Citizens’ Assembly finds UK voters want ‘soft Brexit’

Posted on the 2nd October 2017

  • Statement from UK in a Changing Europe and the Electoral Reform Society,  for immediate release: 1st October 2017.

A representative body of UK citizens has sent politicians a clear message in favour of a ‘soft’ Brexit.

Faced with the range of possible outcomes, they voted at the weekend to retain free movement of labour, but with the UK government exercising all available controls to prevent abuse.

And if a deal can’t be reached in negotiations on trade, staying in the Single Market and Customs Union was preferred to no deal at all.

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit [1], randomly selected to capture the diversity of the UK population, met in Manchester at the weekend to consider options for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe.

After hearing from a range of experts [2], and from politicians from both sides of the Brexit divide, they took four key votes [3]:

  • On trade with the EU members voted for a bespoke trade deal ahead of staying in the Single Market. But should that prove impossible, their preference was to stay in the Single Market rather than agree no deal at all.
  • On trade outside the EU members preferred a bespoke customs deal, allowing the UK to strike its own international trade deals but maintain frictionless borders. If that can’t be achieved they would opt to remain in the Customs Union rather than do no deal.
  • On immigration, Assembly Members were offered five options, of which retaining free movement, but with the government making full use of existing controls, won a clear majority of the vote.
  • On the overall deal with the EU, Assembly Members preferred a comprehensive trade deal combined with favourable access for EU citizens. If such a deal proves unattainable, they again wanted the UK to stay in the Single Market rather than do no deal.

The Assembly has been endorsed by a range of high-profile figures from across the Brexit divide, including Conservatives Bernard Jenkin and Nicky Morgan, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, and Leave backer Harsimrat Kaur.

Crucially the Assembly’s members were selected to reflect last year’s Brexit vote, alongside social class, region, age, gender and ethnicity. Of the 50 members, 25 voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, 22 voted Remain and 3 did not vote [5].

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is part of the UK in a Changing Europe programme, which provides high-quality objective analysis of Brexit-related matters [6].

This weekend the members heard presentations from Conservative MP Graham Brady – chair of the prestigious 1922 Committee, and a prominent Leave supporter – and Labour MP Kate Green – a strong supporter of remaining in the Single Market.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“What this has shown is that even on an issue as divisive as Brexit, voters can come together and unite around key principles. The Citizens’ Assembly has proven to be an innovative and exciting way of dealing with complex economic and political questions – and coming to clear conclusions.

“The public have been largely left out of debates on Brexit, with parties split over what voters want. But when given the opportunity to engage in in-depth discussions on everything from the Single Market to migration policy, citizens jump at the chance.

“Politicians should listen to the findings of this landmark event – and ensure people’s voices are heard in the negotiations.”

Project leader Dr Alan Renwick said of the results:

“These findings are important because this is the first opportunity UK citizens have had since the 2016 referendum to consider in depth what version of Brexit they want, and to communicate that to policy-makers.

“After two weekends of study and deliberation, drawing on expert evidence and balanced briefing materials, citizens concluded that politicians should seek a bespoke deal with the EU. But if that proves impossible, they would rather remain close to Europe than follow some politicians’ proposal to go it alone.

“The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit not only demonstrates citizens’ views on this key issue, but also the wider benefit of such deliberative processes. Members with very different views came together, listened to each other and to the evidence, and were prepared to reach compromises. Feedback from members was overwhelmingly positive. This exercise shows that citizens are willing and able to tackle complex divisive issues. Now that they have done so, politicians should take those views seriously.”

Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, told Assembly members on Friday:

“It’s a great pity that we didn’t have a citizens’ assembly before the referendum took place, on what is actually the biggest political, economic and constitutional decision of my adult lifetime.

“I think we have an opportunity now to use the outcome of the Assembly to inform decision-making as we leave the EU.”

Graham Brady MP, Chair of the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee, said to the Assembly:

“Brexit is an issue that divides political parties, so I want to thank participants for doing what they have been doing. This is an important issue for our country.

