Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Minority rule: Migration, Brexit and Mandates

It is generally (not universally) agreed that the issue of migration played a large role in leading 52% of UK voters to want to leave the EU. However that does not mean there is a mandate to end Freedom of Movement (FoM) at the cost of losing access to the single market. I’m rather surprised by the number of people who think it does. There are lots of reasons why it does not, like voters being told they could end FoM and still stay in the single market, like that many people voted to end FoM because they wanted a better NHS, whereas the opposite will be true in practice. (Tony Yates discusses this general point here).

However the clearest reason why Brexit does not mean there is a mandate for ending FoM was made by Ian Dunt yesterday. Put simply, it is that a majority of a majority can be a minority. The fact that many people voted Brexit because they wanted more control over immigration does not imply that a majority of all voters did.

Suppose that everyone understood that there was an unbreakable link between freedom of movement (FoM) and membership of the single market. Suppose all the 48% who voted to Remain prefered to keep membership at the ‘cost’ of retaining FoM. Suppose 48% of those voting Leave felt the opposite. But 4% of those voting Leave wanted a Norway style arrangement, and wanted to leave for some other reason than FoM . In this case a majority want to keep FoM, and do not want further migration controls if that means being out of the single market.

Of course these numbers are made up, although polling evidence does suggest a majority of people prefer being in the single market to ending free movement. But the key point is that we do not know what the true numbers are. Yet the presumption seems to be being made in lots of quarters, from researchers to politicians, that the referendum result means that we cannot go for any arrangement involving FoM. This just does not follow.

Nor does the fact that the Leave campaign focused on immigration make any difference. Again imagine that the 4% who wanted to leave for reasons other than immigration were rock solid about voting Leave. For the undecideds, however, immigration was critical. In which case any decent campaign would focus on the undecideds. We could change the figures to make it even clearer: 30% of Leavers were rock solid because of sovereignty or financial issues, but 22% were undecided and also worried about immigration. Again a good campaign would focus on immigration, even though it was a minority concern. Election results, like prices, are determined at the margin.

There is therefore no mandate from the referendum result to sacrifice membership of the single market in order to end free movements. Which is one excellent reason why we need a second referendum on the final terms for Brexit before we leave.

Postscript (17/10/16) Here is some polling evidence supporting these arguments.  

33 comments:

  1. More tiresome and unedifying denial. Sadly.

    Wake me up when you've moved to the 'experimental' and then 'acceptance' stage of this grief, please.

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  2. Just another out of touch Oxford Professor, shock horror. Get out of the university & stop talking to the die hard liberal freaks we know as students. I will put it to you simply, stop the hordes of gimmegrants

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    1. "Stop the hordes of gimmegrants" is your personal opinion and might be an accepted view among your friends. However, the point of this blog post was that you can't extrapolate your views about migrants onto the majority of the British voters, not even a majority of the Leave voters. Maybe it is, maybe it is not.

      What is certain is that the referendum was about leaving the EU, not about exiting the single market or stopping FoM. If you viewed those as inextricable, than you have not been informed correctly and failed to inform yourself correctly.

      And, btw, the share of 25-64 yr-olds in the UK population with tertiary education is over 40% and growing quickly. Not speaking to students leaves you with no idea what a large proportion (soon majority) of the population actually thinks.

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  3. Would a second referendum be a yes/no on whatever the Tories have cobbled together, or would it be a multi-optional set of possibilities and you voted for your preferred one?

    If it was yes/no, what happens if a majority rejects the Tories' position? A third referendum on going back in, which too could be lost?

    This is why referendums are a terrible idea.

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  4. Almost all of this post is an eloquent elaboration of why holding an in/out referendum was such a stupid idea. But then you undermine all of this by proposing that a further referendum will be required.

    Public concern about migration will always fluctuate. But I sense that a majority of voters are comfortable with the eventual removal of the requirement that legislation and regulations drafted by the European Commission and approved by the Council and Parliamet are transposed in to UK law and regulations. For many voters, the sovereignty of parliament - whatever that might mean in the modern era - has been reaffirmed.

