Lessons from the ‘Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks’ Poll

Last night saw the publication of the biggest poll yet on attitudes towards Brexit to come from a non-partisan source. Survation interviewed just over 20,000 voters between 20 October and 2 November for a Channel 4 programme, Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks, made by Renegade Productions in which voters were asked their views on some of the key issues in the Brexit process and on where they now stood on the merits of Britain leaving the EU. The large sample size makes it possible to drill down further than usual into which sections of society hold which views and why – while the data have also been subjected to multi-level regression and post-stratification modelling in order to ascertain how people in each local authority might vote if there were to be another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Two headlines stand out. First, many voters are very unsure what to make of the negotiations that are taking place in Brussels. Second, as more or less every other recent poll has ascertained, the country now appears to be narrowly in favour of remaining in the EU rather than leaving, but the reasons for this switch do not simply lie in Leave voters being more likely to have switched to Remain than vice-versa.

To ascertain whether voters might back the deal that Theresa May is hoping to bring back from Brussels the poll asked, ‘From what you have seen or heard so far, if there was a vote tomorrow on the type of Brexit deal that the UK Government is aiming to achieve from the EU, how would you be likely to vote?’. Among those willing to offer a response, only 43% say that they would vote in favour of the deal, while 57% would vote against. So, on balance the country appears to be opposed to what it thinks will emerge from the talks.

However, these figures leave aside the 34% said they did not know how they would vote on the deal. At the same time, both Remain and Leave voters are quite evenly divided on the issue, albeit with Remain voters slightly more likely than Leave supporters to be opposed. (Just 25% of Remain voters would vote in favour, while 38% are against. In contrast, 30% of Leave voters would vote in favour and 33% against). This is seemingly an issue where many Remain and Leave voters do not find it possible to come to a judgement by simply relying on their prior predispositions. This, coupled with the high level of Don’t Knows, suggests that there is still plenty of room for attitudes to change once the details of the deal are known and politicians on both sides of the argument attempt to persuade voters as to whether the deal is a good one or not.

This becomes even clearer when the poll attempted to identify what might be voters’ red lines in deciding whether they would support or oppose any deal that may emerge from the negotiations. Voters were asked whether the UK should or should not agree to various provisions if to do so were the only way to secure a deal. They gave a decided thumbs down (by 67% to 16%) to accepting ‘limitations on the UK’s ability to make trade deals’ and a more muted one (by 45% to 31%) on the issue that is reportedly still proving difficult to resolve in the negotiations, that is, ‘new checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK’. Moreover, these are issues on which both Remain and Leave voters are of much the same mind.

So far then, it would seem that the UK government have read the public mood correctly. However, in what is perhaps the most surprising finding of the poll, no less than 62% said the UK should, if necessary, accept a provision that meant that ‘After Brexit, UK and EU citizens, who wished to do so could live and work in each other’s countries’, while only 21% were opposed. Even as many as 55% of Leave voters said the UK should be willing to sign up to such a provision. The wording was, of course, intended to refer to ‘freedom of movement’, yet another of the UK government’s red lines, and central to the debate about immigration during the referendum campaign.

The lesson seems to be that whether or not something is a red line for the public depends on how it is described. ‘Checks’ and ‘limitations’ are seemingly unpopular, especially when they appear to represent a curb on the UK’s sovereignty. In contrast, giving people individual choice apparently is not. If that is the case then much may depend when a deal is unveiled on how the various key issues come to be framed in the public mind, which in turn could hinge on the relative ability of the government and its opponents to sell their side of the argument to voters.

This, of course, still leaves the issue of whether the UK should be leaving the EU at all. Here the findings were broadly in line with those of other recent polling, with a headline figure of 54% Remain, 46% Leave. This, incidentally, is the figure that was reached after the data had been analysed by Chris Hanretty using multilevel regression and post-stratification to estimate how each local authority area would have voted, and the results for the 380 counting units aggregated back up to produce a Britain-wide figure. This analysis, which suggested that the swing away from Leave was greater in areas that had voted most heavily for Leave in 2016 and especially so in ones where Labour were relatively strong, added a point to the estimated swing to Leave as compared with the conventional weighting applied to the data by Survation.

However, relatively little of the net movement away from Leave was generated by direct switching from Leave to Remain. While 10% of those who voted Leave in 2016 said that they would now vote Remain, this movement was almost counterbalanced by the 7% of Remain voters who indicated that they would now vote Leave. The difference between these two figures generates an overall swing of 1% from Leave to Remain, too little on its own to overturn the result of the 2016 ballot.

By far the biggest single source of the swing – worth some 2% – came from the preferences expressed by those who did not vote in 2016 but who now state a voting intention. Roughly twice as many of this group (41%) say that they would vote Remain as state that they would back Leave (20%) – a finding that echoes many another poll. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the movement arises because those who voted Leave in 2016 are much more likely than Remain voters to state that they definitely would not vote again and because Leave voters are also a little more likely to say that they are undecided how they would vote a second time around. In short, the central message of the poll is that, if there were to be another referendum, much would depend on who did and who did not make it to the polls. A second referendum is still far from guaranteed to produce the pro-Remain majority for which most of those campaigning for such a vote are apparently hoping.

What perhaps is more important than the overall swing to Remain in the poll suggested by the poll is the evidence that it provides of further demographic and political division. No less than 57% of those in the poll who said that they did not vote were aged under 35. Thus, given what we have said so far about the current preferences of those who did not vote in 2016, it should come as little surprise that the poll suggests that the swing to Remain is highest among younger voters, and that the age difference in attitudes towards Brexit is even bigger now than it was two years ago. The poll puts the swing to Remain at between eight and nine points among those aged between 18 and 45, whereas there is no swing at all among those aged 65 to 74 and there is actually a slight (two -point) swing to Leave among those aged 75 and over.  No less than 64% of those in the oldest age group would now vote Leave, compared with just 23% of those aged 18 to 24.

But what is also clear is the extent to which Brexit has become a fault line between Labour and Conservative supporters. No less than 71% of those who say they would now vote Conservative in a general election also say that they would now vote Leave, while 73% of current Labour supporters would back Remain. Both figures are well up on those that pertained at the time of the EU referendum, when, on average, the polls suggest that 60% of those who voted Conservative in 2015 backed Leave, while 64% of those who voted Labour at that election voted for Remain. Part of the reason for this growing divergence is, of course, the fact that the Conservatives lost ground among Remain supporters in last year’s general election while they made advances among Leave voters, and that Labour was more successful at gaining ground among Remain voters than Leave supporters. But today’s poll also suggests that the divergence has been increased further by the fact that Labour Leave voters (75% of whom would vote Leave again) are less likely than Conservative Leave voters (91%) to say that they would vote Leave again, while Conservative Remain voters (78% would vote Remain again) are less loyal to Remain than Labour Remain voters (94%). It appears that the different messages emanating from the parties about the consequences of Brexit are having an impact on some of their supporters.