“Members have worked together in a constructive spirit – a great model for us to follow.

“After Brexit, we will have resumed our position as a sovereign, independent, democratic country. That only works if people get involved and are prepared to contribute to the debate and process.”

The Citizens’ Assembly was organised by a consortium of universities and civil society organisations: the UCL Constitution Unit [], Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, University of Southampton, Involve, and the Electoral Reform Society.


[1] The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is an opportunity for a diverse group of 50 UK voters with different viewpoints to learn about the issues of trade and immigration, to deliberate with each other and come to recommendations on the form Brexit should take. The Assembly has met over two weekends: 8–10 September and 29 September to 1 October 2017.

The first weekend focused on learning. Assembly members were introduced to trade and immigration issues as they relate to Brexit. Experts with different viewpoints on these issues made presentations and were questioned by Assembly members. The second weekend heard from two political speakers, and then focused on deliberation and agreeing recommendations. Assembly members discussed and debated their priorities for Brexit. They created guidelines for the UK negotiators and made recommendations on future trade relations with the EU, trade relations with non-EU countries and immigration policy.

The Assembly’s deliberations and conclusions will be summarised in a report, to be presented to government and parliament.

Citizens’ Assemblies have been increasingly used across Europe and North America to formulate proposals on key policy and constitutional issues often associated with referendums. Ireland’s Constitutional Convention, based on the citizens’ assembly model, recently led to the referendum agreeing to legalisation of same-sex marriage, and the one announced last week on access to abortion.

[2] During the first weekend, Assembly members heard from various academic experts with differing views on trade and immigration post-Brexit. They also received a range of balanced briefing papers which had been approved by the project’s Advisory Committee (see [6] below). The presentations and briefing papers can be found on the project website [].

[3] Assembly Members voted four times, ranking their preferences for the UK’s policy on trade with the EU, trade with countries outside the EU, migration, and the complete deal on trade and immigration, respectively.

In the first vote, a limited trade deal won the largest number of votes, but once other preferences were taken into account a more comprehensive trade deal found the greatest support. As this may not prove achievable the votes showed what would happen if it is taken off the table. In this case the preferred option is a limited deal. But if no deal is available members split 31 to 19 in favour of staying in the Single Market.

In the second vote, members strongly favoured a deal which would allow the UK to leave the Customs Union and strike its own international trade deals, but maintain frictionless borders (particularly between Northern Ireland and the Republic). If this proves unattainable, members strongly supported staying in the Customs Union over doing no deal, by 37 votes to 13.

In the third vote, members chose between five options for post-Brexit migration policy. On first preferences, a majority of members (26 out of 50) wanted the UK to maintain free movement of labour but make full use of controls so that migrants who are unable to support themselves financially cannot abuse the system.

In the final vote, members reiterated their earlier preferences for a bespoke trade deal and an arrangement allowing EU citizens favourable access to the UK. If no deal is available, 38 members supported options whereby the UK would stay in the Single Market, against 12 members who would favour no deal.

[4] A full list of endorsers, with quotations, can be found on the project website. []. The Assembly design, briefing materials and the selection of experts were reviewed by an Advisory Board that included both Leave and Remain supporters, as well as experts in the presentation of neutral information on Brexit-related matters].

[5] The following table shows how the diversity of the Assembly matches with the broader UK population:

Stratification criteria Assembly members


UK population


Age 18-34 28 28.8
35-54 38 34.4
55+ 34 36.7
Gender Female 54 49.3
Male 46 50.7
Ethnicity White 86 86
Non-white 14 14
Region North 22 23.3
Midlands 14 16.0
East of England 8 9.3
London 10 13.4
South 22 22.2
Wales 8 4.7
Scotland 10 8.2
Northern Ireland 6 2.8
Social grade ABC1 50 55.0
C2DE 50 45.0
Brexit vote Voted to remain 44 34.7
Voted to leave 50 37.4
Did not vote 6 27.8


[6] The UK in a Changing Europe initiative is based at Kings’s College London, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) [].

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