    In addition, I sense that Brexit is having a profound, if slow-burning, effect on the major members such Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Governing politicians in these member-states (and in the other smaller member-states) will have to address many of the concerns that fuelled the Brexit vote. When Article 50 negotiations finally begin both sides may find they share far more than they perceived they did prior to 23 June. And much of the movement will be on the EU side.

    Finally the members of the Euro Area will also have to address continuing, harmful structural deficiences. Prof. Stiglitz has being making much noise about this recently. And while many of his criticisms and proposed solutions are naive and wrong-headed his highlighting of the deficiencies is valuable. And steps to remedy these deficiencies would also help to close the gap between the functioning of monetary and fiscal policy in the UK and the Euro Area.

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  5. At the end of the day it will be about trade offs and not a nice analysis of what people may have meant. No one at this stage can foresee the results of the multifarious negotiations that will have to take place over the next few years but there will be trade offs and the result will be thus determined.

    However, a lot of people who voted for Brexit would not lightly concede the FOM issue so there would, to my mind have to be some sort of accommodation on this issue; it may be more form than substance but accommodation there would have to be.

    As regards a second referendum I believe that referenda are justified on matters of principle and that was indeed the subject of the Brexit referendum. But the second referendum you are suggesting is one of terms not principle and, might I suggest, is merely a surreptitious device for annulling the first result.

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  6. Right – and there's also no mandate for ending FoM because all the 52% 'said' was 'we want Britain to Leave the EU'. The broadness (and vagueness) of the question may have been helpful to Leave for winning the referendum, but the flip side is it gave them nothing concrete other than 'Leave'.

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  7. Surely, more importantly, the question was simply stay or leave. It didn't mention immigration at all. All the (advisory) "mandate" is to leave the EU. How it is done (if done) is up to the politicians.

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  8. There is some poll evidence that the majority of people in the UK are in favour of FoM if it means that the British can live and work in the rest of Europe, but not in favour of Eastern Europeans living and working in the UK.

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  9. Whilst i understand the point and the logic! i myself would prefer that the jobs lost in the West at 1k pm had & will in future being nay on fully funded in those countries rather than used for profiteering,that way far more would stay & build there economies and would be more able to trade with us,on our part wages wouldn't be so depressed and we would also gain employment from them building there own economies up! the very opposite of neoliberal economics!the very fact i have this position which would probably negate the immigration point ,means that Mr Dunt circumnavigates the point of voting for change!given the fact that keeping the status quo or having change ,i personally wouldn't support FOM for access!unless some change is guaranteed & i have already given a solution to stopping immigration above the meme of stop bombing them!am sure they're many more solutions but Mr Dunt argument is one that doesn't effect such solutions!

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  10. I'm a firm remainer, but this seems to me to be a bit of a slippery slope. The Tories got a majority of votes in the General Election, but only a minority of the electorate voted for them. Even leaving out the non-voters, only a minority of Tory voters might be in favour of parts of their manifesto.

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    1. Strictly speaking, the Tories won 37% of the vote, which gave them just over half of the parliamentary seats.

      I think that Simon's point is that the politicians are using what was a simple binary choice to give them a mandate to pursue policies that suit their ideology.

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  11. I think it's simply crazy for any country to lose control of its currency and its borders. If you asked that in a referendum I pretty sure a majority would agree.

    Please Prof ... can you get back to some economics, e.g. explaining why Steve Keen is wrong https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcNBW9609HM

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  12. One could argue that there is literally no mandate to end FoM. And you'd be right. Similarly there's no mandate to leave the single market. Semantics, I know but valid and who'd expect the Brexiters to play fair? A smart politician would tip the wink to the EU (if EU politicians are willing to play along) that they wouldn't invoke Article 50 and would see how voters felt once they'd felt the full impact cause by uncertainty about Britain's place in the world in a couple of years time. In the meantime immigration will go down and inflation and unemployment up. Then call a referendum/election on the EU/EEA issue having, as stated, tipped the wink that Britain would stay in the single market either way. A not so bright politician would publicly insist on a second referendum, now who could I be thinking about?....

