The People’s Priority? Free Trade or Immigration Control?

Posted on 7 September 2016 by John Curtice

Much of the debate about what Brexit might mean in practice has focused on the difficulties the UK might face in attempting to remain a remember of EU single market in respect of goods and services while insisting on being able to impose restrictions on freedom of movement, that is the right of EU citizens to come here to live and work. For many EU politicians, free movement is a necessary concomitant of free trade. In contrast, for many in the Leave camp, it is essential that they be separated.

It is thus not surprising that a number of opinion polls have attempted to ascertain where the public stands on what might well prove to be the key issue in the negotiations between the UK and the EU about the UK’s exit. Until now, they have either found that the public is more or less evenly divided on the issue (see, for example, these polls by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Opinium) or (as in these examples from ComRes and ORB) is rather more inclined to prioritise access to the free market over limiting immigration.

However, this is not the picture painted by the latest attempt to see where the public’s priorities lie, undertaken by Lord Ashcroft and published earlier this week. Its headline finding is that nearly twice as many think it is more important for the UK to be able to control immigration (52%) than to retain access to the single market (28%). It would appear that perhaps immigration trumps free trade after all.

Of course, the answer you get does depend on who you ask.  While 76% of those in Lord Ashcroft’s poll who voted Leave on June 23rd prioritised immigration, only 28% of those who voted Remain did so. But the latest poll is not unique in that respect. As we have noted before, polls consistently find that Leave voters are more inclined to prioritise curbing immigration, whereas Remain supporters tend to give priority to keeping free trade.

So how then might we account for the difference between the readings, and what insight into public opinion might we obtain from examining them?

The first thing that we should note is that this latest reading has been obtained much more recently than the others. The previous readings all come from polls taken quite soon after the referendum, at the end of June or during the first half of July. Lord Ashcroft’s poll was conducted in the middle of August. It is thus possible that public opinion on the subject has changed during the course of the holiday season. However, it is not obvious why it should have done so.

The second feature of Lord Ashcroft’s poll is that the way in which people were invited to express their views was very different from that employed in the other polls. In Lord Ashcroft’s case respondents were invited to give a score between 0 and 10 in order to say where they thought the balance between free trade and immigration should lie, as follows:

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? On a 0-10 scale where 0 means securing access to the EU single market at all costs and 10 means being able to control immigration at all costs, where do you think the balance should lie?

In contrast, most previous polls have asked respondents to choose one or the other – free trade or less immigration – with the only possibility for nuance being the chance to say whether one view was ‘much’ or ‘somewhat’ closer to their own. Alternatively, people were asked to say how much they agreed or disagreed with a statement that said that one (free trade) was more important than the other (immigration).

Perhaps the opportunity in Lord Ashcroft’s poll to express a more nuanced view made a difference, with many people offering a score of between 4 and 6. However, only one in four did so, no more than chose one of the ‘extreme’ responses, that is, 0 or 10. (And in case, you are wondering the headline figures of 52% and 28% represent the proportion choosing 6-10 (control immigration) and 0-4 (single market) respectively.)

Perhaps a bigger concern might be that in making 10 mean ‘being able to control immigration’ and 0 ‘securing access to the single market’, there was a risk that immigration was presented as the more highly scored and thus more favourable option. It would certainly be interesting to see what would happen if the scores were reversed or, perhaps preferably, a non-numeric scale used instead.

However, perhaps the real explanation for the very different pattern of response in Lord Ashcroft’s poll lies in the way in which he has worded his question on the topic. Notice, in particular, that he refers to ‘being able to control’ (emphasis added) who can come to the UK. In contrast, in three of the four previous polls the word ‘control’ did not feature. Instead they referred to ‘restricting the freedom of movement’, to ‘ending free movement of labour’ or to whether we should ‘limit immigration from the EU’ (emphases added). Having ‘control’ is arguably a positive attribute whereas ‘ending’, ‘restricting’ or ‘limiting’ something might be thought to have negative connotations, especially when used about a ‘freedom’. Certainly, one of the things that we know from the polls conducted before the referendum is that the prospect of gaining ‘control’ was one of the attributes that people most readily associated with the Leave campaign.

Still, one of the previous readings did refer to ‘control’, that is, the poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, yet it still came up with a much more even distribution of support than Lord Ashcroft (44% for free trade, 40% for controlling immigration). However, it referred not to control over who can come to the UK or over immigration, but rather whether ‘Britain gets complete control over its immigration policies’ (emphasis added). Talking of ‘policies’ rather than persons is perhaps a more remote language that has less immediate resonance for some voters.

What might be the implications of all this? First, and most obviously, there is still much to learn about where the British public does stand on this subject. We do not yet have enough consistent evidence to know where the balance of opinion lies should the UK be faced with a choice between free trade or immigration. Second, it is unwise (as is usually the case in research on attitudes) to rely on the responses to a single poll question on this issue. Rather, it needs to be addressed from a variety of angles to identify the robustness of any pattern of responses that is obtained. Third, the apparent sensitivity of public opinion to the way in which the issue is addressed or framed suggests that there may well be plenty of room for politicians (and others) to move public opinion in one direction or the other – if they can find the language that puts their case in the more favourable light.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

There are 3 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *