A Brexit Election?

Posted on 8 November 2019 by John Curtice

The election on December 12th has been occasioned by the difficulties and divisions that have arisen in the House of Commons as it has endeavoured to deal with the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the EU during the last twelve months. The Prime Minister is seeking a mandate to ‘get Brexit done’, while the opposition parties are opposed to the deal that he has struck with the EU – in many instances because they do not want Brexit to happen at all.

However, an election is never about a single issue. The parties disagree about a wide range of domestic policies also.  So, to what extent will people’s attitudes towards Brexit be reflected in the way that they vote in the election? And will how they vote be more or less of a reflection  of those views than was the case at the general election two years ago?

The simplest way of addressing this question is to examine how those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave say they will vote in December as reported by those polls conducted since the election was called. This we do in Table 1, which is based on the average of the most recent figures obtained by the eight companies who have polled voting intentions since the latter half of last week. At the same time, we also show how the pattern compares with the position in 2017, using data from the British Election Study internet panel.

Remain and Leave voters are minded to vote very differently. Around four in five (78%) of those who supported Leave are currently proposing to vote for either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. In contrast, around four in five (81%) of those who backed Remain say they support one of the parties in favour of another referendum. It looks as though the divide of three years ago will in many respects be played out again on December 12. Only a minority of voters – just one in five – are likely to opt for parties whose views on Brexit are seemingly at odds with how they voted three years ago.

However, the extent to which one party is favoured above the others differs markedly between the two sets of voters. On the Leave side, support is concentrated in the ranks of the Conservative party – nearly three in five (58%) Leave supporters say they will vote that way. In contrast, on the Remain side, support is more evenly spread across different parties, with even the most popular party, Labour, currently backed by only just over two in five (42%).

This matters. Among voters as a whole, support for the two pro-Brexit parties combined (48%), is almost exactly the same as that for the five parties that support a second referendum (47%). It is the concentration of Leave support in favour of the Conservatives that primarily accounts for the fact that the party currently enjoys an average ten-point lead.

But how does the position at the beginning of this election campaign compare with what happened in 2017? Of course, we should bear in mind that the positions of the parties were not the same then as they are now. For example, although Labour were saying that they would negotiate a Brexit deal that would be ‘softer’ than the one that Theresa May appeared to have in mind, the party was not at that point in favour of another ballot. So, perhaps we should not be surprised if people’s views on Brexit were not as strongly related to how they voted in 2017 as they appear to be now.

This, indeed, proves to be the case. True, at 76%, the proportion of Remain voters who in 2017 supported one of the parties that now favours a second referendum is only a little lower than the equivalent proportion now (81%). But, at 65%, the proportion of Leave supporters who backed either the Conservatives or UKIP was markedly lower than the 78% support for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party that pertains in the current polls.

It looks then as though how people vote at this election will reflect the division on the principle of Brexit to an even greater extent than did the 2017 contest. That this is seemingly set to be the case also becomes apparent if we examine the dynamics of party support, that is, the pattern of switching between 2017 and now. This is done in Table 2, which shows the current vote choice of both those who voted for the Conservatives and those who backed Labour in 2017 broken down by how they voted in the EU referendum.

The first point to note is that those whose views on Brexit would appear to be at odds with those of the party they backed in 2017 are less likely to be loyal to their choice of two years ago. No less than 84% of those 2017 Conservatives who backed Leave in 2016 now say that they will vote Conservative again, compared with just 63% of those 2017 Conservative voters who supported Remain. Equally, while 74% of those who voted Labour in 2017 who backed Remain state they will back the party again, only 57% of those who supported Leave are now of the same view.

Meanwhile, those who have now switched parties have for the most part moved towards a party whose views on Brexit would appear to reflect better how they voted in 2016. Over one in four (27%) of those 2017 Conservatives who voted Remain are now backing the Liberal Democrats, while one in seven (14%) of those who voted Leave are now supporters of the Brexit Party. At the same time, around one in five 2017 Labour voters (21%) who backed Remain have switched to the Liberal Democrats, while nearly two in five (37%) are now opting for either the Conservatives or the Brexit Party – in roughly equal numbers, indicating that the suggestion that Labour Leave voters are reluctant to switch to the Conservatives may in fact be wide of the mark.

Once again it looks as though Brexit is set to shape – and reshape – party loyalties.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

15 thoughts on “A Brexit Election?

