It is widely believed that freedom of movement (FoM) with the EU is highly unpopular with people who identify as leavers. However, this assumption is mistaken. Here, we present evidence from a large (greater than 2K) sample showing that FoM is almost as acceptable to leavers as it is to remainers. This finding has implications for the positioning of political parties, notably Labour, on FoM and membership of the EU single market
Brexit isn’t working
Six years after the EU referendum the Brexit project is in disarray.
Predictions that Brexit would inflict serious damage on the UK economy have been confirmed by a series of authoritative reports. In June 2022 alone, a report from the Centre for European Reform estimated that UK GDP is 5.2% smaller than it would otherwise have been, investment is 13.7% lower and goods trade 13.6% lower. A report from the Resolution Foundation estimated that Brexit will cost each UK worker £470 every year over the coming decade. And the Office for National Statistics reported the worst balance of trade figures since records began.
An earlier report (October 2020) from the LSE Centre for Economic Performance estimated that the cost of Brexit to the UK economy is likely to be more than double that of the Covid pandemic, a view shared by the chair of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. And this is without full implementation of the trade and cooperation agreement, which the minister for Brexit opportunities has said would be an act of national self-harm.
Meanwhile, the problems over the Northern Ireland protocol appear irreconcilable, and the government’s solution – to unilaterally cancel swathes of this international treaty that they signed amid great jubilation and claimed as a diplomatic triumph only two years ago – threatens to shred the reputation of the UK as a trustworthy partner in international affairs.
This sorry state of affairs is widely recognised: opinion polls on the question of whether Brexit is going well or badly have shown a steady deterioration in public support, with well over three times as many now thinking that Brexit is going badly than think it is going well (54% to 16%). The failure of Brexit is particularly salient to Labour supporters, over 80% of whom think Brexit is going badly compared to only 3% who see it as succeeding.
Wouldn’t it make sense to rejoin the EU single market?
An obvious remedy is readily available. Rejoining the single market would – at a stroke – overcome the barriers to trade with our European neighbours and solve the problem of Northern Ireland. But the Labour Party is not calling for a return to the single market. Indeed, while some prominent voices outside parliament, including London mayor Sadiq Kahn, and a single Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood, have come out in favour, a series of senior Labour frontbenchers have stated that a Labour government would not pursue single market membership, and a Labour MP who openly challenged this position was forced to retract.
A striking feature of the reluctance of the Labour Party to campaign for single market membership is the conspicuous absence of a plausible explanation as to why such a simple and powerful solution is being rejected. But a reason is apparent from a steady stream of rhetoric over the past six years that has coalesced into a settled dogma: single market membership would mean the return of FoM, which, it is believed, would so anger leave voters that they would withdraw support from a party advocating it. But this is incorrect.
Freedom of movement is NOT toxic to leavers: the evidence
Our data are from a representative online survey conducted in June 2022. Participants were identified as leavers, remainers or neither, from their responses to a short questionnaire, with three leave-supporting and three remain-supporting items (e.g. ‘I identify strongly with people who voted to leave/remain in the European Union’). We then presented participants with a range of different scenarios for the future of the Brexit process. Rather than asking them to identify their ideal or preferred outcome, we asked how acceptable each scenario would be, with the aim of identifying outcomes that both remainers and leavers would be able to live with.
In an earlier survey, conducted with a representative sample of 1,408 adult UK citizens in 2021, we found that, unsurprisingly, a scenario labelled ‘An independent, sovereign UK’ (essentially a hard Brexit), was acceptable to 41% of leave voters, but unacceptable to 64% of remain voters. Conversely, a scenario labelled ‘Rethink Brexit’ (a second referendum) was acceptable to 65% of remain voters but unacceptable to 56% of leave voters. However, a scenario labelled ‘A New Deal with Europe’ was acceptable to more than 50% of participants, and unacceptable to less than 20%, in both groups (Figure 1).
In the new survey, alongside the hard Brexit and second referendum options, we offered three alternative visions of what ‘A new deal with Europe’ might mean, involving either free trade, freedom of movement, or both. Each scenario was presented with a detailed explanation, and a rationale (Table 1). A total of 2,166 participants responded to the survey: 587 participants (28.1%) self-identified as leavers, 902 (41.6%) identified as remainers, and 677 (31.3%) did not express a Brexit identity. Overall, all three ‘new deal’ options were acceptable to well over 50% of participants, and unacceptable to only around 15% (Table 2).
In Figure 2, these data are broken down according to participants’ Brexit identities. For the hard Brexit and second referendum options, the results from participants identifying as leavers or remainers were very similar to those obtained from leave and remain voters a year earlier. Unsurprisingly, the hard Brexit option (‘An Independent Sovereign UK’) was highly unacceptable to remainers (Figure 1A and 2A), while the idea of a second referendum (‘Rethink Brexit’) was highly unacceptable to leavers (Figure 1B and 2B).
However, the three ‘new deal’ options were all similarly attractive to leavers as to remainers (Figure 2 C,D,E). For both groups, each of free trade, FoM, and the combination of both elements was acceptable to more than 50% of participants and unacceptable to less than 20%. Participants who did not express a Brexit identity also reported very low (10%) levels of unacceptability for all of the ‘new deal’ options.
What does this mean?
These data suggest strongly that the conventional wisdom is mistaken. When the meaning is spelled out, FoM is not toxic to leavers, who are almost as positive about it as remainers. Moreover, almost identical levels of support were found for the third ‘new deal’ option which envisages both free trade and FoM – a close approximation to single market membership.
Keir Starmer’s response to Sadiq Khan’s call for Labour to commit to rejoining the single market was to re-state the same position that he has taken on EU membership – that there is “no case for rejoining”. This is false. There is an obvious case for rejoining the single market, in relation to ameliorating the impact of Brexit on trade and the cost of living, restoring lost opportunities for UK citizens, reversing shortages of labour in numerous sectors of the economy, reinstating a leading role for UK scientists in international research programmes, and resolving the crisis in Northern Ireland.
Rather than stating that there is ‘no case’ for rejoining the single market, it would be more transparent for Labour to spell out its objections. This is particularly important, considering that the single market was not on the ballot paper in 2016, and that leading advocates of Brexit said at that time that, while leaving the EU, the UK should remain within the single market. We believe that if Labour were to set out its arguments against rejoining the single market, the return of FoM would predominate. But our data suggest that, far from alienating leavers, the return of FoM would be welcomed by a majority of both remainers and leavers.
Freedom of movement and single market membership could be vote winners
The fact that the Liberal Democrat Party, which has adopted a roadmap toward rejoining the single market, has been able to overturn huge Conservative majorities in by-elections in two heavily leave-voting constituencies – Shropshire North and Tiverton & Honiton – provides real-world evidence that support for FoM is not a barrier to electoral success.
In Keir Starmer’s 4 July ‘make Brexit work’ speech, he stated that a Labour government would not seek to reintroduce freedom of movement or rejoin the single market, arguing that this would not “help stimulate growth or bring down food prices or help British business thrive in the modern world”. Since single market membership would almost certainly stimulate growth, reduce food prices and reinvigorate British business, these are questionable grounds to rule out policies that – according to our data – could command wide support across the Brexit divide.