Three Years On: Still Divided

Today marks the third anniversary of the EU referendum in which the country voted narrowly (by 52% to 48%) in favour of leaving the EU. Since then, the country has spent much of the last three years debating how the process of leaving has and should be handled, the terms on which we should aim to leave, and even the merits of the original decision itself.  The debate has precipitated a general election and resulted in the downfall of a Prime Minister. The one thing that has not happened is Britain making its exit from the EU – thanks to the repeated refusal of the House of Commons to accept the terms of the withdrawal treaty that was negotiated with the EU by the UK government. Instead the country is awaiting the arrival of a new Prime Minister who will be charged with the task of solving in three months a Brexit riddle that Theresa May was unable to solve in three years.

One might imagine that the difficulties that have beset the withdrawal process would have had an impact on support for the principle of remaining or leaving the EU in the first place. But of that there is remarkably little evidence. Our poll of polls of how people would vote in another referendum continues to report that the country is more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave, much as it was three years ago.

True, as has been the position ever since our poll of polls series began at the beginning of 2018, the balance of support is now tilted in favour of Remain rather than, as in the referendum, in favour of Leave.  Indeed, the current average of Remain 52%, Leave 48% is the exact mirror image of what emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016.

However, this does not mean that there is a discernible, key group of Leave voters who have changed their minds about Brexit. That much becomes clear if, as in the table below, we examine separately the current vote intentions of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. In both cases over 85% say they would vote exactly the same way as they did in 2016. The sound and fury of the last three years has left the vast majority of voters unmoved. And although 8% of those who backed Leave say that they would now vote Remain, they are counterbalanced by 8% of Remain supporters who indicate that they would now support Leave.

The principal reason why public opinion is now tilted towards Remain is because, as we have noted before, those who did not vote three years ago prefer Remain to Leave by around two to one (if they express a view at all). In part, at least, this reflects the fact that this group of abstainers consists disproportionately of younger voters who in general are more likely to back Remain. However, it also suggests that, far from being certain to produce a majority for Remain, the outcome of a second referendum could turn on the ability or otherwise of the Remain side to mobilise the support of a group of voters who cannot necessarily be relied upon to vote at all.

Meanwhile, we should note that, in so far as there has been any change in recent weeks, it consists of a slight narrowing of the lead for Remain. The latest figures of Remain 52%, Leave 48%, contrast with ones of Remain 54%, Leave 46%, that had hitherto pertained for most of the time since the beginning of this year. Still, this movement could be the product of chance variation or the possibility that more recent polls have been undertaken disproportionately by companies that tend to produce relatively narrow leads for Remain anyway.

However, this seems to be an inadequate explanation. Of the four companies that have polled vote intentions in a second referendum since the beginning of May and who also did so in January this year, three (BMG, Survation and YouGov) have registered clear drops in support for Remain, on average by three points, while only one (Kantar) has not.

The principal explanation for this change appears to be that there has been some ‘hardening’ of the Leave vote in recent weeks. At the beginning of the year we reported that while 89% of those who voted Remain said that they would vote the same way again, the equivalent figure among Leave supporters, 83%, had become somewhat lower. Now the two figures are almost identical. Recent events have, it seems, simply reinforced Leave voters in their original views rather than encouraged them to think again.

The Spill-Over Effect: Brexit and Prospects for Westminster

Today’s Westminster by-election in Peterborough is taking place in the immediate wake of a Euro-election in which voters left both the Conservatives and Labour in droves, switching instead to parties that were backing clearer if more polarising options on Brexit. The timing of the by-election thus switches our attention rather rapidly towards what might be the fallout from the Euro-election for the parties’ Westminster prospects.

Three polls of Westminster vote intention have been conducted and published since the Euro-election results were unveiled. With one poll putting the Brexit party ahead, and another suggesting the Liberal Democrats are in front, they hardly suggest that the Euro-contest has left the regular rhythms of Westminster politics undisturbed. Indeed, rather than looking like a two-party system, they suggest that British politics now resembles more of a four-party one, with, on average, the Brexit Party on 25% narrowly ahead of Labour on 22%, while both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are not far behind on 19% apiece. Meanwhile, the Greens have also registered a respectable 8%.

These figures are not simply a flash in the pan. That the Euro-election was having a knock-on effect on voting intentions for Westminster was evident well before the ballot boxes were opened ten days ago. At the beginning of April, when the prospect of the Euro-election first came into view, Labour were on average on 34% in the polls, four points ahead of the Conservatives on 30%, while UKIP and the (yet to be formerly launched) Brexit Party enjoyed 11% support between them, and the Liberal Democrats just 9%. However, by the time we had reached the week before Euro-election polling day, polls of Westminster vote intention were putting Labour down at 30% and the Conservatives on 25%. Conversely, they reckoned the Brexit Party was now on 18%, while the Liberal Democrats’ support had risen to 13%.

In short, the standing of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats in the latest Westminster polls does not simply represent a reaction to the outcome of the Euro-election. There was already clear evidence before the result was known that the Euro-election was having a spill-over effect.

That said, the success of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats (and indeed the Greens) in that election has evidently pushed yet more voters in their direction than was the case immediately before polling day. Some of the support that they are registering in the latest Westminster polls may therefore represent little more than a reaction to favourable publicity

We might note too, that even the latest polls of Westminster vote intention do not put any of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in as strong a position as they achieved in the Euro-election. The spill-over effect evidently has its limits, and not all those who voted for these parties a fortnight ago would do the same thing in a general election, when the ties of traditional party loyalty are likely to prove stronger than they did in the Euro-poll.

Meanwhile, this year’s Euro-election is far from being the first to have had a spill-over effect. The Greens’ success in winning 15% of the vote in the Euro-election in 1989 saw the party rise from not being identified separately in the polls to registering 9% in Westminster vote intentions. UKIP’s success in coming second in the 2009 Euro-election was accompanied by a doubling in the combined tally for Others (a tally that includes UKIP) from 10% at the end of March to 20% in the fortnight or so after the election. Interestingly, UKIP’s subsequent success in coming first five years later had less of an effect, though the party’s average support still edged up from 12% in the last week of March 2014 to 16% at the time of the Euro-election.

Past experience suggests that much of the sudden boost that a party secures on the back of a strong Euro-election performance can disappear within a matter of months. By the end of 1989 support for the Greens had fallen back to 4%. The combined tally for Others was back down to 12% by mid-October 2009. Even the relatively modest growth in support for UKIP in 2014 had eased somewhat by the end of July that year, with the party by that point running at 14%.

So, should we expect the spill-over effect of the European election to melt away in the heat of summer, as memory of the outcome begins to fade? Not necessarily. For there is a vital difference between the most recent Euro-election and its predecessors. The principal reason for the success of the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens and the collapse of the Conservatives and Labour in this year’s contest – the Brexit debate – is not going to disappear from the political agenda any time soon. Rather, voters are going to be reminded continuously of the arguments that impelled them to vote in the record-breaking way they did in the Euro-election.

Indeed, the role that Brexit has played in reshaping voters’ Westminster preferences, and not just those that were expressed in the Euro-ballot boxes, is quite clear in the latest polls. Nearly all the support for the Brexit Party in Westminster vote intentions comes from those who voted Leave, nearly half of whom (on average, 47%) say they would vote for Nigel Farage’s party in an immediate general election. Equally, nearly all the support for the Liberal Democrats (and all of the increase in their support since early April) comes from those who voted Remain. Indeed, following upon the Liberal Democrats’ success in coming first in the Euro-election among those who voted Remain, it appears that the party is now also challenging Labour for the title of the most popular party for Westminster among Remainers, with (on average) 33% of them currently supporting the Liberal Democrats and 31% backing Labour’.

In short, support for the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats has none of the hallmarks of an inchoate protest vote against the traditional two-party system. Rather, it appears to reflect the very distinctive views of voters on opposite sides of the Brexit debate, a debate that seems set to dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. In contrast, both Labour and the Conservatives, more comfortable as they are with the politics of left and right than the debate between social liberals and social conservatives that underpins Brexit, find themselves trying to straddle the Brexit divide. Though the Conservatives are more popular among Leave (25%) than Remain voters (13%), a pattern that does contrast with the position in the Euro-election, it is still among this group that the party has lost most ground since Mrs May first unveiled her deal last November. In the case of Labour, which enjoys just 12% support among those who voted Leave, the balance of support for the party is (as in the Euro-elections) in the opposite direction.