Not that Remain and Leave voters agree on what those consequences would be. No less than 76% of those who voted Remain reckon that Brexit will be bad for the economy, while 57% of those who backed Leave think it would be good. Meanwhile as many as two-thirds (66%) of Leave voters believe that Brexit will be good for immigration, while only 19% of Remain voters hold that view. These are, of course, familiar patterns. What, perhaps, is more interesting is that the poll seems to confirm our previous suggestion that it is attitudes towards the economic consequences of Brexit that are especially important when it comes to whether or not voters have changed their minds about Brexit. Just 48% of those 2016 Leave voters who now think that Brexit would be bad for the economy say that they would vote Leave again, while, similarly, only 58% of 2016 Remain voters who now believe that Brexit will be good for the economy would vote Remain again. None of the other perceived consequences asked about in the poll (which included the impact of Brexit on the NHS and on people’s household finances as well as immigration) were as strongly related  to voters’ propensity to change their minds.

Still, even if some voters have changed their minds about Brexit – and many are far from certain about how they might vote in a ballot about whatever deal that is brought back from Brussels – do they think there should be a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations? As previous polling has suggested, much depends on the kind of ballot that is proposed. Slightly more voters support (43%) than oppose (37%) a referendum in which the alternative was to Remain in the EU, as advocated by the People’s Vote campaign, but the lead is hardly decisive. Meanwhile voters are more or less evenly divided on the prospect of a ballot where the alternative to the deal would be to reopen the negotiations (39% support this idea while 37% oppose it), and on a vote where the choice would be between deal and no deal (38% support, 39% oppose). But as might be imagined, whereas a choice between accepting the deal and remaining in the EU is relatively popular among Remain voters, a ballot where voters were choosing between accepting the deal and leaving with no deal is slightly more popular with Leave voters. Just 15% of all voters oppose all three referendums, and just 16% support all three. Most (55%) support at least one but not all three. It appears that for most voters the question of whether another referendum should be held is not so much a question of constitutional principle but one of perceived political advantage. But perhaps that is only to be expected from an issue that continues to polarise the British electorate so strongly?

 

A Nation of Remainers and Leavers? How Brexit Has Forged a New Sense of Identity

It has now become commonplace to say that attitudes towards Brexit are polarised. One reason is that the country remains more or less evenly divided between the merits of Remain and Leave, as our recently launched EURef2 Poll of Polls shows. Another is that different kinds of voters typically have very different views. Most younger people and university graduates would prefer to stay in the EU, while most older people and those with few, if any, educational qualifications back leaving.

But perhaps there is also a third reason. This is that many voters are very strongly committed to their side of the argument. Indeed, so strong is this commitment that these voters now think of themselves as a ‘Remainer’ or ‘Leaver’, in much the same way that somebody might think of themselves as, say, a ‘Manchester United fan’ or a ‘Manchester City supporter’. Being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’ has become part of their self-identity, and a label to which they feel an emotional bond and which serves to underpin and reinforce their support for staying in or leaving the EU irrespective of the arguments and counter-arguments about what Brexit will or will not bring.

Such an idea is not new to the study of politics. The idea that somebody might say ‘I’m a Conservative’ or ‘I’m Labour’ has been recognised by academics ever since the advent of the scientific study of voting in the immediate post-war period – and doubtless it was part of everyday discourse long before that. However, ever since the 1970s one of the key findings of academic surveys of voting behaviour has been a gradual but persistent decline in the proportion who say that they identify with a party, and an especially marked drop in the proportion who say that they do so strongly.

So, it might be thought something of a surprise if an electorate that has become increasingly disengaged from our political parties should now demonstrate a strong emotional commitment to being a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’. On the other hand, it has often been remarked that the debate about Brexit in Britain is part of a wider resurgence of the ‘politics of identity’ as manifested in everything from the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties in a number of European countries to the (tonally very different) demands for independence in, for example, Scotland and Catalonia. Perhaps, then, many a voter does feel a strong emotional attachment to their side of the Brexit debate, thereby adding another dimension to the polarisation engendered by Brexit.

That, at least, is what Professor Sara Hobolt and her colleagues have argued on the basis of their work on voters’ attitudes towards Brexit as part of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme.  Today we publish an analysis paper that reports on our efforts to test and assess their claim, and in particular to compare how many people feel a strong Brexit identity with how many say nowadays that they identify strongly with a party. The paper is based on data collected during the summer as part of the most recent wave of questions on attitudes towards Brexit to be asked on NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel.

There is one clear headline. Our research strongly supports the claims of Professor Hobolt and her colleagues. Nearly nine in ten members of our panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, whereas less than two-thirds of them claim to identify with a political party. Meanwhile, no less than 44% say they are a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, whereas only 9% claim to be a very strong supporter of a political party.

Strong identifiers are to be found on both sides of the Brexit debate. They are, though, a little more prevalent on the Remain side. While 45% of Leavers say they are a very strong Leaver, no less than 53% of Remainers report a very strong identity. It is sometimes suggested that, given the importance of immigration and sovereignty to many voters on the Leave side, their views are rooted above all in emotion and identity. However, the large proportion of very strong identifiers on the Remain side suggests that in practice emotion and identity underpin the views of many a Remainer too.

These who identify strongly with one side or the other have some distinctive views. Very strong Remainers are more likely to oppose than support the idea that prospective EU migrants should have to apply to come to Britain in the same way as non-EU migrants do – no other group of voters takes that view. Meanwhile very strong Leavers are especially likely to be critical of how the EU has been handling the Brexit talks. The two groups are clearly looking at the Brexit process through very different and partisan lenses.

But nowhere is this more clearly the case than in respect of the perceived economic consequences of Brexit. Very strong Remainers are almost unanimous in believing that Brexit will make Britain’s economy worse off. In contrast, the vast majority of very strong Leavers believe that the economy will be better off. It is, then, little wonder that after more than two years of debate about what Brexit should and could mean, relatively few voters on either side have changed their minds about the relative merits of Remain or Leave. For even if the head is uncertain, the heart remains sure.

‘Perhaps It’ll All be OK in the End?’ The Contrast in Perceptions of the Short-Term and Long-Term Economic Consequences of Brexit

One of the persistent findings of the polling on attitudes towards Brexit – both before and since the referendum itself – has been that voters are more likely to think that Brexit will be bad for Britain’s economy than anticipate that it will be beneficial. However, there has also been some evidence that voters’ views on the economic consequences of Brexit depend on the time frame that they are invited to consider. Both YouGov and Ipsos MORI have reported evidence that on balance voters are rather more optimistic about the consequences of Brexit in the long-term than they are about what it might mean in the short-term.

But why might this be the case? Given that the country was more or less evenly divided between Remain and Leave supporters at the time of the referendum and continues to be so now, perhaps it is an indication that Leave voters in particular are of the view that, although there might be pain in the short-term, ultimately Brexit will prove economically beneficial. After all, those who advocate Brexit have long argued that it will present Britain with new opportunities that, if successfully grasped, will enable the country to prosper. If this suggestion proves to be correct, it would imply that polls and surveys that have only asked voters about the more immediate consequences of Brexit have missed a key part of the explanation as to why the Leave campaign was able to win the 2016 referendum.

