Would introducing ID cards prevent a stalemate in a new referendum?  

Polls show that a so-called People’s Vote might leave the UK split down the middle. UCL’s Tessa Buchanan looks at whether majority support for ID cards could help to break any potential stalemate. Are they the “have-cake-and-eat-it” solution as one think tank suggests? 

People rarely change their minds once they are made up and myth-busting doesn’t work. This was the message that struck home from an event where academics from ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ revealed the latest polling data on how Brexit is perceived by the UK public.

Guess what. Those who believed in the £350m a week figure in 2016 still largely believe it; the majority still over-estimate how many EU migrants live in the UK; and many still link EU immigration with crime, pressure on the NHS and lower wages. Both Remainers and Leavers credit beliefs that tally with their own versions of the truth, which helps to explain why there has been relatively little change in support for Brexit in the last two years.

So if calls are mounting for a People’s Vote, what would prevent any new referendum being a re-run of 2016?

None of the options that might appear on a ballot paper – Deal, No Deal or Remain – currently commands a consistent lead of over 50% in the polls (any pollster who says otherwise has probably discounted the Don’t Knows or Won’t Votes). The risk is of further stalemate.

Would new information make a difference?

As regards the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, Theresa May’s deal has removed one element of uncertainty. Barring last minute surprises, the government is likely to maintain that this is the best that can be achieved before March 2019. Voters now have a concrete alternative to compare to the status quo of staying in the EU, and a hazy “no deal” scenario.

But supporters of a second referendum – generally those who want a Remain option back on the agenda – should not imagine that economic arguments alone would prevail in such a vote. They certainly didn’t last time. Ipsos Mori figures show that very few expect Brexit to improve their personal finances while 39% think the economy will suffer. However, only a minority expect to pay the price themselves. About half (46%) think their own standard of living would be unaffected.

Immigration was the other theme on which the 2016 referendum was fought. What’s new on this?

A year ago, ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative randomly selected 50 people representing a cross-section of UK society to take part in a ‘Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit’. They debated the issues in a carefully curated, non-partisan environment over two weekends.

The information that took participants by surprise was that “freedom of movement” is not so free after all. It is a misnomer. Under EU rules, conditions can be imposed on workers who want to stay on in another EU member state for more than three months. It’s within the rules to say that they can stay on if they have a job, if they are students or if they can support themselves and their families and have their own health insurance. Those who can prove they are actively seeking employment and have a genuine chance of finding it can stay another three months but, after that, they must provide compelling evidence that this is the case. EU migrants can also be required to register with the authorities, while those who threaten public security can be refused entry.

Imagine tiny Luxembourg or Malta agreeing to let foreign workers come to their country indefinitely. They wouldn’t and they didn’t. The issue is that UK is not fully enforcing the available controls. Unlike almost everywhere else in the EU, we don’t have ID cards, so it’s harder to track where people are. A previous scheme was scrapped  by the Coalition Government in 2010 for being too costly.

Official figures suggest that widely-held beliefs about EU immigration are unfounded. According to the government’s Migration Advisory Committee, EU migrants pay in more tax to the UK than they claim in benefits, and contribute “much more” to the health service than they take out.  However, any attempt to persuade people who have long believed otherwise could be an uphill battle. Only 29% overall believe that EU migrants pay in more tax than they take out in services and benefits, and the figure for Leavers is 16%.

Last week, a report from the Global Future think tank raised the question of whether ID cards might be the answer, allowing for tighter immigration controls and access to the single market. Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer, described it as a way to “have our cake and eat it”. What do the polls say on this?

At first glance, ID cards seem to be an argument around which opinion can unite. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll found that a majority in the UK, including supporters of every major party, now back them.

Two-thirds of Conservative voters are in favour, while for Labour, they appeal to small “c” conservatives too.  Diving more deeply into the figures, it seems that Leave voters are among their strongest proponents. Support goes up most when people are told that they could help fight terrorism.

Those supporting this idea presumably want to add a new element to the mix, acknowledging and addressing Leavers’ concerns without asking anyone to change their minds or to regret their vote. As for sovereignty, to many, its value appeared instrumental in 2016: more sovereignty meant more control over immigration – the two topics were “closely linked” in people’s minds, according to a British Election Study report.

Opponents of ID cards argued in 2010 that they were “wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive”. So it is perhaps surprising that, according to YouGov, most Liberal Democrats now support them. It’s possible that people feel things have moved on in the last eight years, when many people now have smartphones that can pinpoint their exact location within a few feet. ID cards could have other benefits too: replacing paper bills as proof of address and passports as proof of age; and helping the fight against crime, benefit fraud and identity theft.

Global Future’s report suggested the initial introduction of an “e-ID card” scheme that would be low-cost. Before the previous scheme was scrapped, an LSE report said that government estimates of around £5bn over ten years were too low and costs could rise as high as £19.2bn. It would be interesting to test how voters saw even this latter figure in the current political context.

But what of the Citizens’ Assembly? At the end of their intensive discussions, participants reported that their views on immigration had barely shifted. What had changed was how they understood the options. Staying in the single market while fully enforcing the controls available to the UK under EU law was what they wanted. In the event of no deal, this preference only strengthened.

Tessa Buchanan is a PhD student studying attitudes to immigration at UCL Psychology and Language Sciences.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL. 

The blog refers to a talk given at Kings College London, entitled “Brexit (Mis)perceptions” by ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative in cooperation with the Policy Institute at Kings College London and Ipsos MORI. At the talk, polling data was shown based on a representative sample of 2,206 UK adults aged 18-75 polled between 28 September and 3 October 2018. Data were weighted to the profile of the population. Slides can be found on these links: Brexit (Mis)perceptions and The Public’s Brexit predictions.

A YouGov article on attitudes towards ID cards can be found here.

The report on the ‘Citizen’s Assembly on Brexit’ can be found here, and a summary of the rules on EU migration can be found here.

The report from the Global Future think tank can be found here.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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