As a result, the difficulties the Conservatives and Labour faced a fortnight ago in trying to hold their electoral coalitions together are also clearly in evidence in the battle for power at Westminster. The Conservatives’ principal problem, by far, is that as many as 40% of those who voted for the party in 2017 now say they would vote for the Brexit Party in a Westminster contest. Labour, which has lost 11% of its support in that direction, is not immune to the challenge from that quarter either, but the party’s losses in that direction are heavily outweighed by the 19% of the party’s vote that has switched to the Liberal Democrats and 11% that has moved to the Greens. How these parties resolve the internal debate about Brexit currently raging within them could well play a vital role in determining whether the challenge they now face as a result of Brexit does eventually melt away or not.

 

 

Fracture and Polarisation? Lessons from the Euro-Election

The outcome of the European election in Britain was truly remarkable. Record after record was broken. The Conservatives secured their worst result ever. Labour suffered its biggest reverse since it first started fighting elections as a wholly independent party in 1918. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP enjoyed their highest share of the vote in any Euro-election, while the Greens’ performance was second only to their remarkable result in 1989 when they won 15% of the vote. There must surely be some important lessons to learn from such a dramatic outcome?

Indeed, there are – though only if the results are examined with care and circumspection. Alas, this sometimes seemed in rather short supply in the immediate wake of the declaration of the results as those on all sides of the Brexit debate attempted to argue that the results showed that most voters supported their outlook on Brexit. They could not, of course, possibly all be right.

Indeed, perhaps one question to address straight away is whether any such claims could conceivably be supported given that, as in previous European elections, most voters did not vote at all. While, at 36.7%, the turnout in Great Britain was a little higher than at most European elections (indeed it was second only to that in 2004 when turnout was boosted by holding the election in some regions using an all postal ballot), it still only registered the views of a minority. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that those who did vote were not entirely representative. The two-point increase in turnout on the last Euro-election in 2014 was far from uniform across the country. Rather, the higher the Remain vote in a council area in 2016, the more that turnout rose as compared with five year ago. As a result, the increase in turnout averaged as much as five points in those areas where more than 58% voted Remain, while it actually fell back a point on average in those areas where less than 38% supported Remain. Much the same pattern is also in evidence if the comparison is made with the 2009 Euro-election.

As a result, what had previously been no more than a four-point difference between the most pro-Remain and the least pro-Remain areas grew into as much as a ten-point difference. Meanwhile, polling undertaken by Lord Ashcroft on polling day and the day after suggests that the Remain side had been ahead in 2016 by 53% to 47% among those who voted in the Euro-elections, whereas, of course, only 48% backed Remain in the referendum itself. This, perhaps, tells us something about the strength of feeling about Brexit among those who voted Remain in particular, but serves as an initial warning about trying to use the results to argue that they showed that the balance of opinion about Brexit among voters has tilted in one direction or the other.

Not that this stopped people from trying. On the one hand, it was argued that the Brexit party’s success in coming a clear first (with 32% of the vote) demonstrated that the public were determined that the UK should leave the EU on October 31st come what may, deal or no deal. To that it was countered that whereas a total of 35% had voted for a party (that is, the Brexit Party or UKIP) that was willing to leave the EU without a deal, as many as 40% had supported one of the parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists) that were campaigning for a second EU referendum – and thus it was clear that was the direction in which voters wished to go. Both arguments blithely ignored the fact that neither tally approached anything like 50%, and that there was more than one way of adding the Conservative (pro-Leave, anti-second referendum) and Labour (pro-Leave but not necessarily opposed to another ballot) tallies to these totals to argue either that most voters still back leaving the EU or that most would contemplate a second referendum.

Even leaving aside questions about differential turnout between Remain and Leave supporters, the difficulty with such arguments, of course, is that they assume that those who voted for a particular party were necessarily expressing support for that party’s stance on Brexit. In truth, many were. Just before the election, Number Cruncher Politics reported that as many as 49% said that they would be voting in order to express their view about Brexit, while Kantar published a similar finding in its pre-election poll. Equally, Lord Ashcroft’s post-polling day poll ascertained that around a half of voters (51%) gave as their principal reason for voting the way they did either that the party for which they voted had the best policy on Brexit or that they wanted to show their dissatisfaction with the UK government’s stance on Brexit.

However, a half is not everyone, and while some parties were drawing their support almost entirely from either Remainers or from Leavers, others were not. So far as the Eurosceptic parties are concerned, there is little doubt about the orientation of the vast bulk of their voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that the Brexit Party enjoyed the support of 64% of those who voted Leave, but only 4% of those who backed Remain, while the equivalent figures among those who backed UKIP were 6% and 1% respectively. Equally, no less than 90% of Brexit Party voters either want to leave the EU without a deal (67%) or on the basis of a different deal than the one negotiated by Mrs May (23%), while the equivalent combined tally among UKIP supporters was 70%.

Meanwhile, those voting for the Liberal Democrats were firmly on the other side of the Brexit debate. The party won the support of 36% of those who voted Remain, thereby displacing Labour as the single most popular party among this group, but just 4% of those who had voted Leave. No less than 90% of those who voted for the party affirmed to Lord Ashcroft that their current preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave on the basis of any possible deal, let alone none at all. With 19% support among 2016 Remainers and 4% among Leavers, the character of the vote for the Greens was not dissimilar, though at 72% the proportion now backing Remain over some form of leaving was somewhat lower. Meanwhile, 78% of Change UK voters indicated a preference for remaining versus leaving, though the ratio of the party’s support among those who voted Remain (5%) to that among those who backed Leave (2%) is not as high as the equivalent ratio for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

However, the vote for other parties was much more heterogeneous in character. This was most obviously true in the case of the Conservatives, who proved to be equally (un-)popular among both those who voted Remain (9%) and those who backed Leave 9%). There was no consensus at all amongst those who voted Conservative about whether they wanted to Remain (28%), leave on the basis of Mrs May’s deal (36%), leave on the basis of an alternative deal (17%) or leave without a deal (14%). Labour was more popular among Remain voters (19%) than Leave supporters (8%), and 63% indicated that their preference was to remain in the EU rather than leave in one way or another, but, even so, the party was still bridging the Remain-Leave divide to some degree. Meanwhile, polling undertaken in Scotland by Panelbase shortly before the election (which accurately anticipated the 38% won by the SNP north of the border) found that while the party was winning the support of no less than 49% of Remain supporters, it was also backed by 20% of Leavers.

There are then very clear dangers in trying to infer the balance of attitudes towards Brexit among voters from the results of the election. Remain voters may well have been more likely to have voted, while not everyone’s choice reflected their stance on Brexit. However, that does not mean we cannot learn any lessons from the election about attitudes towards Brexit. Above all, the election underlines not only the polarisation of attitudes towards Brexit but also the intensity with which those attitudes are held by some voters.

We have written previously about how attitudes towards Brexit have seemingly become polarised between those who would be willing to leave the EU without a deal and those who would like another referendum – or would simply like to revoke Article 50 – and that as a result there is relatively little public support for any of the compromise positions that have been proposed – including Mrs May’s deal and any softer Norway-style Brexit as envisaged by Labour. This pattern is replicated in Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll in which the two most popular options among all voters are either to remain in the EU (40%) or to leave without a deal (27%). Thus, in promoting their respective compromise positions on Brexit both the Conservatives and Labour found themselves at this election attempting to occupy a centre ground on Brexit that has long seemed relatively poorly populated – and was certainly little understood by voters (see, for example, here and here). Given that Euro-elections are often regarded as ‘second-order’ contests in which voters are more likely to vote for smaller parties and to express their views about the EU, this was always a potentially risky position to be occupying.

So, although not all voters used the Euro-election to express their views about Brexit, the fact that many did so laid the foundations for the collapse in Conservative and Labour support. According to Lord Ashcroft no less than 81% of those who voted for the Brexit Party and 68% of those who backed the Liberal Democrats gave Brexit as their principal reason for doing so. Conversely, only 13% of Labour voters and 8% of Conservative supporters indicated that they were making their choice on the basis of Brexit. They were much more likely to be voting on the basis of party loyalty – as many as 36% of Labour voters and 34% of Conservatives gave this as their principal reason for voting the way that they did. The trouble for both of those parties is that for many voters the pull of party loyalty was weaker than the attraction of expressing their views about Brexit. In other words, the election revealed that not only is the electorate polarised between leaving without a deal and remaining in the EU, but also that many on both sides of the argument hold those views sufficiently intently that, in a second-order election at least, they prefer to express those views rather than adhere to their traditional party loyalty.