There is, however, another possible explanation – that the pattern represents the triumph of hope over expectation. Perhaps Remain supporters who anticipate that Brexit will be damaging economically in the short-term reckon that, in the long-term at least, things might turn out OK after all. They reason that whatever losses occur in the short term may eventually be reversed. If this perspective is correct, the tendency in polling to focus on people’s perceptions of the short-term consequences of Brexit would seem justified, as it implies that is these perceptions that are more likely to be reflected in whether people back Remain or Leave.

The latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey provides a unique opportunity to assess whether and why voters take a different view of the short-term and long-term economic consequences of Brexit. Included on the survey is an extensive suite of questions on attitudes towards Brexit funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the results of which are released today in a report published by the Foundation. Included among those questions are a set that ask people what they think the consequences of Brexit will be in ten years’ time, one of which asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU Britain’s economy will be better off in ten years’ time, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’. At the same time, thanks to funding provided by the ESRC as part of its ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, respondents were also asked whether ‘as a result of leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will be better off, worse off, or won’t it make much difference?’, that is, without specifying a time frame. The results of this question were previously reported as part of the most recent annual British Social Attitudes report.

Comparison of the responses to the two questions reveals that they did obtain a rather different pattern of results (see Table 1). When respondents were not invited to consider a particular time horizon, they were nearly twenty points more likely to say they thought the economy would be worse off than to say it would be better off, a result that was not dissimilar to what was secured when the question was asked on the 2015 survey. In contrast, when people were asked what they thought the economic consequences of Brexit would be in ten years’ time, almost as many said that the economy will be better off as stated that it would be worse off. True, there may not be widespread optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit, but, in contrast to the position when voters are not invited to focus on the long term, voters are at least not decidedly pessimistic about the prospects.

But is it Leave supporters or those who back Remain who are more optimistic about the long-term consequences of Brexit than they are about its more immediate implications? Table 2 reveals that Leave voters are somewhat more optimistic about the long-term. As many as 63% say that the economy will be better off in ten years’ time, compared with 56% who say it will be better off if no time frame is specified. However, at the same time Remain supporters are markedly less pessimistic about what Brexit will mean economically in the long term than they are when no time frame is specified. Whereas as many as 69% say that the economy will be worse off in the absence of a time frame, the figure falls to just 55% when asked to consider the position in ten years’ time. This shift of outlook among Remain supporters is more marked than the one we have identified among Leave supporters.

So, both of the possible reasons as to why voters are less pessimistic about the economic consequences are in evidence. Perhaps some of those who back Leave despite seemingly not being convinced that Brexit will be economically advantageous are indeed doing so because they anticipate that it will be beneficial in the long-term. However, it also seems that there is a not inconsiderable body of Remain supporters who are doubtful about the economic consequences of Brexit but are willing to accept – or hope – that maybe in the end things will be OK after all. As a result, attitudes towards the long-term economic consequences of Brexit are no more strongly linked to current Brexit preference than are attitudes to the more immediate consequences. But we will, of course, have to wait a long time before we find out whether voters’ relative optimism about the long-term economic consequences of Brexit proves to be justified.

 

Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit Dilemma

Doubtless the question that delegates gathering at the SNP conference in Glasgow this weekend will have uppermost in their minds is whether Nicola Sturgeon will fire the starting gun for a second independence referendum. When in June of last year she announced that she was putting on hold the Scottish Parliament’s request to Westminster that it be granted the authority to hold another ballot, she indicated that she would provide an update this autumn. SNP activists might well, therefore, be hoping that during the next few days she will at least provide something of a clue about what she is now thinking.

But, in truth, there may be a more pressing referendum decision facing Ms Sturgeon in the coming weeks. This is what the SNP’s stance should be on holding a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Prime Minister may bring back from Brussels. There is clearly a possibility at least that Mrs May’s deal (assuming she secures one) will be voted down by the House of Commons when it holds its so-called ‘meaningful vote’ on the outcome of the EU negotiations. If that should happen, then all of the opposition parties will face pressure to indicate what they think should happen next  – with one option being to put the issue to the public. They might just even find themselves fighting a general election in which the future of the Brexit process is the central issue.

At first glance it might be thought rather surprising that Ms Sturgeon has so far opted to sit on the fence on the question of a second EU referendum. After all, most SNP supporters are opposed to Brexit; in a recent YouGov poll for the pro-EU referendum People’s Vote campaign, those 2017 SNP voters who said that they would vote Remain in a second EU ballot outnumbered those who stated they would back Leave by nearly four (79%) to one (21%). Equally nearly two-thirds (65%) said that they backed holding a ‘public vote on the outcome’ while only 20% were opposed. Indeed, SNP supporters were at least as keen on the idea as Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. It would seem that backing a second EU referendum should be an easy choice for Ms Sturgeon to make.

Yet in practice things are rather more complicated. First of all, there is the nationalist fear that dare not speak its name, namely that any second referendum on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might be regarded as a precedent for what should happen if Scotland were ever to vote in favour of the principle of independence. The idea that there would need to be a second referendum on the terms of Scotland’s departure from the UK has been one against which the party has long since set its face.

Meanwhile, backing a second referendum with a view to securing a Remain vote has rather more risks than immediately meets the eye. The coalition of supporters that gathered behind Yes to independence in 2014 is not as pro-European as those who backed the SNP in last year’s UK general election.  According to the YouGov/People’s Vote poll, only 69% of 2014 Yes voters back Remain in a second referendum, while 31% support Leave, figures that are not dissimilar to how Yes voters were recorded as having voted in the 2016 referendum.

Two points follow. First, backing a EU referendum runs the risk of exacerbating the division over Brexit that exists in the wider Yes movement – and with the polls still showing Yes to be behind, if Ms Sturgeon is ever to lead her country down the path of independence that is a prospect that she needs to avoid. Second, the fact that support for Remain is so high amongst those who voted SNP in 2017 is in part at least a reflection of the fact that, as we showed in the most recent British Social Attitudes report, the party lost ground particularly heavily among those who voted Leave the previous year. In short, there is already evidence that backing Remain can cost the nationalist movement the support of Leave voters.

At the same time, Ms Sturgeon faces a Brexit paradox. She and most of her party may be firmly committed to remaining part of the EU, but in truth she probably regards her shortest route to holding and winning a second independence referendum to be for the UK to leave the EU, only for the endeavour then to come to be regarded as something of a disaster by voters. Indeed, much excitement was created towards the end of the summer when a poll by Deltapoll for the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign reported that 47% said that they would vote for independence should the UK leave the EU, while only 43% stated that they would vote to stay part of the UK.  In truth, the results of such hypothetical questions should always be taken with a pinch of salt, while the swing from how the same group of respondents said that they would vote in an independence referendum held now was, at 3%, decidedly small. But still, Ms Sturgeon must be wondering how much effort she should put into rescuing the UK from what she at least doubtless regards as its Brexit folly.

This post is also published on the whatscotlandthinks.org website.

Has There Been Any Kind of Swing Between Remain and Leave?

Have our attitudes towards remaining in or leaving the EU changed at all? In publishing today a ‘EURef2 Poll of Polls’ and backdating it to the beginning of this year, we are now able to provide a simple summary of the evidence that the polls are providing on this question.