  1. Democracy is alive and well! It took ordinary working class folk to rescue it from the politicians who forgot that they are the SERVANTS of the people and NOT their masters!Report

  2. Can’t believe how low the media are prepared to stoop in this election, I’m talking about the pictures of the young boy on a hospital floor. What would they suggest?
    Perhaps building hospitals with enough beds for every single member of the public within the catchment area of the hospital, just in case they all need to be hospitalised at the same time? Of course there will ALWAYS be times when the demand exceeds the availability of beds, but that’s not an excuse for the media to make political propaganda out of it!Report

  3. It was Albert Einstein who once said “only two things are infinite, the Universe and human stupidity – and I’m not sure about the former!”.
    And so it is that all of the doomster remainers who predict Armageddon if we leave the EU are the ones who have been damaging our economy for three and a half years by attempting to deny democracy and creating uncertainty – and yet, despite their best efforts at ruining our economy, it has still outperformed that of the EU, the very thing which they are so keen to remain a member of!
    Likewise the SNP who say that they want freedom from Westminster and another referendum to achieve that aim so that they can subsequently apply to become a member of the EU …. but … wait a minute, Scotland has a population of 5.4 million out of a total UK population of 66.44 million (8.13%) and sends 59 MPs out of 650 (9%) to Westminster – it sends 6 MEPs to Brussels out of 750 (0.8%). As an independent nation member of the EU, Scotland would have a VERY small voice in determining its future and would have to abide by all EU legislation including adoption of the Euro.
    Nicola Sturgeon herself has stated that “of course the EU would accept Scotland as a new member because the EU is always looking to enlarge”. She is 100% correct, and as the EU continues to enlarge so Scotland’s TINY (0.8%) voice would just get TINIER and TINIER! Report

  4. Latest poll published here today Sky News by YouGov 2-3 Dec shows the Leave response creeping past the Remain choice for the second poll in a row. The general election seems to have focussed minds on the question of brexit.Report

  5. It seems like it is a Brexit election in the way certain parties have been reinvigorated (in public opinion judging by these numbers) at the expense of others, for taking a clear view on Brexit, but with the internet poll of polls still wrongly(IMHO) showing Remain in front – when common sense and the OUP paper telling us that Leave are more offline by around 10% (iirc), along with predictable human behaviour (presumably) meaning that a sizeable shift from Remain to Leave by voters that just try to follow/back the winner will now be backing Leave – I think the election is actually about trust of the establishment; how we got to this point and who is likely to fix it. And I’m not meaning the straight comparison of trusting Conservative or Labour leaders and/or their cabinets as they are today, but a much wider trust comparison as far back as everyone that was involved in EU membership treaties that set up this monumental clash.

    I think the over 30s voters will be measuring trust all the way back to John Major and will be (implicitly) tallying up the trustworthiness of each government/opposition by their brexit position… and judging by the fair accusations (IMHO) that are thrown at the BBC & Channel 4 of bias/trustworthiness – as I think they’ve had a blairite cancer for 2 decades – and I think they will be getting added to the piles, too.

    When questioning trustworthiness of the voting options in that type of comparison I think the current government wins easily, and I say that begrudgingly as someone that has now voted Conservative (for the first time ever) by postal vote despite not being a Conservative minded voter – as I would naturally vote for a party with a Caroline Flint or Stephen Kinnock leader type viewpoint beyond getting Brexit done, and have voted Labour my whole life. In my eyes someone that owns their views, even when the views are less caring, but honourably do what they said they would is better than someone that claims to back the little guy/girl but is actually the same as the other option, but just lying about it.

    Each time the trustworthiness of the current PM is brought up in a debate or interview, the letters W.M.D ring out in my head for some weird reason – with all other misinformation by politicians seeming somewhat trivial. If the current PM isn’t re-elected with a healthy majority to get Brexit done and de-sanitise our public bodies of Blairism it will feel like this political fog is never going to end.Report

  6. As an aside, it seems to me that organisations which have the word ‘Democrat’ somewhere in their title seem to be anything but democratic!
    DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), Liberal Democrats ……..?
    Strange that!Report

  7. Well said D.Upton, as you say it’s not about party politics, it’s about democracy. Unfortunately though, many voters are swayed by the bribes offered by politicians and boy oh boy have there been some bribes leading up to this election!
    The hypocrisy of politicians knows no bounds, the politicians who claim that the people didn’t know what they were voting for in 2016 and want a second referendum, (because they say the people now have the facts) are the very same politicians who deny the people of Wales another referendum on whether or not they wish to retain a devolved government, (now that they’ve had time to experience it).Report