As a result, the fragility of the electoral coalitions that both the Conservatives and Labour had put together in the 2017 election, when between them they won over 80% of the vote, was cruelly exposed. Although the Conservatives had garnered support most successfully from among those who voted Leave, around a third of the party’s voters had voted Remain. Conversely, although Labour had proven more popular among those who had voted Remain, around a third had backed Leave. Neither party had much success in retaining the support of either part of their coalition.

The Conservatives’ biggest problem was undoubtedly maintaining the support of those of their supporters who had voted Leave. Many of these after all had backed UKIP before the 2017 election and had only switched to the Conservatives in the belief that they were best placed actually to deliver Brexit. Given the failure of the government to deliver Brexit on the original target date of March 29, the return of Nigel Farage to the electoral scene served to make switching to the Brexit Party seem like an attractive option.  Over a half (53%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and voted in the Euro-election voted for the Brexit Party – a figure that equates to around four in five of all those Conservatives who had voted Leave. It is this movement that explains why, in contrast to the position in 2017, at this election the Conservatives were no more popular among Leave voters than they were among Remain supporters.

However, the party was also losing ground among its minority of voters who had backed Remain. According to Lord Ashcroft, 20% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 switched to either the Liberal Democrats (especially), the Greens, or Change UK, most of them people who had voted Remain in 2016. This represented the equivalent of losing around 60% of the party’s Remain supporters. The Conservatives were struggling to retain the support of both parts of their 2017 electoral coalition.

Labour found itself in a similar position. On the one hand, the party lost 22% of its vote to the Liberal Democrats, 17% to the Greens and 4% to Change UK, the vast majority of them people who had voted Remain. These figures mean that Labour lost the support of around three in five of those that voted Remain, much the same proportion as the Conservatives though it represents a much larger share of its total vote. However, at the same time Labour also lost 13% of its vote to the Brexit Party, or around two in five of the party’s Leave supporters. Labour’s Leave support may not have been as willing to switch to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party as the much larger body of Leave voters in the Conservatives’ ranks, but even so the party was also clearly losing ground at both ends of the Brexit spectrum.

None of this seems set to make the Brexit impasse any easier to resolve. The Euro-election has underlined the polarisation of public attitudes towards Brexit. It has strengthened and given momentum both to the ranks of those advocating no deal and of those supporting a second referendum. Meanwhile, the country’s two largest parties at Westminster, already deeply divided on the subject, now seem embarked on serious internal arguments about how they could handle Brexit in such a way that they might rescue themselves from the deep electoral hole in which they now find themselves. Neither would seem to have an easy task. Whoever said that these elections would not matter?

Two Very Different Battles? Pointers from the Final Polls of Euro-Election Vote Intention

A plethora of polls published in the last hours of the campaign have affirmed the likely outcome of one of the key political battles in the Euro-election  – but have left us rather uncertain about the outcome of another. That said, it is clear that Sunday is set to be an uncomfortable night for both the Conservatives and Labour, and will likely raise important questions about the future of Britain’s traditional two-party system.

The battle whose outcome is clear is that between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party for the support of those who voted Leave. That is a contest that Nigel Farage is set to win hands down.  Where the message of the polls is much less certain is in the fight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the support of Remain voters.

On average, the seven ‘final’ polls of voting intention for the Euro-elections, all of which conducted at least some of their interviewing during the last week of the campaign, suggest that the Brexit Party is set to win the support of nearly two-thirds (63%) of those who voted Leave in 2016. Although, as one might anticipate, only a handful of Remain supporters are willing to vote for a party whose principal message is that the UK should leave the EU without a deal, that proportion is enough to put the party on 34% among voters as a whole – putting it in first place and suggesting that the party will exceed the 27% of the vote that UKIP won (also under Nigel Farage’s leadership) in 2014.

As a result, support for the Conservatives, the party in whom most Leave voters invested their trust in 2017, has been decimated. The party’s average standing is just 11%. Well over half (55%) of all those who voted Conservative in 2017 and indicate they will participate in the Euro-election say they will vote for the Brexit Party – a figure that rises  to around three-quarters among those 2017 Conservative voters who backed Leave. Instead of being a party that primarily represents Leave voters, the Conservatives find themselves no more popular among supporters of Brexit (11%) than they are among those who voted Remain (13%).

The reasons for this tsunami of switching from the Conservatives to the Brexit Party among Leave voters are not hard discern. Polling has consistently found that at least a half of those who voted Leave think the UK should leave the EU without a deal. They thus have little sympathy for a party that has failed to deliver Brexit because it has been unable to secure the assent of the Commons to the deal that has been negotiated. After all, in many cases they only switched from voting UKIP in 2014 or 2015 because they thought the Conservatives were best able to implement the decision to leave. Meanwhile, as both Opinium and YouGov have shown, voters are far from clear about where the Conservatives stand on Brexit, while (according to YouGov) as many as 40% of Leave voters have come to the conclusion that the Conservative party is actually opposed to Brexit. In contrast, most voters have little difficulty in understanding where the Brexit Party stands (see also here), thanks not least to Nigel Farage’s high-profile campaigning in favour of the Eurosceptic cause.

Polls conducted at the beginning of the Euro-election campaigned confirmed the by now familiar picture that the Labour was the single most popular choice among those who voted Remain in 2017. On average, as many as 43% expressed that view, while only 14% opted for the Liberal Democrats. Although the latest polls disagree about how far this pattern has changed, they all agree that Labour’s grip on the Remain vote has been eroded. Indeed, on average the latest polls put the two parties neck and neck among Remain voters, with 29% opting for the Liberal Democrats and 28% for the Labour party. Only the fact that the Liberal Democrat vote is almost wholly a Remain vote (and almost all the eight-point increase in the party’s support has come from that quarter, including from among some Conservatives who voted Remain) whereas Labour does have some support among Leave voters (10%) ensures that, on average, Labour is still reckoned to be narrowly ahead among voters as a whole, albeit by only 19% to 17%.

This itself is sufficient grounds to come to the view that we cannot be sure which of those two parties will emerge ahead in the ballot boxes and claim second place. But the uncertainty is even greater thanks to the fact that the polls differ dramatically in their estimate of Labour support. At one end of the spectrum YouGov put the party on just 13%, while at the other end Panelbase put the party on 25%. As a result, while three polls put Labour at least three points ahead of the Liberal Democrats, two reckon that the Liberal Democrats are ahead by at least that amount, and two others put the two parties almost neck and neck. Who will come second has come to be the most intriguing question of the election.

But even if Labour do fend off the Liberal Democrat challenge, unless the party does so convincingly questions are bound to be raised about whether the party should come out more firmly in favour of a second referendum. Certainly, as in the case of the Conservatives, voters are far from clear as to where Labour stand on Brexit, while they are rather clearer about the Liberal Democrats’ position. And in an election where around half of voters say that they are voting on the basis of their views about Brexit rather than because of traditional party loyalty or other issues (see also here), it seems that this contrast matters. On average, nearly one in five (18%) of those who voted Labour in 2017 (and around one in four of those who voted Remain) say they are voting Liberal Democrat in the Euro-election.

Not that the Liberal Democrats are the only one of the pro-Remain parties taking votes off Labour. The Greens have also added to Labour’s difficulties, with some 14% of the 2017 Labour vote heading in that direction, a movement that is helping the Greens on average to match the 8% tally that it secured in the last Euro-election in 2014. In combination, Labour’s losses to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amount to one in three of those who voted for the party two years ago.

However, losses of support to more avowedly pro-Remain parties is not the only source of Labour’s difficulties. During the campaign, the party has lost ground – some six points – among Leave voters too.  Much of that loss has been inflicted by the Brexit Party, to which as many as 14% of 2017 Labour voters have switched, representing at least one in three of those Labour voters who voted Leave. Nigel Farage may not have done anything like as much damage on Labour as he has on the Conservatives, but he may inflict enough to convince those Labour MPs who do not want another second referendum that they should continue to oppose any such move. Trouble is, what does seem to be the case is that Labour’s attempt to retain the support of both sides in the Brexit debate by pursuing a compromise position runs the risk of losing the backing of both Remainers and Leavers.