The first thing to note is just how extraordinarily stable the picture has been during the last nine months. We started the year with Remain on 52% and Leave on 48% – and our latest poll of polls also shows Remain on 52% and Leave on 48%.

Moreover, the picture has barely changed at all during the intervening months. Support for Remain did fall slightly in March when a couple of polls put Leave ahead. Momentarily the two sides were neck and neck in the poll of polls. However, by the end of April the figures had returned to where they had been at the beginning of the year. More recently, it appeared as though there might have been a bit of a swing in the opposite direction, with Remain edging up to 53% and Leave down to 47% in the wake of the publication of the Chequers Agreement. But that movement too has subsequently looked to be short-lived.

In short, neither side in the Brexit debate has secured any ‘momentum’ so far as the balance of public opinion is concerned – and any claims to the contrary made by protagonists on either side of the debate should be regarded with considerable scepticism. But, of course, what our ‘poll of polls’ does show is that the balance of opinion is now tilted slightly in the opposite direction from that which emerged from the ballot boxes in June 2016. Indeed, this has not only been the position throughout last year, but also in most polls ever since last year’s general election.

However, this does not necessarily mean that many a Leave voter has changed their mind. This becomes clear if we look underneath the bonnet of the headline figures and examine separately how those who voted Remain, those who backed Leave, and those who did not vote at all, now say they would vote in another referendum. This information is shown in the table below, which is based on the average of the most recent poll conducted by each of the five companies that have polled within the last month or so.

There is some evidence that those who voted Leave are a little less likely than those who voted Remain to say that they would vote the same way again. Such a pattern is found in some though not all polls – and indeed was also found in the most recent wave of NatCen’s panel survey. Thus, when we average the figures out across a number of polls, we find that 87% of Leave voters say that they would vote the same way again, a little below the 90% of Remain voters who say that they would do so.

What, however, is to be seen in every poll is a marked tendency for those who did not vote in 2016 to be more likely to say that they would vote Remain rather than Leave – though note that many do not indicate a preference at all. Some of these will be voters who were too young to vote two years ago, while others will be those who for whatever reason chose not to do so.

This suggests that in practice the outcome of any second referendum might well depend on the extent to which those who did not or could not vote first time around actually make it to the polls. Disproportionately younger voters as they are, past experience suggests that there is certainly no guarantee that they will do so in large numbers. Equally, identifying who will and (especially) who will not vote is one of the more challenging tasks that faces pollsters. At this juncture at least, and bearing in mind too that polls are not always perfect, the only safe conclusion that can probably be drawn is that that the outcome of any second ballot would most likely be close – just, of course, as the first one was.

Introduction to our ‘EURef2 Poll of Polls’

One of the most widely cited features of this site before the EU referendum was a ‘poll of polls’. This was simply an average of the level of support for Remain and Leave as recorded in the six most recently conducted polls of referendum vote intentions. Its purpose was to smooth out some of the ups and downs in support for one side or the other that can arise simply as a result of the chance variation to which all polls are subject. (Polls are, after all, attempting to estimate the distribution of attitudes across the population as a whole on the basis of the views expressed by maybe no more than a thousand people or so.) That chance variation means that the level of support for one side or the other recorded by an individual poll may well go up or down by two or three points, even though amongst the population as a whole the balance of opinion has not shifted at all. However, if we average the results of a number of polls the effects of this chance variation may well be reduced, and thus we might secure a more robust measure of the balance of opinion.

However, once the referendum in June 2016 was over there was no obvious use for a poll of polls on the site. No further referendum was in prospect. Few polls asked people how they would vote if presented once again with the choice between Remain and Leave. The focus instead was on the much more nuanced question of what kind of Brexit voters wanted and how well they thought the process was being handled, a focus that this site has shared during the last two years.

But now the position has changed somewhat. Polls of how people would vote in another referendum have become rather more frequent. Speculation about whether voters might be asked to revisit the issue has become more common, not least as a result of the high-profile campaigning in favour of a second referendum by the anti-Brexit People’s Vote campaign and Labour’s decision to leave open the possibility that it might support some kind of ballot , though the idea is strongly opposed by pro-Brexit organisations such as Change Britain. But even if a second referendum does not take place, it might be thought important to ask whether or not, as the Brexit process comes to a conclusion, there is still a majority in favour of leaving the EU. After all, the answer to that question might be thought central to any evaluation of the success or otherwise of the EU referendum as a way of deciding what Britain’s relationship with the EU should be.

As a result of these developments, we have now instigated a new poll of polls. This summarises the results of the most recent polls that have asked people how they would vote in another referendum in which the choice was between remaining in the EU and leaving. Some of these polls have asked people how they would vote in response to exactly the same question as appeared on the ballot paper in the 2016 EU referendum. Others have used a slightly different approach, while still asking respondents whether they would vote to remain or to leave. Our poll of polls is based on both types of question (including recent readings of YouGov’s long-running Eurotrack series). However in both cases we have excluded from our calculation those who say they do not know how they would vote or indeed declare that they would not do so. Thus, our total of Remain and Leave support will always add up to 100%.

As well as showing the current position in the poll of polls, we have also calculated what our poll of polls would have been saying if we had been publishing it on a regular basis since the beginning of this year (before which polls of EURef2 vote intentions were largely very infrequent). This gives us a picture of whether support for Brexit has been going up or down during recent months.

Of course, our poll of polls figures should not be taken uncritically. Even when we average across as many as six polls, our estimate will still be subject to some random fluctuation. So not too much should be made of a one-point shift up or down in our estimate, or at least not until that new estimate is confirmed after several more polls have been released.

At the same time, polls are not necessarily conducted perfectly. A poll of polls cannot insulate us against the risk of collective failure by the polling industry, as has happened at more than one recent general election. Meanwhile, less dramatically but no less importantly, the polling companies may systematically disagree with each other about the level of support enjoyed by Leave and Remain. In that event, changes in which companies’ polls contribute to the poll of polls may induce a degree of artificial instability. We thus give details of which companies conducted the polls that contribute to our latest poll of polls, while, where necessary, we will warn in our Commentary section if there is a risk that a change in whose polls are included may have induced a change in the estimates.

Finally, bear in mind that while any set of six polls may have all been conducted at much the same time, equally it is possible that quite a few weeks may have elapsed between when the first and the last were conducted. Even though polls of EURef2 vote intentions have become more frequent, at present it is still the case that it can take a month for half a dozen new readings to appear. You will thus see that we also always provide details of the dates between which the interviewing (fieldwork) for the polls included in the latest poll of polls took place.

What Might Lead Voters To Change Their Minds About Brexit?

The Brexit negotiations are coming to a crunch. By the end of the year (if not sooner), the UK and the EU need to agree the legal text of the treaty that will give effect to the UK’s withdrawal, together with the outline of an agreement as to what the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU should be. When the negotiations are concluded, voters will decide whether they think the deal (if any) is good or bad and thus, perhaps whether  they think Brexit should still be pursued or not – and how they react may well influence the view taken by MPs, whose consent to the outcome of the talks will be required and seemingly cannot be taken for granted.

