Amid calls for the government to loosen its opposition to free movement in order to protect the economy when Britain leaves the EU, the research shows compromise would result in far less popular backlash than is assumed. Campaigners opposing hard Brexit claim it also vindicates their new slogan “no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit”.
In a poll conducted by YouGov three weeks after the general election, 1,600 adults were asked how important they thought it was to reduce immigration from the EU.
Framed as an isolated issue, the study confirmed that public opinion is still deeply divided a year on from the Brexit referendum: 72% of leave voters rated immigration either as very important or the most important issue in the talks, and 74% of remain voters said the opposite, ranking it less important or not important at all.
When asked to consider free movement as a trade-off for single market access – a principle described last week as “indivisible” by EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier – British voters appear far more pragmatic and united.
Leave voters would be evenly split if the government tried to keep full access to the single market in exchange for allowing a version of free movement that limited welfare benefits for new arrivals. Across the country as a whole, twice as many voters would be satisfied with this option than not, even though it goes no further than the deal struck by David Cameron before the referendum.
But support for a trade-off soars when voters are offered the option of other limitations on free movement that are used by some countries in the single market. Asked to consider a system where EU migrants were sent home if they did not find work, 55% of leave voters said they would be satisfied with this, versus only 25% who would be unhappy. There was only slightly less support for an “emergency brake” option to control surges in immigration.
Best For Britain, a pressure group opposed to hard Brexit that commissioned the research, said it proved it was wrong to assume that the referendum result meant Britain wished to ban free movement whatever the cost.
“Our polling shows that a huge majority of people across the country support freedom of movement if they too can keep their own rights to live, work and study abroad,” said its chief executive, Eloise Todd. “The picture is much more nuanced than the government has portrayed, with clear support for some limitations on freedom of movement that are already within the government’s control.”
The reputation of opinion polling has suffered since the surprises of the referendum and June’s general election, but YouGov’s conclusion is supported by other methods of assessing the public mood.
A separate study by researchers at King’s College London, the Rand thinktank and Cambridge University used a technique called “stated preference discrete choice experiments” to ask people to weight different priorities.
It found very little appetite for the government’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” approach to the talks, and voters much keener to compromise.
“Our research is one of the most rigorous assessments to date of what the public wants from Brexit, and it clearly shows that the British people do not wish to head over a cliff edge and leave the EU on World Trade Organisation rules – they want a proper deal,” said Jonathan Grant, the professor of public policy at King’s College London. “The British public are sophisticated enough to understand that they can’t ‘have their cake and eat it’, and will need to make and accept compromises to reach a deal.”
The team found that supposed red lines on immigration and leaving the European court of justice were far less important to voters than the government.
“While our results do show a desire to control movement of people to some extent, we find that this stems from a concern about managing demand for public services, rather than from wanting to limit freedom of movement per se,” wrote the team led by Charlene Rohr of Rand.
“Our analysis indicated that, on average, respondents would prefer a future relationship in which the UK is able to make and interpret all laws itself, but this was considered less important than maintaining free trade or being able to negotiate new trade deals independently.” [...]
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YouGov poll results
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