Still, whatever the travails being suffered by both Labour and the Conservatives, there are two other contenders for whom the prospects look even worse. With an average level of support of just 4%, the Change UK group of former Labour and Conservative MPs look set to lose the civil war with the Liberal Democrats for the pro-Remain vote, an outcome that will doubtless raise questions about what the group’s future relationship with the Liberal Democrats should be. Equally, UKIP have comprehensively lost the battle with the Brexit Party for the Eurosceptic vote. Some of the challengers to the Conservative-Labour duopoly at least look as though they will emerge from this election significantly weakened.

Of course, as soon as the votes are counted on Sunday, the question will be raised as to what might be the implications of the result for the future of British politics. The outcome will not tell us what would happen in an immediate general election. Many voters will vote differently at the Euro-election from how they would in such a ballot. Indeed, recent polls of voting intentions for Westminster put the Conservatives (on 24%) and Labour (on 29%) in a somewhat better (but very far from healthy) position than it is anticipated will emerge from the ballot boxes on Sunday. Moreover, past experience suggests that some of those voters who in the midst of a Euro-election campaign say that they would vote for a smaller party in a Westminster contest often change their minds once the Euro-votes have been counted and the election forgotten. Except, of course, Brexit – the principal source of the difficulties being faced by Labour and the Conservatives in this year’s Euro-election – is unlikely to disappear from the political agenda any time soon.

Debating policy decisions after the EU referendum: Experiences from the UK’s first online deliberative polling event

Together with colleagues at Stanford University and the University of Manchester, we are undertaking a project on public attitudes towards post-Brexit policy on immigration, food policy and consumer regulation, using deliberative polling. Much more information to follow, but here, as a first step, is a description of what happened during our first round of deliberation – undertaken online. JC

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Earlier this month, we brought 27 people from Britain with different backgrounds and different views on Brexit together in a two-day video conference, to discuss some of the hot topics the UK will face if it exits the European Union. The event was a great success, with outstandingly positive feedback from participants. Katariina Rantanen gives a moderator’s perspective on how the event unfolded.

On Saturday morning there was a buzz in the ground floor conference room of the NatCen office. A team of eight researchers from the UK and the US were gathered in the front room of the empty office, setting up our computers, running through the day’s schedule and checking our emails for any last-minute queries. We were waiting for 9:30 am, when we had told a group of people from across Britain to log into the video conference software Zoom. The participants would then be split into small groups and start discussions on immigration, food safety and consumer regulation.

Our American colleagues – Jim Fishkin and Alice Siu from Stanford University – had done this before, but we had not. I had my reservations about how the whole thing would work: bringing together leavers and remainers from all corners of the UK to talk through contested topics like immigration? Expecting people with different degrees of familiarity with IT to participate in discussion through a video call on an equal footing?

At 9:30 we all logged on, hoping that participants would turn up and that the technology would work. When close to thirty faces and names had popped up on our Zoom screens, we knew we’d passed the first hurdle: we now had a group of people in the same virtual space, ready to talk to each other.

Once everyone had made their way into their (virtual) breakout groups of six to eight participants and once introductions had been done and ground rules set, the group moderators invited attendees to kick off the conversation on immigration, our first subject. The discussion centred around a handful of policy choices which had been pulled together beforehand by some academic experts: Who should be able to come to the UK to work? Should immigrants have access to public services and benefits? How easy should it be to become a British citizen? To my surprise, even though people shared different views on how things should be done, the conversation never got heated or angry. Instead, discussion was polite, even friendly, and participants respected each other’s opinions. Everyone who wanted to got a chance to say something.

Equally surprising was that the technology did work. While some participants needed a little guidance, most had no trouble logging into the video conference and navigating around it. A helpline was available throughout the event for people with technical issues to call.

“I didn’t expect this type of technology to work, not with [this many] people. It works very well!” – Participant

After an hour of discussion, the group came up with two questions to pose to a panel of immigration policy experts with different views and different agendas. The three experts then had an hour to answer the questions that had puzzled participants in immigration policy. Participants told us that they found these expert answers both interesting and useful.

The immigration debate was followed by food safety on Saturday afternoon and consumer regulation on Sunday morning. These topics were perhaps not as immediately controversial as immigration, but my group discussed each topic in a thorough and engaged way. To balance the matter-of-fact discussion there were light-hearted moments, when a participant’s dog made a webcam appearance or when another participant showed off their collection of LED light bulbs. Participants seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing their thoughts and listening to those of others.

 “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of a great event, I enjoyed the weekend! I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at how nice everyone was.” – Participant

At the end of Saturday I was excited to see everyone again on Sunday morning and at the end of Sunday I was sad that the event was over. From the point of view of a social researcher, the event with its current topics and friendly group dynamic was the most rewarding qualitative research experience I’ve had so far.

“I did not think I would be saying that but I have really enjoyed it this weekend so really truly thank you.” – Participant

If you have been invited to participate in a deliberative polling event by NatCen, please see www.natcen.ac.uk/FutureofBritain or the Future of Britain project homepage for more information. For any other queries about the project, please contact Ceri.Davies@natcen.ac.uk.

Cracks Become a Chasm as Brexit Threatens the Conservative-Labour Duopoly

Prompted by the Newport West by-election, at the beginning of April we published an analysis of how support for both the Conservatives and Labour had slipped during the course of the Brexit impasse. The Conservatives appeared to have lost ground among those who voted Leave, while Labour had lost support among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit perhaps rather more among the former than the latter.

Much has happened since then. Not only did the UK not leave the EU on the original target date of 29 March but also did not do so on the next deadline of 11 April. The government initiated talks with Labour with a view to identifying possible amendments to Mrs May’s Brexit deal that might secure the backing of the official opposition. However, so far at least, these talks have not been productive, and the government still seems to lack the parliamentary support it needs to secure the passage of the EU withdrawal treaty. Meanwhile, as a result of the continuing impasse, the UK now finds itself about to elect new representatives to the European Parliament, a body from which it has been trying to withdraw for the last two years.

None of this has done either the Conservatives or Labour any good. The cracks in their domination of the competition for the support of voters in evidence at the beginning of last month have now become a chasm. In the last couple of days, three polls of voting intentions for Westminster (that have also asked voting intentions for the Euro-elections) have on average put the Conservatives on 22%, while Labour stand at no more than 26%. These figures represent a drop of no less than 14 points in Conservative support since the beginning of April, while Labour are down nine points. In short, since the date on which the UK was originally meant to leave the EU, both parties appear to have been haemorrhaging support, such that they now command the support of less than half of those with a current vote intention – a position not seen in the polls since the headiest days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance in late 1981.

However, European Parliament elections are different from general elections. They are often portrayed as ‘second-order’ contests in which relatively few voters bother to vote, and those that do (a) often regard it as an opportunity to protest against the current perceived inadequacies of the government, and (b) are more willing to vote for smaller parties (a pattern that perhaps is further facilitated in the UK because EP elections are held under a system of proportional representation rather than single member plurality). Small, Eurosceptic parties often do particularly well, as attested by the success of UKIP at the last Euro-election, coming first with 27% of the vote (in Great Britain). In short, if, as seems to be the case, voters are unhappy with the way in which the Conservatives and/or Labour have handled Brexit, a European election provides an environment in which voters are particularly likely to make that unhappiness clear.

That, indeed, appears to be precisely what they are minded to do. Polling of how people say they would vote in the Euro-elections puts the level of both Conservative and Labour support even lower than that for a general election.  The Conservatives stand on average at just 11%, as much as eleven points adrift of their rating for Westminster. Labour’s position is not as dire, but, at 21%, support for the party is still five points down on what it currently is for Westminster. (In both cases a further reading published today from BMG Research largely confirms these figures.)

In the case of the Conservatives the principal reason for the drop in their support for Westminster and the fact that even fewer voters are likely to vote for them in the Euro-elections is clear – in a continuation of the pattern that was already in evidence in early April, the party has lost the support of many a Leave voter.

