Brexit does not mean whatever May wants

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 17.07.2017

A new YouGov poll neatly illustrates the difficulties in interpreting the referendum mandate. Asked whether they would swap free movement – with limited welfare for new arrivals – for EU market access, Leave voters are split 50-50. But in the same poll, 72% of Brexiters say immigration is the most important issue in Brexit talks. In other words, Cameron’s much-derided renegotiation is good enough for half of all Brexiters, and also goes nowhere near far enough.

This apparent confusion illustrates the fundamental flaw in any referendum. By asking a simple leave/remain question, the ballot did not force voters to confront the trade-off between control over immigration and single market access.

As such, people wanting fundamentally incompatible things walked into polling booths, and put their cross in the Leave vote. Polling before the vote found 42% of Leave backers thought the UK should consider the Norway model – inside the single market, but accepting freedom of movement – and 45% thought it should not. In other words, just as the UK split into two roughly even camps on the issue of Brexit, the Brexiters split into two camps on what type of Brexit they wanted.

If voters had been forced to face these kind of trade-offs, Remain might well have won handily. This idea is lent force by an experiment run by Professor Philip Cowley before the referendum, looking at how people’s intended votes changed in response to precise monetary gains/losses. Cowley found that people were willing to vote Leave so long as they didn’t believe they’d be worse off; an average loss of £25 each produced almost a 10 percentage point lead for Remain.

Even when phrased in terms of reducing immigration, this unwillingness to bear any cost holds. Polling shortly before the vote found 61% of voters were willing to accept a short-term slowdown to lower immigration, but 68% weren’t willing to pay any of their personal income to achieve it.

Simply pointing out that the economy would suffer might not have been enough. Despite 40% of voters in June saying they thought Brexit would make Britain economically worse off, only 25% of voters thought Brexit would reduce their personal living standards. This brings to mind Professor Anand Menon’s anecdote about a Newcastle heckler. Speaking about the economics of Brexit, Menon noted that “the kind of drop” in UK GDP predicted by economists would “dwarf any savings” from the EU budget. Back came the response from the audience: “That’s your bloody GDP, not ours”.

In short, people were failing to draw the link between the macro economy on the 6 o’clock news, and their wallets. However, Professor John Curtice writes that there was still a “remarkably strong” link between what people thought would happen to the economy, and how they voted, with roughly 90% of people who thought Brexit would be economically good/bad voting remain/leave respectively. The problem for Remain was that the former camp simply wasn’t large enough. Either way, Vote Leave’s concerted effort to undermine sources of expertise on the economy was necessary (if not sufficient) for their victory.

This leaves us in a place where people with incompatible visions have voted for a prospect they are not willing to pay for. If the government is completely determined to carry through Brexit, then this suggests it should make it as soft as possible.

But again we find polling throwing up contradictions. No matter what they thought pre-referendum, after the vote 57% of Leave voters – and  42% of all voters – say a Norway style model would not “respect” the result. Only 32% back it. Voters seem to have followed the government in interpreting the result as predominantly about immigration, and based their views accordingly.

Then again, this polling also shows the problem with failing to force people to confront trade-offs. Another poll after the vote found 66% of Britons thought single market access should take priority in negotiations. Only 31% felt restricting free movement should be the priority. And some 45% would be dissatisfied if free movement were the price of market access. When forced to make a decision people ultimately voted with their wallets.

Given the unbridgeable differences between segments of the leave camp, it was clear before polling day that putting a vote for Brexit into effect would involve huge judgement calls on the part of government. Instead of interpreting the intricacies and nuances of the vote to form a soft Brexit consensus, Theresa May’s cabinet has followed the path blazed by the tabloid press in declaring the vote to be a mandate for whatever they want it to be. It is not.

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    3 Responses to “Brexit does not mean whatever May wants”

    • What an unholy mess the Tory civil war has caused and it still isn’t over yet. They are still fighting for position and putting their own career prospects before the good of the nation as a whole. I feel sure the history books will see it all as a lasting disgrace.

    • But what’s the evidence that Labour’s policy is much better? They say jobs first and economy first, but Corbyn sacked front benchers for voting in favour of Single Market. Leaving our main export market is bound to hit jobs and the economy. Companies’ investment plans are now on hold, obviously waiting to see if we, or their sector, has free and uncomplicated access to it. And Corbyn knows that the Referendum vote was only for the EU and not the Single Market or customs union. And he says he voted Remain. Doesn’t add up.

      • Alex, Corbyn is not against the EU, and he sacked front benchers for not following party policy. What he has said is that you cannot have free trade access without EU membership of some sort, which is true.
        Leaving the EU is idiotic, as well as financially and socially crazy.
        We should be rescinding the Article 50 notice, unfortunately most journalists and commentators do not listen, they invent what they thought they heard, Jeremy Corbyn is very precise in what he says!