prejudice, Anti-Racism, and Attitudes toward Immigration in the UK,” International Society for Political Psychology Annual Scientific Meeting, Dublin, July 2009.

“Measuring Anti-Racism: The Motivation to Control Prejudice” (with Robert Ford and Elisabeth Ivarsflaten), American Political Science Association Annual Meetings, Boston, August 2008.

“The State-of-the-Art in Survey Experiments,” University of Bergen, Conference on Experiments in the Social Sciences,” January 2010.

 “The Anti-Racism Norm in Western European Immigration Politics,” University of Texas-Austin, Conference on Immigration and Political Psychology, April 2009


Time line: Feb 2009 – June 2011 for the Fell Fund Project; articles still being planned and written from the data

Funder: Oxford University Press/John Fell Fund

Researchers: Scott Blinder


The Migration Observatory

Public Opinion and Public Policy - Migration Observatory video interview with Scott Blinder

Thinking Behind the Numbers - ESRC video on public opinion toward immigration in Britain with Scott Blinder