But what considerations and arguments are likely to shape the judgement that voters will make? In particular, what aspects of the deal are likely to influence whether voters decide, in light of the outcome of the talks, that leaving the EU is, after all, a good idea or not? Today we publish a new analysis paper that addresses this question. Based on the latest in a series of surveys on attitudes towards Brexit that we have conducted during the course of the last two years, it identifies what considerations have so far persuaded some voters to change their minds about Brexit – and what seems to persuade those who did not vote two years ago of the relative merits of leaving or remaining in the EU.

Although it is often argued that voters are viewing Brexit through a partisan lens that means the same event or development is interpreted very differently by Remain and Leave voters, our survey shows that, in some respects at least, voters have changed their minds quite considerably about various aspects of the Brexit process over the course of the last two years. Voters seem, for example, to have become somewhat less concerned about controlling EU migration, less convinced that British companies will be able to trade freely in the EU after Brexit, and much less inclined to believe that the UK will secure a good deal from the negotiations. Moreover, while they might, perhaps, have reached these conclusions for different reasons, these patterns are just as much in evidence among Leave voters as their Remain-supporting counterparts.

However, it seems that none of these attitudes and evaluations are having much impact on voters’ continued willingness to back Leave or Remain, or on the preference for staying or leaving now expressed by those who did not vote two years ago. Rather, what matters above all in both cases is what voters think the economic consequences of Brexit will be.

Over 90% of those voters who voted Remain in June 2016 and who think that Britain’s economy will get worse as a result of Brexit say that they would vote the same way again in a second referendum. Equally, over 90% of those who backed Leave two years ago and who think the economy will be better off in the wake of Brexit state that they would vote Leave again. In short, hardly anyone who endorses ‘their’ side’s economic argument has changed their mind.

However, these figures fall off quite markedly among those who take a different view of the economics of Brexit. Only around three-quarters of those Remain voters who think that leaving the EU will not make much difference to the economy say they would vote Remain again, while the equivalent figure among Leave voters is much the same. Meanwhile, less than half of those Remain voters who are now of the view that Britain’s economy will be better off as a result of Brexit would vote the same way, while the same is true of Leave supporters who believe the economy will be worse off.

Compare this picture, for example, with the one that we obtain if we look at the link between voters’ willingness to vote the same way again and their perceptions of how good or bad a deal Britain will obtain from the Brexit process. Again, at least 90% of Remain voters who think Britain will secure a bad deal and 90% of Leave voters who reckon the country will obtain a good one say that they would vote the same way again. But even among Remain voters who think Britain might win a good deal, around two-thirds would still vote Remain again, while no less than three-quarters of those who voted Leave and think there deal will be a bad one would still vote the same way – not least because in many cases they are inclined to blame the EU for this prospect. In short, voters’ perceptions of the kind of deal Britain will get are much less sharply linked to the probability that they would vote the same way again than are their evaluations of the economic consequences of Brexit.

Much the same is true of those who did not vote in the 2016 referendum (some of whom, of course, were too young to vote in 2016). Around seven in ten of those abstainers who think the economy will be worse off as a result of Brexit say they would now vote Remain, while seven in ten who think the economy will be better off state that they would vote Leave. In contrast, while around two-thirds of those abstainers who think Britain will secure a bad deal say they would vote Remain, well under half of those who think the country will obtain a good deal indicate that they would vote Remain.

The relative importance of the perceived economic consequences of leaving the EU in shaping voters’ attitudes towards the merits or otherwise of Brexit is potentially a disadvantage for the Leave side in the battle for public opinion. While four in five Remain voters think that the economy would be worse off as a result of Brexit, only around half of Leave voters reckon it will be better off – a proportion that has also fallen somewhat over the last two years. Equally, over a half of those who abstained in 2016 believe that the economy will be worse off while only around one in five feel it will be better off. Between them these two patterns help explain why, according to our survey, Leave voters appear somewhat less likely than Remain voters to say that they would vote the same way again, and why those who did not vote in 2016 are now more likely to say that they would vote Remain rather than Leave.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the debate about the economic consequences of Brexit has apparently been playing a central role in shaping the turnover of support for Remain and Leave since the June 2016 referendum, such as it is. After all, how people voted in that referendum reflected their view of the economic consequences of leaving the EU more than it did any other single consideration – and not least of the reasons why Remain lost that referendum is that, at the time of the referendum, only around two-fifths of voters thought Britain’s economy would lose out as a result of leaving the EU. Meanwhile, while the credit or blame for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations can be laid at the door of the UK government and/or the EU, responsibility for what Brexit might mean for the economy is, perhaps, less easily attributed to how well one or other side has conducted itself in the negotiations. Instead the perceived economic consequences of Brexit reflect rather more directly on the merits of staying in or leaving the EU in the first place. Consequently, in the midst of the doubtless sometimes fierce arguments in the coming weeks about what should and should not form part of the Brexit agreement and how well or badly the government (and the EU) are handling the negotiations, we should bear in mind that it is what voters make of the economics of whatever deal is reached that is most likely to determine whether, at the conclusion of the negotiations, a majority of them still want to leave the EU or whether the balance of opinion has swung in the opposite direction.

A Question of Wording? Another Look at Polling on a Second Referendum

The question of whether or not there should be a second referendum has been one of the hottest topics in the Brexit debate during the summer. In part, the debate has been stimulated by the relatively adverse reaction with which the Chequers Agreement was greeted, a reaction that led some, such as the former Conservative minister, Justine Greening, to advocate the idea of a three-way ballot between no deal, Chequers and remaining. That adverse reaction certainly helped fuel speculation more generally about the difficulties seemingly facing the government, first, in reaching an agreement with the EU and, second, in securing parliamentary approval for the outcome of the negotiations – and the possibility that another referendum might play a role in resolving any resulting impasse. At the same time, the discussion has been stimulated by the efforts of the high profile pro-second referendum Best for Britain and People’s Vote campaigns, who have managed to secure considerable publicity during the relative quietude of the parliamentary recess, and who are attempting to persuade the Labour Party in particular to support a second ballot.

As part of their campaigning, those two organisations have been keen to give the impression that not only is there majority support for a second referendum, but also that this support has been growing. There has certainly been plenty of polling on the subject in recent months, including not least polling commissioned by these campaigning organisations themselves. But how much support is there now for a second referendum, and is there any sign that it has grown, not least perhaps in the wake of the Chequers Agreement?

In our analysis of previous polling on attitudes towards holding a second referendum, we have noted two key features. First, the wording of the question matters; voters are less likely to endorse the idea if asked whether there should be another ‘referendum’ than if they are asked whether the ‘public’ should be able to vote. Second, the form of the referendum matters; Leave voters are, unsurprisingly, rather warmer to the idea of a referendum in which the choice is between whatever deal the government has negotiated and no deal than they are towards one where the choice is between a deal and remaining in the EU.

