Why ending free movement may not respect the “the will of the people”

Public opinion has shifted since the Brexit referendum: more voters now favour retaining single market membership than controlling immigration. 

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Brexit has spawned many mantras. One of the more popular ones recited by government ministers and Conservative hard Brexiteers is that an end to free movement is an essential element of any deal which respects the will of the people. Theresa May has repeatedly emphasised that an end to free movement is non-negotiable, and that retaining it “would not be keeping faith with the will of the people”.

On this, she is as one with her leading backbench critic Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said in January: “Free movement must end when we leave on 29th March, 2019. Otherwise we will not have taken back control in the way demanded by the referendum result.” Yet like many political mantras, this contains a grain of truth but oversimplifies a more complicated reality.

There is no doubt that free movement was a central concern for Leave voters and campaigners. The two most frequently cited reasons for voting “Leave” in British Election Study data were “immigration” and “sovereignty” and freedom of movement is opposed by Leave supporters on both grounds. EU citizens exercising free movement rights are a major source of migration inflows to Britain, and the government’s inability to restrict or reform such rights is, to Leave voters, a flagrant and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty. But while such objections are prominent, they don’t justify the repeated claim that ending free movement is an essential component to any Brexit deal.

Leave supporters, like all voters, recognise trade-offs. While they would prefer free movement to end, for most of them this is not an absolute or non-negotiable demand, but contingent on costs and benefits. When asked to prioritise ending free movement or maintaining single market membership, polling over the past year shows more voters chose the latter, including more than a third of strong Brexit demographics such as voters aged over 65 and working class voters. Immigration control is important to Leave voters, but not at any cost.

The price people are willing to pay for immigration control may also have fallen since the referendum, because their concerns about immigration have declined substantially. The share of the electorate naming it as one of the most important issues is at a 15-year low, though this may reflect the merging of the issue into the broader Brexit debate dominating politics.

More convincing evidence of a shift in mood comes from questions which ask voters about the effects of immigration. Voters are now much more positive about the economic and cultural impacts of immigration than they were a few years ago – including Leave voters who, while still being somewhat critical of immigration’s effects, are much less so than they were before the EU referendum. Voters who regard immigration less negatively will be less willing to pay substantial costs for its reduction.

Even when Leave voters remain negative about immigration and its effects, it does not follow that an end to free movement is an essential step to address these concerns. Voters’ negativity about free movement in part reflects a misunderstanding of what is and is not allowed under the policy.

The “citizens assembly” exercises conducted by the UCL Constitution Unit revealed that when Leave voters were given detailed information, from neutral experts, about the mechanisms available to control migration under existing free movement rules – for example removing migrants who fail to find work – they became much more willing to retain free movement as part of any Brexit deal, seeing stricter enforcement of the existing rules as a better solution than a costly departure from the single market.

The results of these deliberative exercises highlights another misunderstanding in the “respect the will of the people” mantra – that the voters whose will they wish to respect have fixed and complete views, which cannot be altered. In fact, voters’ understanding of most complex policies is quite limited, and they often look to the parties they support to help them fill in the details. A concerted campaign by government figures to implement and publicise restrictive reforms within the free movement system, and highlight the costs of leaving the single market, would not convince everyone, but it would likely convince some.

It is a mistake to imagine voters have fixed policy preferences driving their political choices; often it the other way round, with policy preferences shaped by tribal party allegiances. Witness, for example, the dramatic shift in Republican voters’ views of free trade and Russia since Donald Trump’s emergence. Decades of enthusiasm for free trade and scepticism about Russia have been swiftly abandoned now the Republican President is a Russia enthusiast and free trade critic. Many staunch Conservatives would be willing to consider retaining free movement in exchange for single market access if sent a clear message by the party they trust that this was the best bargain available.

It would not be impossible, then, for politicians to convince many Leave voters that a Brexit deal which retained freedom of movement in exchange for substantial economic benefits was in the nation’s interest. Some already lean in this direction, and others are persuadable. But adopting this stance would still be difficult and politically costly. Leave voters at present tend to see fewer costs from Brexit, so retaining free movement will strike many of them as an unnecessary concession, even if their concerns about immigration have waned.

The low levels of political trust among Leave voters would also make persuasion difficult, particularly for a Conservative government which has insisted repeatedly that an end to free movement is essential. And while many might be persuaded to accept free movement as one element in a grand bargain, there is also a substantial minority with intensely negative feelings about immigration for whom it is a deal breaker in all circumstances. Any deal which retained free movement would cost the Conservatives support from this group.

But the electorate is a broad church, and there are also many current or former Conservatives, who voted Remain or favour “soft Brexit”, whose support would be easier to retain or win back with a deal that kept Britain in the single market. Choices which lose the government votes in Clacton may win them support in Canterbury. On free movement, as with much else in Brexit, there is no simple or straightforward solution that “respects the will of the people”, just a menu of messy choices and costly compromises.

Rob Ford is a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.