Just 28% of those who said they voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum now say they would vote for the Conservatives in a UK general election. This represents a drop of no less than 16 points on the average poll figure in early April. Meanwhile support for the Conservatives among Leavers in the Euro-election is another 17 points lower, standing at just 11%. This level of support is no higher than the equivalent figure among those who voted Remain – among whom support for the party in a general election has also fallen somewhat since early April, but, at six points, much less so than it has among those who voted Leave. (The further drop-off in support in how people say they will vote in the Euro-elections is lower among Remainers too.)

Most of these sometime Conservative Leavers have been enticed away by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has thoroughly eclipsed UKIP. Nearly three-fifths (58%) of those who voted Conservative in 2017 say that they will vote for the Brexit Party in the Euro-elections. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all those who voted Leave are saying they will vote for Nigel Farage’s new organisation. It is very difficult to avoid any conclusion other than that most Leave voters find voting for a party that believes the UK should have left without a deal on March 29 much more attractive than backing one that so far has been unable to facilitate the UK’s exist from the EU.

But what about the loss of support that Labour is suffering? In line with the pattern we identified at the beginning of April, the party’s lost ground has not arisen as a result of an especially heavy loss among those on one side or other of the Brexit divide. Rather, the party has lost significant ground among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit rather more so among the former than the latter. Thus, the party now finds itself standing on average at 36% for Westminster among Remainers, a drop of eight points since early April, while it has the backing of 15% of those who voted Leave, a fall of five points. Meanwhile, the party is suffering a further drop-off in voting intentions for the Euro-election of seven points among Remainers and of five points among Leavers. In short, Labour’s compromise stance on Brexit may well have enabled the party to be more or less equally appealing to both Remainers and Leavers – it has just not been very successful at keeping either group of voters on board.

This pattern of losing ground among both Remainers and Leavers is reflected in the preferences for the Euro-election now being expressed by those who voted Labour in 2017. On the one hand Labour is losing some support to the Brexit Party, albeit on nothing like the scale of the defection being endured by the Conservatives. At present 12% of Labour’s vote at the last election (or around two in five of those who voted Leave) is heading in that direction. On the other hand, the party is also losing support to two of the parties that are in favour of a second EU referendum, that is, the Liberal Democrats (16%) and the Greens (13%). Nearly three in ten of all Labour voters – and thus rather more than one in three of those who voted Remain – have moved in that direction. As a result, between them the combined tally of support for the Liberal Democrats and Greens among 2016 Remain voters (36%) is now higher than that enjoyed by Labour (31%). The dominance that Labour has hitherto enjoyed among Remain voters has, it seems, been significantly eroded.

Moreover, there are signs that both these patterns have intensified since Easter. At that point, Labour’s loss of support to the Brexit Party stood on average at 8%, compared with 12% now. Meanwhile, only around one in six (16%) of 2017 Labour voters intended to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, or little more than half the proportion now.  The one consolation for Labour is that the challenge from Change UK, formed originally by a group of defecting Labour MPs, seems to be waning. Just 4% of 2017 Labour voters now say they will vote for the new pro-Remain party compared with 9% a fortnight ago.  This is part of a wider pattern in which Change UK (average Euro-vote 5%) seems to be losing the civil war with the Liberal Democrats (14%) for the socially liberal pro-Remain vote.

Challenges to the traditional Conservative and Labour duopoly are not new.  One at least – that posed by the SNP – has already destroyed that duopoly north of the border.  Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have previously had their days in the sun – but not at the same time. UKIP’s initial rise in 2012 occurred after the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote following the formation of the Coalition in 2010. Now, however, in the wake of the Brexit impasse, the challenge is coming from both a Eurosceptic and Europhile direction at the same time. That, alone, might be thought to mean that it should be taken seriously.

Still, the real test of the electoral fallout from the Brexit impasse will come once the Euro-elections are over. Some, at least, of the loss of Conservative and Labour support for a Westminster election in the polls may be a temporary knock-on effect of the proximity of the European election. Previous Euro-election surges for one of the smaller parties have often been accompanied by a contemporaneous increase in their support for Westminster. However, that increase has then disappeared once, a few weeks later, the Euro-election has become little more than a distant memory. But unless the Brexit impasse is resolved soon, maybe this time the memory will remain fresh in voters’ minds – in which case expect to hear very little this summer about either Labour or, perhaps, a new Conservative leader manoeuvring to try and precipitate an early Westminster ballot.

What Impact Did The Brexit Impasse Have on The Local Elections?

There was a ready acceptance among politicians and commentators as the local election results gradually emerged on Thursday night and Friday morning that the outcome reflected voters’ views about Brexit. Not that they necessarily agreed as to what message the electorate were sending. Those of a Leave disposition interpreted the decline in both Conservative and Labour support as evidence that voters wanted the House of Commons to get on with delivering Brexit. Those of a Remain persuasion noted the increase in Liberal Democrat and Green support and suggested that the outcome represented an endorsement of the call that voters should decide the fate of Brexit in a second referendum. Of course, fitting the facts to match prior preconceptions has long become a familiar feature of the Brexit debate.

But what impact, if any, did Brexit have on the outcome of the local elections? In truth, discerning motivation from aggregate election results is always a potentially hazardous exercise. The ballots themselves tell us nothing about why people voted as they did. However, geography can provide us with some clues, especially if our proposition is one that implies that voters will have changed the party they support because of Brexit. If, for example, it is the case that Leave voters are disenchanted with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit and, as a result, were less willing to vote for the party in the local elections, we would anticipate that, other things being equal, the fall in Conservative support would be greater in those areas where more people voted Leave in 2016. Even then, it is not necessarily the case that such a pattern has been occasioned by the behaviour of Leave voters – it may be that Remain voters living in Leave areas were more likely to switch from the Conservatives than were Remain voters living in more pro-Remain areas – though such an explanation obviously seems less plausible. This, perhaps, is especially so given that there is plenty of contemporaneous polling evidence that Leave voters have been defecting from the Conservatives in large numbers.

Mind you, even this approach – looking at geography supplemented with evidence from opinion polls – has its limitations. What if both Remain and Leave voters have defected from a party in roughly equal proportions – as recent polls have suggested has been the position so far as Labour is concerned? Geographically, that should mean that there is little difference between Remain and Leave voting areas in the scale of that party’s losses. And maybe in turn that might mean that its loss of support has in fact nothing to do with Brexit. On the other hand, it could mean that the party’s stance on Brexit has led to a loss of support among both Remain and Leave supporters – perhaps because it backs a compromise that satisfies neither – and therefore has everything to do with Brexit. Distinguishing between these alternative interpretations might be thought near impossible – at least in the absence of polling information that might cast some further light on the issue.

To these considerations, one other has to be brought to bear – time. If we think that a party has lost ground among a body of voters we need to be clear ‘since when’ that is thought to have happened. In so far as we are interested in the impact of the ‘Brexit impasse’, that is, the failure of the House of Commons to progress the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, we should be examining how party support has changed since the EU withdrawal treaty was unveiled in mid-November. There were, of course, no local elections at that time. However, there are local elections in England every spring, and, as a result, it is in many places possible to compare the performances of the party this year with what happened last year. That is still not ideal, but it is potentially more informative than simply comparing the outcome this year with what happened four years ago, in 2015, when local elections were held on the same day as a general election (and enjoyed much higher turnout as a result), even though that happened to be the occasion on which most (though not all) of the seats up for grabs last week had previously been contested. A lot of Brexit and non-Brexit water has passed under many bridges during the last four years, thereby potentially muddying our understanding of the impact of the Brexit impasse. This observation proves to be particularly important in understanding the performance of the Conservative party.

Given these observations, it should be apparent that the most straightforward way of trying to discern the impact of Brexit is to examine whether the change in a party’s share of the vote varied systematically between those areas that voted Remain and those that backed Leave. The following table is based on the detailed results in 720 wards located in 40 local authority areas as collected by the BBC. It shows the average change in the level of support for the three main parties in England since both 2015 and 2018, broken down by the level of support for Leave in 2016 in the council area in which the ward is located. Note that the table is also confined to those wards that each of Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats fought on both occasions – otherwise our figures might be distorted by changes in the pattern of candidature.