Meanwhile, one striking feature of the most recent recent polling on the issue is that many very differently worded questions have been asked. Leaving aside questions about a multi-option ballot (on which see here and here), all in all, no less than eleven differently worded questions about a second referendum have been included on published polls since the beginning of April. And as we might anticipate these have elicited rather different patterns of response, from which proponents and opponents of the idea have been able to cherry pick as they see fit. Meanwhile, many of the questions have only been included on one poll, which means that ascertaining whether or not attitudes have changed over time is, despite the plethora of polling on the subject, rather more difficult than might have been hoped.

The table at the bottom of this blog details the variety of polling that has taken place. It shows, first, the exact wording of each question that has been asked, the most recent level of support and opposition recorded in response to that question among voters as a whole, and, then, the level of support and opposition separately for those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave. The questions are listed in order of the extent to which voters as a whole expressed support for rather than opposition to the idea. Meanwhile on the right-hand side of the table we identify some of the key features of the wording of each question, and provide brief details of the polling company and the dates of the fieldwork.

One point immediately stands out. Most of these questions have found more people in favour of a second referendum than opposed. But the balance of opinion has varied considerably. In those polls listed at the top of the table twice as many people expressed support for a second referendum as said they were against. In those at the bottom of the table, opponents outnumbered proponents by ten points. In between are a number of polls that exhibit a modest excess of supporters over opponents, while in most instances, although more numerous than opponents, the proportion actually expressing support is rather less than half. (Invariably, many respondents to these polls choose the mid-point ‘neither’ option, if available, or else say that they don’t know.)

We can, however, make sense of much of the variation by reminding ourselves of the two key lessons of previous polling on this subject. First, only three of the questions refer to holding another referendum as opposed to some kind of vote of the ‘public’. These three polls account for three of the four entries at the bottom of our table. Second, only four polls specify what the options would be on the ballot paper, in each case indicating that the choice would be between Leave and Remain. Two of these polls appear at the bottom of our table, while the other two have among the lowest levels of support among those polls that refer to a vote by the ‘public’.

In short, polls that ask people whether the ‘public’ should have a vote usually record a higher level of support than those that just ask whether there should be another referendum. Equally, polls that do not specify what the alternative would be to endorsing whatever deal is reached tend to secure higher levels of support than those that indicate that the choice would be between leaving (on whatever terms have been agreed) and remaining.

But why do these patterns arise? We secure a valuable clue if we look separately at the responses of those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who supported Leave. This reveals a striking contrast. The balance of response among Remain voters is much the same irrespective of the question asked, while there is little or no discernible pattern to the variation that does exists (though perhaps we might not be surprised that support for another referendum is particularly high among Remain supporters when respondents are asked what should happen in the event that there is no deal at all). It looks as though we can say with a considerable degree of confidence that around two-thirds of Remain voters are in favour of another ballot while only around one in six are opposed. Most likely, many of the two-thirds of Remain supporters that respond positively to polling questions on the subject simply assume that remaining would be one of the options on the ballot, irrespective of the precise wording that is used.

The picture among Leave voters, however, is very different. They are more likely to back another ballot when it is presented as a vote by the ‘public’ than as a ‘referendum’ and less likely to support the idea if it is made clear that the choice would be between remaining and leaving. The latter point is, perhaps, not surprising. After all, most Leave voters do not think that the original majority vote to Leave should now be questioned or overturned. The former pattern, most likely, reflects the populist outlook of some Leave supporters that means that they warm to the idea of power being placed in the hands of the people rather than an elite. Given this outlook, it is perhaps not surprising that the one and only question where more Leave voters expressed support than opposition was one where respondents were asked whether, in the event of there being no deal, the decision about what to do should be made by MPs or the public. After all, as other recent polling for The People’s Vote has shown, few Leave voters trust MPs to make the right decisions about Brexit.

So, whether or not there is majority support (or more accurately, a plurality of support) for a second referendum is less clear than might be imagined from an initial, quick glance at the headline polling results. Certainly, if we are to use polling to evaluate the level of support for the kind of referendum being promoted by The People’s Vote, that is, one in which the alternative to accepting whatever deal had been agreed would be to remain in the EU, it would seem essential to refer only to those polls that make clear that the choice in another ballot would be between Leave and Remain. Meanwhile, it is at least debatable as to whether it is wise to use wording that might be thought to be playing into the populist sentiment that exists among some Leave voters. Maybe if the issue does become more pressing in the autumn, opponents of Brexit would prove able to invoke such sentiment in support of another ballot. But equally, perhaps, that support might evaporate if it became clear to Leave voters that a second ballot would revisit the issue of whether Britain should leave the EU in the first place.

Nevertheless, that still leaves the question of whether support for holding a second referendum has increased, and perhaps especially so in the wake of the Chequers Agreement. Until recently, two companies, Opinium and YouGov, had been asking the same question about the issue on a reasonably regular basis. Both their questions referred to a second ballot as a ‘referendum’, and in one instance, Opinium, also made it clear that the choice would be between remaining in the EU or leaving. Both have thus hitherto found more people were opposed to a second referendum than were in favour, though both also suggested that the level of opposition had fallen to some extent at least during the previous year or so.  However, unfortunately, Opinium have not asked their question since the beginning of June, which means that we have to rely heavily on a single source, YouGov, in coming to a judgement as to whether there has been a further significant shift more recently.

YouGov’s data certainly suggest that there has been at least a discernible, if modest shift. In three readings of its regular question that the company took between April and June, it found on average that while 38% were favour of the idea of another referendum, 45% were against. But in three readings taken since the Chequers Agreement, 40% have said they are in favour, almost matching the 41% who are against. Indeed, in its most recent poll that included their usual question, conducted at the end of July, YouGov found for the first time slightly more (42%) saying they were in favour than stating that they were against (40%).

But is this apparent trend corroborated by any other evidence? There is some. Just before the Chequers Agreement was reached, BMG found 44% in favour and only 27% against ‘a referendum being held asking the public whether they accept or reject the terms of the deal’. When they asked the same question again at the beginning of August, 48% said they were in favour and only 24% opposed. On the other hand, the trend has not been replicated when Opinium have asked a different question from the one they had previously been asking. This question asked respondents whether they ‘support or oppose the public having a vote on the final deal that the Government agrees with the EU’. When they asked this on two occasions in April and May Opinium found no less than 53% were in favour and only 31% opposed. But when they asked the question again in July, after the Chequers Agreement, support stood at 50% and opposition at 35%.

So, while there is some evidence that Chequers may have persuaded a few more voters of the merits of holding another ballot, we probably need more instances of the same question showing an increase in support since before the beginning of July before we can be sure that this is indeed what has happened. But in the meantime, we certainly need to remember that this is a topic on which, above all, question wording matters, and where, so far, the wording has perhaps not always conveyed clearly to respondents exactly what kind of referendum is being suggested – or advocated.

 

Is There A New Geography of Brexit?

Much excitement has been created this week by an analysis of YouGov polling data released by the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign and first reported by The Observer. Using a statistical technique (multi-level regression and post-stratification) that, inter alia, helped YouGov anticipate that the Conservatives would lose their overall majority in last year’s general election, the analysis identified 112 constituencies where it had previously been estimated by Prof. Chris Hanretty that a majority of voters had voted to Leave in 2016 but where a majority were now estimated to be in favour of Remain. Described by Best for Britain as ‘a monumental shift in public opinion’, the impression, at least, was given that the analysis was evidence of a significant new swing of public opinion in favour of Remain.