  8. Thank you Mike. That is exactly the point that I was trying to make . In a democracy the collective will of the people is paramount. Unfortunately many of our MP`s have chosen to ignore this because ” they know better “. I believe that the coming election is the chance for the people to remove those MP`s and replace them with someone more open to the spirit of democracy.
    It is not about party politics. I do not support any political party but I will vote for anyone that I think will uphold the will of the people and I hope many others will do the same and not slavishly vote for a particular party because that is what they have always done. Report

  9. Mike, above, makes a great point. Without democracy, we cease to be a democracy. A democracy in which you vote, but then the elites decide, is more like a Cold War “people’s democracy” than like a real one.

    In the current case, there are really two issues. Parliament invited us to decide one issue, whether or not to leave the EU, but after that we have to leave the details to the technical experts, especially since the details depend on negotiation with the EU.

    This isn’t that strange in life. You decide to go to the doctor, but then the doctor decides on the details of the treatment. We were not asked to decide the details of Brexit because that isn’t practical. But we did decide the question we were asked, and it would be a serious violation of democracy for Parliament to go back on that now.Report

  10. I think that some folk should revisit the dictionary ‘Democracy’ the control of a group or organisation by the majority – we had a majority vote, the question was not do you want to leave with this deal or that deal or any deal at all for that matter, it was simply leave or remain. The remainers try and promote their cause by talking about all of the nasty things which they believe might happen if we leave. Notwithstanding that this is pure conjecture, nobody knows for sure what might happen, they completely miss the point that without true democracy you have nothing other than the breeding ground for anarchy!
    What if the government of the day back in 1939 had decided that democracy was not worth the price? We would all be fluent German speakers today! The government at that time fully appreciated the cost of going to war with Germany, a cost of many lives in addition to great material cost …. BUT they correctly decided that the importance of democracy outweighed the cost. It’s truly a great shame that the politicians of today do not possess the same moral fortitude as their forefathers.Report

  11. “We should all vote conservative and get Brexit done and show the MP that when we vote for something we expect it to be done.”

    Seconded, especially when it was Parliament that voted six to one to give us a referendum in the first place.

    People often “forget” that the underlying justification for a referendum was that at the time all three main parties were pro-EU so that voters were being offered no choice on the most important topic of the day in normal party politics. Hence the referendum.

    They also forget that in fact all three main parties campaigned for Remain during the referendum run-up, and yet Leave still passed!

    When the voters reject the position of all three main parties on the topic of the EU, it’s hardly democratic for those same parties to say now that they will reverse to verdict of the voters. Thankfully, the Conservatives have pledged to do what the voters decided, and it has become very obvious that Labour and the LIbDems have not even deigned to explain why they wish to ignore the 1916 referendum that they supported until Leave won it.Report

  12. Unfortunately Mr/Ms Upton misunderstands how our democracy has largely worked in the past, thankfully without resorting to referendums. On numerous issues Parliament has taken what is now seen by many of us to be a progressive move which may well not represent what a majority wanted, but nobody even aware of such public unease called for a referendum about them. Examples are the abolition of the death penalty, the decriminalisation of practising adult male homosexuals and abortion law reform. Does he /she wish to reopen such issues?
    What started off as a way of attempting to unify the Conservative party and failed at that has become a national obsession, which currently gives all responsible for our well being an excuse for inaction and may well poison our politics into the future. Not to mention making us an international laughing stock and quite likely poorer. Even getting this far has cost more than enough both in cash and lost opportunities.

    Nor does the charge of complacency have much of a ring to it. What Upton fails to spell out is what the Brexit party can possibly do to ameliorate the situation. Many feel the voice of the deprived is not being heard, but simply hiding away in our own little xenophobic bubble helps not all.

    At the risk of having the same criticism levelled at me, I suggest the way forward is to try to find a national consensus towards electoral reform. Therein lies to route to true democracy.

  13. In my view the main issue is no longer do we leave the EU but are we a true democracy. The opinion of most of our MP`s seems to be that poor Joe Public, bless him, did not know what he was doing when he voted to leave the EU, so we will just block it until he changes his mind and we can have another referendum. Parliament regards itself not as the people`s representative, but the people`s keeper.
    Much as I do not want the country to be run by the Brexit Party, I hope that they win enough seats to shake the complacency out of the big three. Report

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