My last post on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit reported on a hugely successful first weekend of deliberations. We had, through stratified random sampling, recruited a group of Assembly members who reflected the composition of the UK electorate. Crucially, in last year’s referendum, 25 of them voted to Leave and 22 to Remain, while 3 did not vote.
We had developed a programme and briefing papers that had been vetted by our Advisory Board, including supporters of both sides in the referendum. At the first weekend itself, remarkably, every Assembly member attended. They worked long hours reflecting, listening, and discussing. Eight senior experts presented diverse perspectives. Our team of professional facilitators from Involve did a superb job of guiding proceedings.
Now I can report on an equally successful second – and final – weekend. Attendance was again astonishingly high: every member but one (who was ill) returned. All remained tremendously focused and limitlessly good humoured. They listened and spoke respectfully and genuinely, even when disagreeing with each other. Our facilitation and support teams were again inspirational. It was a privilege to be there.
While the first weekend focused on learning, the second was all about deliberation and decision-making.
We focused on post-Brexit policy towards trade and migration. After considering long lists of potential policy objectives, members voted on those they wanted to prioritise.
They decided that UK trade policy should, above all: minimise harm to the economy; protect the NHS and public services; maintain living standards; take account of impacts on all parts of the UK; protect workers’ rights; and avoid a hard border with Ireland.
They decided that UK migration policy should, above all: be linked to investment in training for UK nationals; keep better data on migrants; enable us to sustain public services; benefit our economy; be responsive to regional needs; and include better planning of public services.
Trade with the EU
Having discussed their objectives, members turned to concrete policy options. They began by considering four options for how we trade post-Brexit with the EU: to stay in the single market, seek a comprehensive trade deal, seek a limited trade deal, or do no trade deal with the EU. The implications of these options (insofar as they are knowable) were set out. After further detailed discussion, members voted by ranking the options in order of preference.
As the first chart below shows, members’ first preferences spread widely. The most popular option was a limited trade deal, but a majority wanted some kind of closer relationship with the EU.
The second chart takes account of lower preferences by assigning three points to a first preference, two to a second preference, and one to a third preference. Here, the option of a comprehensive trade deal came marginally ahead.
Of course, we don’t know whether a trade deal will be possible. The lower figures show how members’ first preferences split if a comprehensive trade deal proves impossible and if no trade deal at all can be done. Members preferred a limited trade deal to single market membership. If it comes down to a choice between the single market and no deal at all, however, they would prefer the single market.
Trade beyond the EU
Next the Assembly considered how the UK should trade with countries beyond the EU: by staying in the Customs Union, doing a customs deal allowing the UK to conduct its own international trade policy while maintaining a frictionless UK/EU border, or doing no EU customs deal.
Members preferred a bespoke deal by a clear majority. If no such deal is possible, they would prefer to stay in the Customs Union than to leave with no deal.
Migration between the UK and the EU
Third, members considered policy towards migration between the UK and the EU. Here there were five options: to maintain free movement of labour as now; maintain free movement, but make full use of available controls to prevent abuse of the system; end free movement and reduce immigration overall, but continue giving favourable access to EU citizens; remove any preference for EU over non-EU citizens, while maintaining current immigration levels; or remove the EU preference and reduce immigration overall.
We included the second option in response to member feedback at the first weekend. Though we emphasised that the impact on total immigrant numbers of exercising the controls allowed within the single market would be small, a (bare) majority of members supported this option. Strikingly, only seven members chose option E, which would reduce immigration furthest.
That most members took such a permissive attitude may surprise some: national debate suggests that a desire to reduce immigration is a primary driver of public concerns towards Brexit. The discussions among members suggested they had come to a subtler view. Most wanted to maintain the benefits of immigration while minimising the costs: by tackling benefits abuse, improving training for UK citizens, and increasing capacity of public services in areas where immigration is particularly high.
Fitting it all together
Finally, members considered a range of possible Brexit packages. The results are not shown here, as they closely mirrored the earlier votes.
Most Citizens’ Assembly members want the UK to secure its own bespoke arrangements with the EU. Should that prove unattainable, however, they would prefer to stay close to the EU than do no deal at all. Just as some of our leading politicians are talking up the no deal option, the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit – by a substantial majority – has rejected that.
We should remember that this is not because the Assembly was full of Remainers: more voted Leave than Remain in the referendum last year. Nor was the Assembly given a biased picture of the options: the Assembly programme, the briefing papers, and the options were vetted by our diverse Advisory Board, and the speakers represented a balance of views.
Rather, the results simply reflect the conclusions of a cross-section of the UK electorate who dedicated two weekends to learning about and discussing the issues and came to carefully considered views.
In a democracy, policy decisions should be based on public opinion. For democracy to work well, public opinion should be informed and considered: people should be able to reflect on their values and interests, assess how the options might affect those values and interests, and choose accordingly. Far too often, our democracy falls well short of those ideals. Voters are expected to make major decisions in an environment of rhetoric and misinformation; they often lack the time needed to cut through the cacophony of voices and find those worth listening to.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit has gone further than any previous exercise in revealing what members of the public think about the Brexit options when they have had the chance to learn about the issues, consider their priorities, and work out what they want. It has revealed a much subtler picture of public opinion than many presume. It deserves to be listened to. I hope politicians of all persuasions will pay careful attention to what the Assembly has said and reflect on how best to respond.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.