 

If, first of all, we focus on the left-hand-side of the table, on the changes in party support since 2015, we see some very clear patterns, albeit, perhaps, not always ones that we might have anticipated. In the case of the Liberal Democrats it seems quite clear that the party advanced more strongly in places where less than half voted Leave than in places where more than half did so. That would suggest the party’s anti-Brexit stance might have been successful in winning over Remain voters. Conversely, there is an indication that Labour might have performed worse in those places that voted most strongly to Leave, though beyond that there is little systematic difference. Here is a hint – though no more than that – that in the most pro-Brexit parts of the country Labour may have particularly lost ground among Leave voters.

However, the figures in the Conservative column do not support the claim that disenchanted Leave voters in particular have defected from the Conservative party in droves.  The party appears to have lost ground more heavily in pro-Remain areas than in those that voted most heavily for Leave. If this means anything at all, it would seem to imply that Remain voters have defected from the Conservative party because they are unhappy that the party is pursuing Brexit at all.

But then, we already know that that is indeed what has happened previously. It was a feature of the 2017 general election. Equally, last year’s local elections witnessed a tendency for the party to perform better in Leave voting areas than in Remain supporting ones. So, in comparing the results in 2019 with those in 2015 we may simply be picking up a movement that occurred some time ago, well before the Brexit impasse came into view.

That this is the case becomes apparent if we compare the Conservative performance last Thursday with what happened twelve months ago (see the right-hand side of the table). Then we see a very different, if less dramatic pattern. The party performed worse in places with a strong Leave vote, while its vote tended to fall less in more pro-Remain areas, altough the pattern is not an entirely straightforward one. Here is some sign that during the last twelve months the party has particularly lost ground among more Leave–inclined England, thereby partially – but only partially – reversing a previous tendency for the party to advance more strongly in such areas since the EU referendum.

In Labour’s case the link in last year’s local elections between the change in the party’s share of the vote and the outcome of the EU referendum was much weaker than was evident in the performance of the Conservatives. Consequently, when we look at the change in its share of the vote since 2018, the pattern is not dissimilar to that we saw when we examined the change in support since 2015 – again the party looks as though it performed least well in the most pro-Leave parts of the country. It seems then that rather than simply expressing frustration with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit, voters in Leave-inclined England seem to have withdrawn support from both main parties. Here, it seems is some evidence to support the claim that both parties were being punished for the Brexit impasse, albeit, perhaps, more especially by those of a pro-Leave disposition rather than by voters in general.

That said, what the comparison with last year’s local elections also makes clear is that both the Conservatives and Labour have lost ground heavily in both pro-Remain and pro-Leave England. As we noted above, how far such a pattern is a consequence of voters’ reaction to how they have handled Brexit is impossible to tell for sure. What, however, we do know is that both parties have seen their average standing in the opinion polls fall since mid-November, the Conservatives by no less than 11 points and Labour by six. We can therefore say that the results of the local elections are consistent with (and help to confirm) other evidence that both parties have struggled to maintain their support during the course of the Brexit impasse – albeit with the additional twist that perhaps Labour have in fact fallen back just as much as the Conservatives.

But what of the rise in support for the Liberal Democrats? Does this still appear to have been stronger in Remain voting areas when measured across the last twelve months rather than the last four years? To a degree, yes, but the difference is not as sharp as that over the longer time period. As in the case of the Conservatives and Labour what stands out most of all is a relatively poor performance in the most strongly pro-Leave parts of England. Otherwise, however, it is difficult to argue that the results suggest that the Liberal Democrats’ advocacy of a second referendum has brought the party a particular boost in Remain-inclined England in recent months – much, indeed, as the opinion polls have been suggesting.

Much the same has to be said of the Greens, who registered their best local election performance for a decade. Across all the wards where the party stood this time it won an average of 12%, while its vote increased by five points on last year in those wards it fought in both 2018 and 2019. But that increase was just as high in the most pro-Leave areas as it was in the most pro-Remain ones. Most likely the party’s success had more to do with the recent debate about climate change than the party’s stance against Brexit.

Still, at this point, there might be thought to be a bit of a puzzle. If the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all performing less well in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year (and the Greens no better), then who was performing better?

Part of the answer, at least, is UKIP. The party only fought this year’s local elections on a limited scale, contesting just one in six of the seats.  But where it did stand – which was disproportionately in places that voted heavily to Leave (and seemingly more so than last year) – the party’s vote was up markedly on the nadir to which it had fallen a year ago. In those wards that it fought both this year and last year the party’s vote was up by as much as eight points, a figure that rose to 13 points in the most strongly pro-Leave areas.  This was enough to push the party’s average share of the vote across all the wards in which it stood this year up to 15%. Although this performance was still not as strong as in the local elections held in 2015 and 2016 (on both of which the party’s vote was down on average by four points), it represents clear evidence that the Brexit impasse has instigated a marked revival in support for a Eurosceptic party, even though that party is according to the polls now overshadowed by a newcomer, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. That gives every reason to anticipate that the challenge from that quarter will be greater in the Euro-elections when the new Eurosceptic party will be on the ballot.

Between them UKIP’s advance (missing though it was from the media headlines) and the especially poor performance by the Conservatives and Labour in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year represents the strongest evidence provided by the local elections that the Brexit impasse has had an impact on party support. It suggests that some more Leave-inclined voters at least did take the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with how Brexit has been handled, and that this cost both main parties support – including in the Conservatives’ case some of the gains that the party had previously made among this group in the immediate wake of the referendum. In contrast, caution certainly needs to be exercised in assuming that the rise in Liberal Democrat and Green support represents a markedly greater willingness by Remain voters in particular to switch to a pro-second referendum party in the wake of the Brexit impasse. More difficult to discern, however, are the implications of perhaps the most dramatic feature of the elections, that is, the sharp drop in both Conservative and Labour support on last year irrespective of how an area voted in the referendum. It might represent a cri de coeur from voters about the state of the Brexit process – but whether these voters agree about what they want done about it might be another thing.

A shorter version of this blog is available on the ukandeu.ac.uk website.

The Brexit Impasse: Is the Party System Fracturing Once More?

Today regular domestic politics will provide a small interruption to the increasingly frantic attempts being made both by the government and by parliament to seek a way out of the Brexit impasse. A parliamentary by-election is being held in Newport West, following the death of Paul Flynn, a widely-respected MP on the left of the Labour party.

The contest is one that Labour would be expected to win quite comfortably. Nevertheless, the outcome is likely to be examined closely for any clues it may provide as to the impact of the Brexit impasse on the standing of the parties.  It is thus an opportune moment to examine the evidence of the polls on that score – not least because we may yet find that the Brexit impasse eventually precipitates a snap general election.

At first glance, it would seem that the debate about Mrs May’s Brexit deal has had remarkably little impact on the fortunes of the country’s two largest parties. When the deal was first unveiled in mid-November the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck with each other. Now, nearly five months later, the two parties are still neck and neck.

But this does not mean that ‘nothing has changed’. Back in mid-November both parties on average stood at 39% apiece. Now, both are well below that level. The Conservatives are three points down on 36%, while Labour have slipped by four points to 35%. It would seem the Brexit debate has served to erode public confidence in both of the country’s two principal parties of government.

Even more dramatic is the difference between the position in the polls now, and the outcome of the 2017 election, when the two parties’ combined tally of 84.5% of the vote (in Great Britain) was the highest it has been at any election since 1970. Now, the figure stands at just 71%. Britain’s party system is showing signs of fracturing once again.

But, of course, the fact that both Conservatives and Labour have lost ground during the course of the debate about Mrs May’s deal does not necessarily mean that the trend has been occasioned by Brexit. In Labour’s case, in particular, the party has been hit during this period by yet another storm over its handling of anti-semitism, a storm that played a significant role in persuading eight of the party’s MPs to leave and create a new party that is now known as ‘Change UK’. Maybe it is a case of coincidence rather than causation.

One way of trying to establish whether the Brexit impasse has been responsible for the parties’ loss of support is to compare the trend in party support among those who voted Remain with that among those who backed Leave. In the case of the Conservatives, at least, one might anticipate that the party’s difficulty in delivering Brexit would be of greater concern to those who voted Leave, and that the party might have lost ground more heavily among this group than it has among those who backed Remain.

This is, indeed, precisely what we find. On average support for the Conservatives has fallen by six points since mid-November among Leave supporters, while it is unchanged among those who backed Remain. Much of this loss of ground appears to have been to UKIP and/or Nigel Farage’s Brexit party who between them are now registering as much as 7% in the polls. The squeeze on UKIP that occurred in the immediate wake of Mrs May’s decision to call the 2017 general election seems largely to have unravelled in the wake of the Brexit impasse.