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  13. Yes, it is now clear that the referendum was a really bad idea.

    They say that all political careers end in failure, but the last 3 prime ministers have each left a spectacular failure:-
    Blair with his illegal war in Iraq
    Brown's 'no more boom and bust' period being entirely baseless boom, then bust
    And Cameron's referendum gamble.

    What gets into these people?

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    1. 'Competence' and 'leadership' apparently. At least, that's what Corbyn is accused of lacking, but he opposed the war and New Labour economics, and did not call for a referendum.

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    2. It was clear at the time! It was an act of political cowardice.

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  14. Don't you also make the assumption that all remainers believe in the fom? I voted remain, but i'm very much against mass immigration. I also read polls which were published on your blog, that stated over 80% of the population felt that immigration was too high.

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  15. Given that 3/4 to 2/3 of the population consistently say they want reduced immigration, to me it would seem that it is the remain side with the problem, having more people amongst them who voted for personal financial reasons even though they'd ideally like lower population.

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  16. I am not for ftoping FoM, per se. I am for stoping destruction of countries that imigrants come from by merchantilist policies more powerfull countries do.

    Even in the EU and EZ power countries like Germany and UK are destroying economies of perifery. It is power hungry countries that want to abuse but not to accept the consecuences of such abuse.

    Stop destruction of perifery by demanding trade in your own currency and forcing them to suffer under fixed exchange rate which is worse then gold standard.

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  17. It was always the case that ‘Leave’ meant different things to those voting for it. As you say, results are determined at the margin and FoM only needed to be decisive for a small number to tip the balance. Conversely, we cannot assume that FoM was positively desired by all those voting ‘Remain’ as many could have been concerned about it but convinced by arguments on other matters such as economic gains/losses. The result itself leaves open what arrangements should exist outside the EU. The weight given to FoM in negotiations will be a matter of political judgement. Personally I want to preserve it but we will have to give serious attention to issues such as labour market regulation, housing and migration impact funding.

    You argue again for “a second referendum on the final terms for Brexit before we leave”. I have asked you (and others) for an explanation of what this means but have yet to receive one. Final terms cannot be negotiated before triggering article 50 and once done the article does not provide for reversal. After two years we will be out, deal or no deal (and trade agreements usually take a lot longer) unless there is unanimous agreement of EU countries on an extension.

    So what exactly would a second referendum on final terms ask? Would the question be “Should the government mount a legal challenge to the EU Commission’s interpretation of article 50 so that, if successful, we could cancel withdrawal?” I can’t see that getting a majority. If a second referendum is desired, then it has to be held before triggering article 50 and the only way to do that with democratic legitimacy would be to first dissolve Parliament and fight an election on holding that referendum.

    We need to face up to the fact that we cannot dictate an international agreement. It has to be negotiated, which mean other countries also have to agree. It doesn’t matter how big a majority a second referendum might show for changing our minds. There is a very good reason why article 50 has no cancel mechanism. If it did, then any country could trigger it as a negotiating tool, safe in the knowledge that it could always step back if necessary. That would be a recipe for chaos and disintegration, which is why other countries and the EU Commission will resist such an interpretation.

    So I’ll ask again: what exactly does a “second referendum on the final terms” mean?

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    1. "Do you agree with the objectives outlined by government? Yes or No". A description would be included,noting the key potential trade offs e.g. the government will end FoM even at the cost of making trade and investment more difficult.

      The Tories would need to

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    2. What would be the purpose and consequence of voting yes or no to such a question?

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    3. The purpose would be to check the government's strategy is to the electorate's liking.

      'Yes' would mean the government has the mandate to negotiate as it outlined. I think most Remainers would accept such a result and give up the fight.

      'No' would mean Brexit no longer goes ahead, at least as was proposed. I would then suggest a Parliamentary vote or General Election leading on competing alternatives, including the option to remain. Brexiteers would howl, but the new referendum result would overrule them.

