Saturday’s Western Mail published the results of an opinion poll on the EU, which indicated that the majority in Wales regard access to the single market as being more important than control of migration. I don’t know whether there were additional results in the polling which have not been published, but given the figures in this report, it would have been interesting to see how they correlated with the way people voted in June.
In the form in which the report appeared, other members of the EU could be forgiven for asking “If the most important thing to you is access to the single market, why on earth did you vote to leave?”, because at first sight, it certainly seems as though people are asking for the sort of access which membership currently gives us. And if only 30% think that ending freedom of movement within the EU is more important, it suggests that, while immigration is clearly a strong factor, it is not enough in itself to explain the June result.
Part of the problem, of course, is that people were told (and are still being told) over and over again that these are not alternatives; the UK can have both. I’m not alone in believing that to be the stuff of fantasy, but in presenting them as alternatives the poll doesn’t help us to understand how many people still believe that. Ranking them in terms of their relative importance doesn’t actually tell us that concern about immigration has receded, merely that the possible economic impact of the decision people took is becoming more real.
I don’t doubt that the question of immigration was a major factor in the way people voted in June, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that “Do you want to stop migration from other EU countries?” was not the question on the ballot papers. In claiming that the vote was actually a mandate for ending or reducing migration from the EU, to such an extent that it must take primacy in negotiations, the government are going beyond the facts, and basing their policy on surmise.
Let’s look at some numbers. The vote to leave was won by a margin of 52-48%. It’s probably reasonable to assume that, for the 48% who voted to remain, there was an implicit willingness (not necessarily the same thing as enthusiasm, of course) to continue with existing rules on freedom of movement. But how realistic is to make the converse assumption about the 52% who voted to leave? Is it accurate to say that all of them wanted an end to freedom of movement? I don’t think it is; migration may have been a dominating factor for a large number, but there were also significant numbers who wanted to leave for entirely different reasons.
What that means, in mathematical terms, is that even if as many as 95% of that 52% thought immigration was the main factor, that would still leave only a minority of those who voted wanting to put an end to freedom of movement at the top of the list. And whilst I accept that great play was made of immigration, I simply don’t believe that it was the main driver for such a large percentage of leave voters. I accept that it’s as dangerous for me to assume that I know the minds of that 52% as it is for the government to do so, but I can at least point to some evidence for my belief. The day after the poll, Lord Ashcroft released some poll findings which suggested that this was actually the second most important reason mentioned by leave voters, and that 33% of leave voters made it their most important factor.
Now a little bit of simple arithmetic (33% of 52%) tells us that that means that around 17% of all of those who voted did so first and foremost because they wanted an end to freedom of movement. By making the demands of that 17% an absolute red line in negotiations, the UK Government is not only ignoring the views of the majority of the voting population, it is also ignoring the views of the majority who voted to leave. And they’re claiming that this is democracy.
That’s an over-simplistic analysis, of course. There will have been some who put migration high up their list as a second or third factor; and there will even be some of the remain voters who have some concern over migration. My point, basically, is that none of us can actually be certain about any of this, because it wasn’t the question that people were asked. It underlines the problem with holding a referendum on a complex matter without detail on the consequences (as compared, for instance with the post-legislative referendums on devolution), but it underlines even more the dangers of governments choosing to interpret the results in ways which match their own preconceptions and prejudices.Pointing out, repeatedly, that they’re going beyond the data that they have isn’t the same thing as whinging about a result that we don’t like (whatever they may say), particularly when the result of going beyond that data is likely to have a serious impact on the future of all of us in the short to medium term.