The reality, however, was much more prosaic. The polling data on which the analysis was based is primarily, though not exclusively, a large 10,000 sample poll conducted earlier this month by YouGov for another anti-Brexit campaign, The People’s Vote, which is campaigning for a referendum on whatever Brexit deal eventually emerges. The data were reported as showing that support for Remain across the country as a whole now stands at 53%, while support for Leave was estimated to be 47% (which, indeed, were the figures that had been previously been published for the People’s Vote poll in particular). That, of course, represents a five-point swing from Leave to Remain as compared with the result of the 2016 referendum, when Leave won 52% and Remain 48%. But it is more or less in line with other polling conducted during the last three months which, on average has put Remain on 52%, Leave 48%. So there is no evidence in these numbers of a significant new swing to Remain. Rather it simply represents confirmation of other recent polling that Remain appear to be slightly ahead.

However, that still leaves the estimate of 112 constituencies where in 2016 there was a Leave majority but where Remain are now thought to be ahead. That sounds like a lot of constituencies. Indeed, it is sufficient to ensure that, in contrast to the position in 2016, over half (341) of the 632 constituencies in Britain are now thought to contain a majority of Remain supporters. However, the figure is but a reflection of the relatively even spread of the Leave vote across much of provincial England together with Wales in the 2016 referendum. There were no less than 115 constituencies in 2016 where Prof. Hanretty estimated that Leave won between 50% and 55% of the vote. If the 5% swing since 2016 implied by YouGov’s polling had occurred in each and every constituency, that would be sufficient to turn all of these 115 seats from being majority Leave seats to majority Remain constituencies – albeit only narrowly. In other words, it would be surprising if any analysis of polling based on a 53% Remain vote across the country as a whole did anything other than identify over 100 constituencies where the majority outcome would now be different.

True, the analysis that underlay Best for Britain’s headline figure did much more than simply assume the whole country had swung to the same extent. The statistical technique that was employed uses polling data to identify the probability that voters with particular characteristics will vote Remain or Leave, examines government statistics and other sources to calculate the proportion of people with those characteristics in each constituency, and then combines the two to estimate the likely outcome of a ballot in each seat. Consequently, if particular kinds of voters (perhaps in particular kinds of places) have swung from Leave to Remain, then the analysis should find a bigger swing to Remain in places with more such voters – and conversely a lower swing elsewhere. But the fact that the analysis emerged with more or less the same number of seats swinging from Leave to Remain as would be anticipated from a uniform movement across the country as a whole means that the estimated variation in the swing had little or no net impact on the total number of seats whose status is thought to have changed.

A Shift Within Labour’s Ranks?

However, that does not mean that the variation which is said to have been identified is not of interest. One of the aims of those currently campaigning against Brexit appears to be to try to persuade the Labour party in particular to change its stance, and at least come out in favour of a second referendum if not indeed to oppose Brexit entirely. Thus, it was notable that the Best for Britain analysis is reported as showing that the swing from Leave to Remain ‘has been driven by doubts among Labour voters who backed Leave’ and that, consequently, it is greatest in Labour heartlands in the North of England and Wales.  Doubtless anti-Brexit campaigners are hoping that this finding will help persuade Labour MPs representing constituencies where a majority voted Leave in 2016 that a change in the party’s stance would not be so harmful electorally as some of them at least seem to fear, albeit that we have previously shown that, even outside London, a majority of Labour voters in Labour seats voted for Remain.  This finding was certainly quoted eagerly this week by the former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

But what evidence is there in the polls that Labour voters who backed Leave are now particularly likely to be having second thoughts? A look at the data from the large poll conducted for the People’s Vote campaign certainly suggests that Labour’s vote now looks to be even more pro-Remain than it was at the time of the 2017 election (when the party was more successful at winning over Remain than Leave voters). The poll suggests that no less than 77% of those who now say that they would vote Labour would now also vote Remain. In contrast, at the time of the 2017 election YouGov estimated that 68% of those who voted Labour then had voted Remain in 2016. (Meanwhile, at 74%, the proportion of Conservative voters that favour Leave still looks to be much the same as it was in June of last year.)

There is, though, more than one possible reason why the balance of opinion might have tilted yet further in favour of Remain amongst Labour supporters. One is that Labour have been more successful in retaining and/or winning over the support of those who back Remain than it has those who supported Leave.  Of this there is some sign. While, as already noted, 77% of those who currently support Labour are also currently Remain supporters, the equivalent figure (in the same YouGov/People’s Vote poll) for those who voted Labour a year ago is, at 75%, slightly lower. However, while this difference might mean that Labour have gained more Remain than Leave supporters in the last 12 months, it could also mean that the party has lost more ground among those who back Leave than those who favour Remain. This is something that ICM in particular have been tracking. And on average in their last four polls, only 77% of 2017 Labour voters who backed Leave in 2016 now say they would vote Labour again, compared with 84% of those who supported Remain.

Still, this is evidently not a sufficient explanation for the higher level of support for Remain amongst Labour voters identified by YouGov. What evidence is there, then, that Labour voters have shifted from Leave to Remain? The fact that 75% of YouGov’s 2017 Labour voters now say that they back Remain, whereas in 2016 only 68% of them did so, certainly implies (though does not prove) that this indeed may have happened. But if this were a sign of a recent conversion from Leave to Remain amongst Labour voters we would expect to find that those who voted Labour in 2017 are keener on Remain now than they were at the time of last year’s election. However, according to data collected by Survation at least, that is not what has happened. In three polls that that company conducted immediately after the 2017 election they found on average that at that time, 72% of those who voted Labour backed Remain. But in three polls that Survation conducted in June and July this year, the company found that, at 69%, the proportion of 2017 Labour voters that now support Remain is fact not higher, but slightly lower.

So how do we make sense of this seemingly contradictory evidence? Well, there is another group of citizens who are, perhaps, all too easily forgotten in the current febrile political atmosphere – those who did not vote in the EU referendum and, indeed, those who did not vote in the 2017 general election. This group’s attitude to Brexit and their party choice is decidedly distinctive.

It has been evident for some time that those who did not vote in 2016 are more likely to say that they would now vote Remain rather than Leave. That this is still the case has been confirmed by recent polling by Deltapoll; in two polls the company conducted between May and July, 44% of those who did not vote in 2016 said that they would now back Remain, while only 16% indicated support for Leave. Much of the overall narrow lead that Remain currently enjoys in the polls is a product of this imbalance amongst non-voters.

But Deltapoll’s analyses add a new piece to the jigsaw. They indicate that those who did not vote in 2016 are not only more likely to back Remain, but also are much more likely to support Labour.  The company’s recent polls suggest that around three-fifths back Labour, while no more than one in five, and maybe even fewer, would vote Conservative. Indeed, these polls also have Labour well ahead amongst those who did not vote in the 2017 election, suggesting that some of these new supporters have come to support Labour within the last twelve months.

