The single market versus immigration: what do voters really want from Brexit?

The single market versus immigration: what do voters really want from Brexit?



Keiran Pedley examines recent Lord Ashcroft polling on what Brexit means to voters and explains why polling can only tell us so much about the deal Theresa May should ask for.

As Westminster returns from holiday and the Labour leadership contest draws to a close attention is turning to Theresa May’s debut on the world stage and what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ will actually mean in practice. This week, Lord Ashcroft has produced some polling (conducted in August) that attempts to find out what voters think Brexit should mean.

A question that caught my eye focused on how voters prioritise access to the single market versus control of immigration. Attitudes on this issue are likely to be key moving forward given the apparent conflict between these two objectives in the eyes of EU leaders. (Incidentally – as Lord Ashcroft writes – voters themselves are not yet clear that any trade-off is required but it is probably safe to assume that they soon will be).

Immigration versus the single market

So what do the numbers tell us? On face value the findings are clear – voters prioritise controlling immigration over access to the single market by a margin of 52% to 28%.  Looking at these numbers alone the government might conclude that control of immigration was the ‘be all and end all’ for voters – even if it meant a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. Given the complexity of the issue it is wise to delve into how this question was asked and the surrounding context to fully understand what the numbers tell us. Let’s start with the question wording and how it was asked.

First, respondents were shown this text:

  1. Negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union may come down to striking a balance between having continued access to the EU single market and having control over who can enter, live and work in the UK from Europe, which should the UK Government prioritise?

Respondents were then presented with a 0-10 point scale and asked to provide a score. ‘10’ meant ‘being able to control immigration at all costs’ whilst ‘zero’ meant ‘securing access to the EU single market’. 52% gave a score of 6-10 and 28% gave a score of 0-4. These are the numbers used in the above graph that suggest controlling immigration is the overwhelming priority for voters over access to the EU single market.

However, if we delve a little deeper, I am not convinced that these numbers are as clear cut as they first appear.

Firstly, respondents are asked to prioritise between the relatively straightforward benefit of ‘controlling immigration’ versus the more abstract idea of ‘access to the EU single market’. It isn’t clear to what extent respondents understand the meaning of ‘access to the single market’ and what benefits it might bring to the UK. For example, it is reasonable to conclude that if respondents were made to associate the single market with jobs or prices in shops then they might score this question differently. After all, the same poll shows that respondents consider the cost of living the number one issue facing ‘you and your family’.

Secondly, how you present the numbers is also important. You can show the same numbers in a different way to give a very different impression of what they tell us. For example, let’s say you split respondents into three groups rather than two:

Chart 2

Here we are left with a different impression of what the numbers are telling us. Again, respondents appear to prioritise ‘controlling immigration’ over ‘access to the EU single market’ but rather than show a 2:1 split in favour of ‘controlling immigration’ we now see roughly a third somewhere in the middle – you might even call them ‘swing voters’ on the issue. Suddenly, if I am the government reading this poll I am left with a very different impression of what it tells me about voter priorities.

My point here is not to criticise the poll. Taking a complex issue like Brexit and simplifying it into a survey question is notoriously difficult and it is clear that effort has been taken to provide nuance in how the question is asked. However, what we learn from analysing the detail here is that headline poll figures might not always be as straightforward as they first appear.

Looking ahead

So what do these numbers tell us? Clearly securing new controls over immigration will be vital in delivering a Brexit deal that satisfies voters – especially those that voted Leave. Yet we are left with many unknowns. We don’t know what voters think ‘control’ means or what level of economic burden they are willing to bear to achieve it. We don’t know what degree of compromise is acceptable or unacceptable and we can’t foresee what changing economic circumstances for the UK (if they come) might mean for the importance voters place on access to the EU single market in the future. Put simply, we cannot assume voters want total control of immigration come what may.

Elsewhere in this poll the Prime Minister will be pleased that the UK is seen to be on the ‘right track’ (59%) and that the Conservatives outpoll Labour on negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by a margin of 48% to 25%. Theresa May also leads Jeremy Corbyn on who would make the best Prime Minister by a whopping 67% to 25%. May’s honeymoon period clearly continues but she will need this goodwill to last as long as possible. She seeks to deliver a Brexit deal that matches public expectations on immigration whilst also securing Britain’s economic future. Eventually she will have to show her hand and it is then – not now – when we will know what the public truly thinks about Brexit and the form it should take. Polling now is ambiguous and public opinion is subject to change. Let’s see what it says once the tough decisions have been taken.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley presents the PB/Polling Matters podcast and tweets about polling and public opinion at @keiranpedley

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