In Labour’s case, however, our expectations are not so clear cut. On the one hand, the party’s Leave supporters might be disappointed with the party’s decision to oppose Mrs May’s deal, while, on the other, perhaps Remain supporters are unhappy about the party’s continued relative reluctance to back a second referendum. In practice, it seems as though the party may have lost a little more ground since mid-November among Remain supporters (among whom the party’s support is down on average by five points since mid-November) than it has among Leave voters (down three points). Maybe the party’s attempts to keep both groups on board have failed to satisfy either of them?

That said, there are signs that Labour’s relative success in the 2017 election at winning over Remain voters may be unravelling over the longer-term. At 44%, the average level of support for the party among those who voted Remain is some ten points down on what it was, according to an average of the polls, at the time of the 2017 election. In contrast, the 21% support the party now enjoys among those who backed Leave is just three points down on the position two years ago. If the Conservatives have good reason to be concerned about losing the gains they made among Leave supporters in 2017, it seems as though the Labour party cannot afford to be complacent about the Remain-inclined voters that it won over when the country last went to the polls.

Could A Soft Brexit Provide A Soft Landing?

Today, the House of Commons will be making a second attempt at identifying whether there is a proposal for Brexit that is capable of securing the backing of a majority of MPs. In an initial attempt last week, none of the eight options on which MPs were invited to vote secured an overall majority. However, today the options will be narrowed down somewhat, while there will be an opportunity for MPs to revise their views now that they have some idea of the mood of the House. If, as has repeatedly been claimed, there is a potential majority in the Commons for some form of ‘soft’ Brexit then it would seem most likely to realise itself through a majority for one or other of these options in the vote that takes place this evening.

Two possible favourites have emerged. One, a proposal that the UK should form a customs union with the EU, was defeated last week by just eight votes. Another that was much more heavily defeated was a proposal that has been dubbed ‘Common Market 2.0’ and was backed by a cross-party alliance formed by Nick Boles MP (Conservative) and Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour). This envisaged that the UK should be part of the single market as well as a customs union. In this case there was a high level of abstentions, a product in part of the fact that the idea was not backed officially by either Labour or the SNP, and it is possible that both might back it this time around. After all, the Boles and Kinnock proposal would seem relatively close to the policy stance that Labour has been promoting for much of the last two years.

But how much support is there among the public for options such as these? Might one or other yet form the basis for a compromise around which both Remainers and Leavers might be willing to coalesce? Or are they, in truth, at risk of failing to satisfy either camp in what has become a highly polarised political environment?

Proposals for a soft Brexit, such as Common Market 2.0, are often presented as potentially placing the UK in a future relationship with the EU not dissimilar to that of Norway. Although not a member of the EU or indeed of its customs union, Norway is a member of the single market. (The idea that the UK should be in both the single market and a customs union is sometimes dubbed ‘Norway Plus’.) Variants of this particular idea have been addressed by a number of polls.

Among voters as a whole, a Norway-style Brexit certainly appears to be more attractive than the government’s Brexit deal has been. For example, when in December BMG required its respondents to choose one or the other, 60% backed the Norway option while only 40% preferred the government’s deal. A similar picture was obtained by Survation in March in response to a question that did allow people to say ‘Don’t Know’ (an answer given by no less than a quarter). While 30% backed the deal that had been negotiated with the EU, 45% supported a deal that would keep Britain in the single market and the customs union.

However, given how unpopular the government’s deal has proven to be, this might be thought a rather easy test for a Norway-style Brexit to pass. Is there any evidence that it is popular when voters are simply asked whether or not they like it? In four polls the company conducted between July and November last year, YouGov found on average that 34% thought that a Norway-style Brexit (the meaning of which was spelt out in some detail) would be ‘good’ for Britain, while 40% reckoned it would be bad. Meanwhile, when in September the same company asked whether it would be acceptable for the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union, the 38% who said that it would be acceptable were balanced by 38% who indicated that it would not.

A similar picture of a roughly even division emerged from attempts made by two polling companies, Deltapoll and Opinium, at the weekend to canvass the public’s view of all of the various options that MPs have been considering. This inevitably required some quite lengthy explanations, the exact detail of which might well move voters in one direction or the other. In the case of ‘Common Market 2.0’, however, both polls found slightly more people in favour than against (by 40% to 35% in the case of Deltapoll, while Opinium reported the balance as 39% to 34%), even though in both cases the description included reference to the fact that such an outcome would imply retaining freedom of movement.  Both readings were slightly more favourable to staying in the single market and the customs union than were the figures obtained last week by Sky Data, which found that 37% thought that MPs should reject such a prospect, while just 32% thought they should accept it.

None of these numbers represent a ringing endorsement. Perhaps of greater encouragement to the advocates of ‘Common Market 2.0’ are the responses that YouGov have obtained when, on a number of occasions, they have asked people whether a deal that involved membership of the single market and the customs union would be a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ outcome, while also offering the response that it was an ‘acceptable compromise’. On average slightly more said that it would be a bad outcome (29%) than a good one (26%). However, another 23% indicated that it would be ‘an acceptable compromise’. In other words, almost half of voters say that single market and customs union membership would be at least an acceptable compromise.

However, it is a compromise that is more acceptable to some than to others. For Remainers it has some appeal. On average, YouGov have found that as many as 38% of those who voted Remain think that being in the single market and the customs union would be a good outcome, while another 30% state that it would be an acceptable compromise. Just 16% view the prospect negatively. However, Leave supporters regard the idea very differently. Only one in three of them think it would either be a good outcome (15%) or an acceptable compromise (19%), while almost half (48%) feel it would be a bad outcome.

A similar picture emerges from the weekend’s polling on the subject. Deltapoll found that those who voted Remain backed a Common Market 2.0 approach by 49% to 30%, whereas Leave supporters rejected it by 32% to 46%. Opinium reported an even sharper divide, with Remain supporters in favour by 52% to 20%, and Leave voters against by 28% to 49%. It seems that for many on the Leave side, Common Market 2.0 looks too much like Remain 2.0.

Moreover, even among those voters who express some support for the idea, it is very much a second choice. This is evident when voters are invited to choose from among a range of possible Brexit outcomes, including a relationship that looks something like Norway’s. For example, in September last year, BMG pitted a Norway-style Brexit against four other options: leaving the EU without a deal, a Canada-style free trade agreement, the proposals that Mrs May had unveiled at Chequers in July, and remaining in the EU. Only just over one in ten (11%) of voters said that a Norway-style Brexit was their preference, leaving it equal bottom with the Chequers proposals.

Meanwhile more recently, in March YouGov invited people to choose between four options: leaving without a deal, the deal negotiated by the government, staying in the customs union and the single market, and holding a referendum with a view to staying in the EU. Only 15% picked staying in the single market and the customs union. This was just enough to put the idea one point ahead of the government’s deal, but left it well behind the other two options.

The problem facing those who have been arguing for a Common Market 2.0 Brexit is that what most Remain voters want above all is for the Brexit decision to be reversed, while for many Leave supporters staunch in the single market and a customs union looks all too much like still being part of the EU. As a result, a Norway-style Brexit could find itself in much the same position as Mrs May’s deal has proven to be – with few friends who are willing to take it to heart.

But what of the idea that was closest to securing majority support last week, that is, the UK should be part of a customs union with the EU but not be part of the single market? This is an idea that has only risen to prominence in the public debate relatively recently, and thus there has been limited polling on it until now. Meanwhile, how far voters have considered the relative merits of this form of a soft Brexit as compared with Common Market 2.0 is, perhaps, open to question. However, such evidence as has now been gathered suggests that this too is a subject on which, among those at least who do express a view, opinion is probably relatively evenly divided.

Back in February Hanbury Research had found that 37% thought that parliament should approve a deal that contained a permanent customs union while 30% reckoned it should not. Sky Data, in contrast, last week reported that while 34% reckoned that parliament should accept a deal involving a customs union, 35% were against. Meanwhile, in the polling released at the weekend, Deltapoll indicated that 36% were in favour and only 29% were against a customs union, whereas Opinium – after providing a description that made it clear that under the proposal the UK would not be able to strike its own trade deals – found just 34% in favour and 42% opposed.