Part of the explanation for this pattern, of course, will be that some of these new voters will have turned 18 within the last two years, and given that young voters were much more likely to vote Remain in 2016 and Labour in 2017, we might well expect this cohort of new voters to help swell the ranks of Remain supporters within Labour’s ranks. In any event, Deltapoll’s evidence is a reminder that the battle for public opinion over Brexit is not simply a battle between the existing serried ranks of Remain and Leave supporters. It is also a contest for the eyes and ears of those who did not vote two years ago. And in Labour’s case in particular it looks as though as it could be a contest that matters as it considers the electoral politics of Brexit.

A shorter version of this blog appears on The Conversation website.

Why Chequers Has Gone Wrong for Theresa May

No less eight than eight polls wholly or partly about Brexit have been conducted since the Cabinet gathered at Chequers last Friday week (6 July). Both the statement about Brexit that was issued at the end of that meeting and the white paper published the subsequent Thursday have received a critical response in some quarters, including not least amongst many who campaigned to Leave.  But how have the public have reacted?

Here are four key points that now seem clear.

  1. The Chequers agreement is relatively unpopular among Leave voters.

Some of the headline numbers on attitudes towards Chequers are, at first glance, not that bad for the government. In a poll conducted immediately after the Chequers meeting, Survation actually found that more people approved (33%) than disapproved of the agreement (23%), while Opinium found that as many approved (32%) as disapproved (32%).

But these numbers flatter to deceive. The polls have consistently reported that the deal is less popular among Leave voters than Remain supporters. Only 30% of Leave voters told Survation that they approved, compared with 39% of their Remain counterparts. In Opinium’s poll the deal had a net approval rating of +17 among Remain voters but one of -18 among those who backed Leave. At the same time, YouGov found that while 42% of Remain voters would be unhappy if the agreement went ahead, as many as 54% of Leave supporters were of that view.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the government is that many Leave voters do not think the agreement reflects what they believe the country voted for in the EU referendum. YouGov found that as many as 58% of Leave voters hold that view (compared with only 27% of Remain supporters). Similarly, Survation reported that 49% of Leave voters do not believe that the agreement is ‘faithful’ to the referendum result (compared with 30% of Remain voters).  Meanwhile Deltapoll ascertained that as many as 37% of Leave voters thought the agreement represented a ‘betrayal’ of the referendum result (with another 29% regarding it as an ‘ill- thought out compromise’).

  1. The Chequers agreement has undermined confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit – and especially so among leave voters

All three companies that have been tracking evaluations of the government’s handling of Brexit on a regular basis have reported a sharp decline in voter evaluations of the government’s handling of Brexit since the Chequers agreement was released. ORB report that 71% now disapprove of the way the government is handling the negotiations, up from 64% just a month ago. Similarly, Opinium now find that 56% disapprove of the way that Theresa May has handled Brexit, compared with 45% a month ago. Meanwhile YouGov have stated that 75% now think that the government is doing badly at negotiating Brexit, whereas just the previous week the figure had been 64%.

Most of this drop in confidence has occurred among those who voted Leave.  According to Opinium, net approval of the Prime Minister’s performance among Remain voters has more or less held steady; it was -28 last month and now stands at -30. But among Leave voters net approval dropped from +1 last month to -31. Similarly, according to YouGov the government’s net ‘doing well/badly’ score among Remain supporters stood at -63 at the beginning of July and has now fallen a little further to -72. Among Leave voters, however, the equivalent drop is from -27 to -60. Figures from both Kantar and Survation confirm that Leave voters, who have hitherto been less critical of the government’s handling of Brexit, are now more or less as critical as Remain supporters.

  1. Chequers has undermined the association in voters’ minds between the Conservatives and a hard Brexit.

Although many voters have been struggling to answer pollsters’ questions about where the parties stand on Brexit, among those who did feel able to give an answer, there was until now a tendency to associate the Conservative party with a hard Brexit. In both May and June Opinium found that around twice as many voters felt that the Conservatives’ priority was ending free movement rather than staying the single market. Now, however, almost as many voters think that the party’s priority is to stay in the single market (27%) as it is to end free movement (29%).  This turnaround is particularly marked among Leave voters – and given their predominance in Conservative ranks, also among those who voted Conservative in 2017. A plurality of both groups now think that the Conservatives’ priority is to stay in the single market – by 32% to 25% among Leave voters and 35% to 27% among 2017 Conservatives.

Meanwhile, YouGov now find that as many as 69% of voters think that the Conservative party’s stance on Brexit is ‘unclear or confusing’, up from 58% a month ago. The increase has been particularly marked (18 points) among Leave supporters.

  1. Voters have not changed their minds about the merits of Remain vs. Leave or a hard versus a soft Brexit.

There is no consistent evidence that the Chequers agreement has either persuaded Remain voters that perhaps Brexit will not be so bad after all or that it has dissuaded Leave voters of the merits of leaving. True, Deltapoll now have Remain and Leave in a dead heat when last month Remain were six points ahead. But Survation reported a four-point lead for Remain, similar to the six-point lead that the company identified last month. Meanwhile, at 46%, the proportion of voters who told YouGov in both its post-Chequers polls that in hindsight the Brexit vote was wrong, is exactly the same as it was in the two YouGov polls conducted immediately before Chequers.

Meanwhile, although ORB reported a five-point increase in the proportion who disagree that having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU, Opinium found that, at four points, the difference between the proportion who think the government’s priority should be staying in the single market (39%) and the proportion who think it should be ending free movement (35%) is exactly the same as it was last month. Equally, Opinium found that voters continue to be evenly divided on the issue of whether Britain should be attempting to stay in or leave the customs union.

Implications

For the most part it seems that voters have been evaluating Chequers by asking how well it matches up to their existing preferences, rather than asking themselves whether it gives them reason to revaluate those preferences. And the problem for the government is that many Leave voters appear to have decided that the agreement fails to meet their expectations. As a result, it is in effect is being disowned by some of the very voters whose electoral instructions the government is meant to be implementing. Moreover, those voters do not just think that the Prime Minister has been incompetent in developing her Brexit stance but rather they are also having doubts about whether the government is in favour of the kind of Brexit they want in the first place. Meanwhile, Mrs May is getting little or no credit from Remain voters for developing a stance that might be thought to be rather softer than they might once have anticipated.

Meanwhile, we have to bear in mind, as last week’s British Social Attitudes report confirmed, that the 2017 electorate left the Conservatives with a predominantly pro-Leave (and thus pro-hard Brexit) electorate. Maybe as many as 70% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 had been Leave supporters the year before. Leave voters are then, above all, a group that the Conservatives need to keep on board during the Brexit process. There are already signs that Chequers has caused some of them to reevaluate their support for the Conservatives. Support for the party is down by four points in the latest polls as compared with the same polls before Chequers, enough for the Conservatives to fall behind Labour in the popularity stakes. Meanwhile, UKIP, hitherto seemingly dormant, has seen its support double from 3% to 6%. It is not just in parliament that the Prime Minister is under pressure from her Brexiteers.