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What Do Voters want from Brexit?

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: Brexit, EU Referendum, European elections, immigration

Given how contentious the debate about the desirable shape of Brexit is proving to be, it is perhaps surprising that there has not been more polling than we have seen so far on what voters would like to emerge from the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Apart from a number of readings on whether the UK should permit EU citizens already living in the UK to stay (all of which suggest most people believe they should) such questioning as has taken place has focused on what it is presumed will be the crucial choice that the UK will face - to retain tariff-free access to the EU single market or to end freedom of movement.

However, as we have noted before, the findings of these exercises have proven sensitive to the wording used and thus been quite contradictory. In any event such efforts presume that the public see the issue in the same way as policy-makers are inclined to do – and that is something that should be ascertained rather than assumed.

Today we release an analysis paper that tries to cast new light on the kind of Brexit that the public would like to see. It is based on fresh survey research conducted by NatCen during September and October (via the internet and by phone) with a panel of 1,391 people who were first interviewed as part of the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey and who have agreed to answer occasional follow-up surveys. This is a rather different kind of ‘internet polling’ than has so far commonly been carried out in the UK; it is an approach that tries to marry the traditional survey research merits of choosing people to be interviewed at random and taking a reasonable amount of time to obtain the interviews with the speed and efficiency that the internet can bring. Novel approaches to survey research have, of course, to be treated with caution, but it might be noted that after the panel data have been weighted to take account of differences in people’s willingness to participate in the follow-up survey and to ensure that the sample reflects the demographic profile of the GB population, 51% of the panellists say they voted Leave, while 49% indicated that they backed Remain. This is is almost entirely in line with the actual outcome of Leave 52%, Remain 48%, suggesting that the panel of respondents is in fact highly representative.  

Devising survey questions about Brexit is not easy. The terrain is littered with technical terms such as ‘single market’, ‘free trade’, ‘customs union’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘passporting’. We should not assume that all voters necessarily have a firm grasp of these concepts. As you will see from the paper, we have deliberately avoided the use of such terms, though doubtless readers will have their own view on the merits of our attempts to describe some of these ideas in everyday language. Note too, that we also focused where possible on the implications for the ordinary voter of some of the decisions that will have to be made, such as whether they think customs controls should be reintroduced for goods and people moving between the UK and the EU and whether the EU’s regime in respect of the cost of mobile phone calls should still be followed by the UK.  

Still, there is one key headline that emerges from virtually all of the items that we covered, irrespective of how they are worded. Voters cannot simply be divided into those who want a ‘soft’ Brexit and those who would prefer a ‘hard’ one. In fact, key elements of both approaches are supported by a majority of voters.  

On the one hand there is nearly universal support for maintaining free trade between the UK and the EU, while nearly two in three support allowing financial institutions registered in the EU to operate in the UK (and vice-versa) and a similar proportion think the UK should continue to implement EU regulations on the design and safety of goods. On the other, around seven in ten voters believe that the UK should be able to limit immigration from the EU, while a similar proportion believe there should be customs checks at the border with a EU country. Voters evidently do not look at the Brexit process as an either/or choice in the way that many a politician and policy-maker is inclined to do.  

True, as we might anticipate, Remain voters are rather more likely than Leave voters to be in favour of the components of a ‘soft’ Brexit, while, conversely, Leave voters are keener on the options for a ‘hard’ Brexit. Even so, a majority of Leave voters back free trade, financial passporting and following EU manufacturing regulations, while a majority of Remain voters support limiting immigration and introducing customs checks. In short neither group of voters regards Brexit as a binary choice between ‘soft’ and hard’. A majority of both groups looks as though they would be happy with an outcome that contained bits of both.  

Still, what if this option were not to be on the negotiating table? Where do voters’ priorities lie?  

Our effort at addressing this issue asked people whether the UK should allow EU migrants to come here freely to live and work if this were the only way that British firms would be allowed to trade freely in the EU. It proves to be a question on which the public are just as divided as they were on June 23rd. While 49% said the UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement for EU citizens in those circumstances, 51% said it ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should not. Meanwhile, on this topic there is a clear divide between Remain and Leave voters; 70% of Remain voters think the UK should concede freedom of movement in return for free trade while 70% of Leave supporters take the opposite view.  

So if, as many a EU politician has indicated, the UK’s continued access to the single market will be contingent on the continuation of freedom of movement, Theresa May’s government will be faced with a tough choice. Either accepting or refusing such a deal is likely to give rise to political difficulties for it back home. However, perhaps we should note that amongst the group of voters about whom the Prime Minister maybe cares about most – those who say they would vote Conservative in a general election – 60% are against allowing freedom of movement in return for free trade. For Mrs May that could come to look the better bet should she be forced to choose.  

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