Here too, those who voted Remain seem keener on the idea than those who backed Leave. Hanbury found that Remain supporters back a customs union by 51% to 23%, whereas Leave voters are opposed by 44% to 29%. Opinium reported even higher levels of opposition – by 62% to 19% – among those who backed Leave, while Remain supporters were in favour by 51% to 25%. Only Deltapoll have obtained a different picture; they found both groups apparently on balance marginally in favour of the idea – but with as many as 35% not expressing a view at all. At the moment, though, Deltapoll’s finding seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In truth, finding a proposal that might bridge the divide between Remainers and Leavers appears to be very hard to do.

How Voters Have Viewed the Article 50 Process

The UK was due to leave the EU on March 29, exactly two years after it gave notice to the EU that it wished to leave, and over two and a half years since voters voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU. During that time, the UK government has been negotiating a treaty that set out the terms and conditions of the country’s withdrawal and an outline agreement on its future relationship with the EU. The conclusion of those negotiations – albeit, as yet at least, one not accepted by the House of Commons –  thus marks an important milestone in the Brexit process.

Today we publish two papers that examine how public opinion has evolved during the Brexit process. The first, based on data collected in January and February by NatCen’s random probability mixed mode panel focuses on the post-referendum negotiations. The survey was the latest in a series conducted on an occasional basis since September 2016. It asks how voters’ expectations of what Brexit should contain have evolved during the last two years, how their view of the consequences of leaving has changed, how well they think the Brexit negotiations have been handled, and what they think of the ‘deal’ that was agreed between the UK government and the EU. We use these data to assess whether the Brexit process appears to have been a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ in the eyes of voters.

The second paper, which is co-authored by Ian Montagu and is based on data collected by the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) between July and October last year, is an early release of a chapter that will form part of the next British Social Attitudes report, due to be released in the summer. It assesses the claim that not only did the EU referendum itself serve to polarise public attitudes towards Brexit, but also whether the subsequent Brexit process has served to maintain the divisions exposed by the referendum.  Thus, here we are not only interested in how the structure of public attitudes towards the EU has evolved since the referendum, but also in comparing the position now with what it was before the EU referendum took place.

One of the challenges facing the Brexit process from the beginning was that the kind of deal that many voters wanted to emerge was never going to be on offer. In September 2016 nine in ten voters were willing to retain free trade with the EU. However, at the same time, nearly three-quarters felt that EU migrants who wanted to come to Britain to live and work should have to apply to be able to do so, implying that they wanted to see an end to freedom of movement. However, so far as the EU are concerned freedom of movement is an integral part of its single market.

Two years on voters have still not fully accommodated their expectations to this constraint. True, the proportion who think EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain has fallen to around three in five. Nevertheless, just over a half (53%) of voters still say that they would like to be able to control EU migration but are happy to keep free trade. That is not a backdrop against which it was ever going to be easy for the politicians to emerge with a deal that would satisfy Britain’s voters.

And so it has proved. The longer the Brexit process has gone on, the more critical and pessimistic voters have become. This trend is in evidence, above all, among those who voted in June 2016 to Leave the EU. Indeed, Leave voters have emerged from the process almost as critical of its handling and of the outcome as those who voted to Remain.

Many voters lacked confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit from the beginning. Back in February 2017, shortly after the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in which she set out her vision of how Brexit should proceed and not long before the UK gave formal notice of its intention to leave the EU, only 29% felt that the UK government was handling Brexit well, while as many as 41% reckoned it was doing so badly. However, much of the criticism came from those who voted Remain. Among those who actually voted to leave the EU, rather more felt the government was handling Brexit well (42%) than believed it was doing so badly (27%).

But now, two years later, there is almost a consensus that the government has been handling Brexit badly. Among voters as whole, just 7% believe that the government has handled Brexit well, while 81% reckon it has done so badly. The 85% of Remain voters who now think Brexit has been handled badly are joined in that view by 80% of Leave supporters. Indeed, just how profound the loss of confidence among Leave voters has been is indicated by the fact that they are now as critical of the UK government’s handling of Brexit as they are of the EU’s role in the negotiations.

As confidence in the UK government’s handling of Brexit has fallen away, so also have evaluations of the outcome of the negotiations. Two years ago, almost as many people thought that Britain would secure a good deal from the negotiations (33%) as reckoned it would obtain a bad one (37%). Leave voters in particular were relatively optimistic, with half (50%) expecting the government to deliver a good deal, and only one in five (20%) anticipating a bad one.

These initial hopes did not survive long. As early as autumn 2017, the proportion of voters expecting a bad deal had already increased to over a half (52%). Eventual publication of the proposed deal in November 2018 did nothing to reverse that trend. In our latest survey, nearly two-thirds of all voters (63%) think that Britain has acquired a bad deal.  And Leave voters (66% of whom think it is a bad deal) are just as likely as Remain supporters (64%) to express that view.

Not that all expectations of what Brexit might bring have diminished during the negotiations. In the autumn of 2016, 38% said that they thought immigration would fall as a result of leaving the EU, and that figure has more or less held steady ever since, with 39% expressing that view in our latest survey. However, a public that was relatively pessimistic about the economic consequences of Brexit has become more so. The proportion who think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit has increased from 45% in the autumn of 2016 to 58% now. Conversely, the proportion who think it will be better off has fallen from 30% to 19%.  The trend has occurred primarily among Leave voters, though at 41% the proportion who think that the economy will be better off still outnumbers the proportion who anticipate that it will be worse off – and on this topic at least the views of Leave supporters and their Remain counterparts are very different from each other.

So also, in truth, are the reasons why Remain voters and Leave supporters dislike the deal that has been negotiated. Most of those who voted Remain (70%) feel that the deal would mean that Britain had too distant a relationship with the EU. In contrast, Leave voters are more inclined to feel that the deal would result in a relationship that was too close (39%) than believe it would lead to one that was too distant (26%), though evidently the deal has been at risk of being criticised from both ends of the spectrum so far as Leave voters are concerned. But then turning support for the principle of Brexit into backing for its implementation was never necessarily going to be easy.

The BSA chapter examines two possible meanings of ‘polarisation’. The first is that the pattern of support for leaving the EU not only became more distinctive during the referendum (as we might anticipate), but that it has continued to be so during the subsequent post-referendum debate about what Brexit should mean (when we might have expected the impact of the referendum to have dissipated). The second is that many voters have become strongly attached to either the Remain or the Leave side, and that these voters have especially different outlooks and identities.  Moreover, this pattern might have emerged even though very few voters feel very strongly attached to any of the political parties, suggesting that Brexit has created a new set of political loyalties that could potentially disrupt the existing party system.

Polarisation appears to have occurred in both senses, and helps explain why relatively few voters have changed their minds about the principle of Brexit. For example, the difference between younger (aged less than 35) and older voters (aged 55 and over) in the level of support for leaving the EU increased from 17 points before the referendum in 2017, to 26 points in 2017, and now stands at 30 points. Similarly, whereas in 2015 there was a 21-point difference between those with a strong European identity and those with a weak one in their level of support for leaving the EU, by 2017 that difference had increased to 37 points and now still stands at 36 points. A similar picture emerges if we compare the attitudes of Remain and Leave voters towards the impact of immigration on Britain’s cultural life.

Meanwhile, the BSA survey confirms the finding that we reported last autumn using the NatCen panel that around two in five voters (40%) regard themselves as either a very strong ‘Remainer’ or as a ‘very strong’ Leaver. In contrast, fewer than one in ten (8%), describe themselves as a ‘very strong’ supporter of any of the political parties. Moreover, the views of ‘very strong’ Remainers and ‘very strong’ Leavers are often very distinctive. For example, ‘very strong’ Remainers are the only group among whom those with a strong European identity (63%) outnumber those with a weak identity (23%). They are also the only group where more people disagree (58%) than agree (22%) that being a member of the EU limits Britain’s ability to make its own laws. Meanwhile ‘very strong’ Leavers are the only voters among whom more than half think that leaving the EU will help make Britain’s economy better off (71%) and will ensure that Britain has more influence in the world (57%). Ardent Remainers and Leavers, including those willing to march for their respective causes (see here and here), may well be commonplace, but they are often out of tune with their fellow citizens, while crafting a deal that might satisfy them both would seem well nigh impossible.