      Of course, the devil would in the details of the trade-offs accompanying the question. The wording would be hotly contested.

      Just some thoughts.

      S

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    4. That question presents no option for those who want Brexit but reject the government's negotiating strategy. It seems designed to force them to abstain, or even vote 'no', even if they still want Brexit. I can't see such a referendum having democratic credibility.

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    5. Such voters' preferences could be considered in the subsequent actions mentioned. But the fundamental problem is that Leavers voted against something, not for something. If there is no majority for a specified change-strategy then I would say it is Brexit that lacks democratic credibility.

      S

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  18. Immigration has recently topped people's concerns in polls. No politician would take the gamble of trying to keep free movement. It is tangible reductions in rates of immigration where a very large number of people want to see results. In fact you could argue that it was immigration that made the EU an issue and forced the referendum in the first place. It was the argument that you cannot control immigration while being in the EU that probably won it. Before high rates of immigration, the EU was of interest to a few right wing Tories, but of little interest to the larger population. And immigration was certainly not at the top of people's concerns. It was the linking of the EU and immigration which ultimately led to the tragedy of Brexit.

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    1. Right, but what kind of immigration? If you stopped all non-European immigration, why do I see the issue "dying". Yet, non-European immigration is a "EU" issue and a partner issue. Should the EU develop a border security force around the "members" to help out? Maybe, we should sorta blame business for wanting to expand the labor pool from the beginning.

      That is the point fella.

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  19. The simple maths here clearly shows that the interpretation of what was actually voted for depends on knowing more than that of a binary vote. Assertions otherwise are simply claims to a monopoly on truth. Referenda are generally a bad idea because of such problems, but having had one it would be dangerous to ignore it, so another referendum would be a helpful clarification of what is the people's will and merely an extension of the logic of this form of democracy.

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  20. Dear Professor,

    Thank you for your blog, which I always look forward to reading.

    Can I respectfully suggest however, that, like many academics, your writings are plainly quite unsullied by any grasp or understanding of commercial realities.

    This perhaps is why, again like many of your peers whose writings appear in the quality newspapers, you continually parrot the EU line of 'no access to the single market without free movement of labour', without understanding that this is not a 'truth', but merely, in negotiation-speak, a 'go-in position'.

    If you think about it for a moment in terms of realpolitik this becomes obvious.

    After all, the politically problematic area is not FOM between the UK and the original member states, or Scandinavia. The problem (if problem it be), is free access to the UK and its social security system, by the citizens of the low wage countries of Eastern Europe, notably Poland, Romania, and, to a lesser extent, the ex-Soviet Baltic States. The governments of all of these countries value highly (for obvious reasons), an arrangement whereby their nationals can obtain employment in a relatively high wage economy such as Britain's, and remit their salaries and benefits back home.

    However, once it is apparent to these governments that this state of affairs is no longer 'on the table', their focus will rapidly change to the protection of the existing status and residency rights of the large numbers of their citizens who are already in the UK .

    This for Britain is a very significant point of leverage in the forthcoming negotiations. After all, who could reasonably complain that, should the actions of the various European governments push Britain into a recession, the burden of the resulting unemployment should be borne by the citizens of those countries responsible for the situation, and not by the citizens of the UK.

    To put it another way, just as UK per capita income has remained relatively stable despite the not unrespectable growth in UK GDP, so, one would expect the reverse to be the case should the British economy contract, with the resultant unemployment being exported to the nations who caused it.

    This will most certainly sharpen their focus, and incentivate your soon-to-be erstwhile EU partners to approach Brexit with a win-win outcome in mind.

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    1. Unemployment is caused by austerity, not by migration.

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  21. A spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has dismissed the idea of a second referendum proposed by leadership challenger Owen Smith, saying, “Success at the next general election hinges on Labour winning back the trust of voters and it won’t do that by ignoring the democratic decision they made in June to leave the EU…The electorate will not thank us if we try to find devious and undemocratic ways to ignore their wishes.”

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  22. Simon, I have asked this before. What would the question be in a second referendum and how would any decision be implemented?

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