Podcast: Public perceptions of Boris Johnson’s handling of Brexit

Sir John Curtice, Ian Montagu, and Alex Scholes discuss voters’ assessment of Boris Johnson’s performance on Brexit during his first year as Prime Minister. They also take a look at what we know about public opinion on a no-deal Brexit, and highlight how the Remain-Leave divide continues to impact party politics.

 

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Ready to Move On or Still Divided? Where Voters Stand Now on Brexit

The talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU are reportedly coming to a crunch. Publically, at least, both the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, are pessimistic about the prospects of a deal being reached in time for it to be put in place before the transition period terminates at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the UK government is said to be willing to contemplate the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome.

In adopting this stance, the government presumably anticipates that such an outcome would not make it unpopular with voters. In practice, whether or not it would probably depends on what the consequences proved to be. However, to date the polls have been silent on how voters currently view such a prospect, even assuming – given the continued dominance of COVID19 in the news agenda and in voters’ everyday lives – they have contemplated the possibility at all.

However, what we can examine is the (relatively limited) evidence in the polls on how voters react now when they are asked about the principle of Brexit. If those who voted Remain have come to accept the ‘reality’ of Brexit, then perhaps voters are ready to move on from the Brexit debate irrespective of what happens at the end of the year. On the other hand, if the country still appears divided on Brexit the government might find itself facing a more critical reaction than it could currently be anticipating.

We last examined this issue in April. At that point, we suggested that there was some evidence that some Remain voters had come to accept Brexit, and that this was most clearly the case when voters were asked how they would vote in a referendum on whether the UK should rejoin or stay out of the European Union as opposed to one on whether it should ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. But where do things stand some four months on?

One piece of recent polling has confirmed that a majority of voters might now vote to stay out of the EU. Until July Kantar were still asking people whether they would vote Remain or Leave in another referendum. Once (a substantial body of) Don’t Knows were put to one side their last two readings of this kind, in May and June, produced figures of Remain 55%, Leave 45%, and Remain 56%, Leave 44% respectively. In contrast when Kantar administered their new question in July just 46% said they would vote to rejoin, while 54% backed staying out. Only 70% of those who voted Remain in 2016 backed rejoining, whereas in the two earlier polls as many as 84% had said they would vote Remain again. We certainly need to be aware that when the Brexit process has come to its final conclusion there may well be a body of voters who would still prefer Britain to be part of the EU but who are not necessarily keen to embark on an immediate reversal of the process.

Moreover, the 55% and 56% estimated levels of support for Remain in Kantar’s polls in May and June were not typical. On average the half-dozen polls of how people would vote in another Remain vs. Leave referendum (see here and here) have put Remain on 52%, Leave on 48%. However, that is only a slightly narrower lead than the one of 53% to 47% that was to be found in the last half-dozen polls conducted immediately prior to Brexit Day at the end of January. In short, polling of how people would vote now in response to the question that appeared on the ballot paper four years ago does not suggest that there has been a dramatic shift of attitude – in either direction.

However, the most intensive polling of attitudes towards the principle of Brexit in recent weeks has been provided by YouGov. Ever since the EU referendum that company’s principal means of tracking attitudes towards the principle of Brexit has not been to ask people how they would vote in another referendum but rather to ask, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. That formulation has now come into its own. Unlike continuing to ask voters whether they would vote Remain or Leave, the question can still be asked without raising questions as to whether its meaning is still clear to voters or whether it is simply the ‘wrong’ question to ask now that Britain has already left.

The table below summarises the responses that this question has received since last October (when the general election was precipitated) not only among voters as a whole but also separately among those who voted Remain and those who backed Leave. Between October and January these reflected what had become a familiar picture ever since the withdrawal agreement that was originally negotiated by Theresa May was unveiled in November 2018. On average, rather more voters said that the decision was wrong (47%) than indicated that it was right (41%). And while most Leave voters were still of the view that it was right and most Remain supporters that it was wrong, Leave voters (83%) were a little less likely to affirm the decision to leave than Remain supporters (88%) were to express doubt about its wisdom.

 

 

This picture did change somewhat in the immediate wake of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. On average the ‘lead’ of ‘wrong’ over ‘right’ halved to three points. Indeed, Leave voters were now as convinced that the decision was right as Remain supporters were that it was wrong (though those who did not vote in 2016 were more inclined to take the latter view). In short, there was some sign that voters might be beginning to accept the decision to leave the EU, albeit that it remained a subject on which the country remained more or less evenly divided.

However, YouGov’s more recent polling suggests that that apparent change has not been sustained. The figures on the right-hand side of the table for the last three months replicate almost exactly those for the period between October and January. Those who think the decision to leave was wrong once again outnumber those who believe it was right by six points, with Remain voters being a little more likely than Leave voters to affirm their original point of view.

On this evidence at least, it looks as though the country will regard the outcome of the talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU in much the same mood as it watched the parliamentary toing and froing about Brexit during the course of last year – that is, deeply divided and largely entrenched in its views. Perhaps most Leave voters will be inclined to endorse whatever outcome the government secures. However, those on the Remain side of the argument have mostly yet still to be convinced of the wisdom of the project on which the government is embarked – and are likely to view the outcome with a critical eye.

Future of Britain video series: what will the October event look like?

 

The Future of Britain project is being undertaken by Ceri Davies and John Curtice. They recently met with James Fishkin, who is collaborating with them on the project, to discuss what the Future of Britain event will look like and the benefits of taking part.

 

If you’ve been invited to take part in the event and would like to find out more, you can listen to what they had to say below.

 

Part 1 – What is the project about?

 

Part 2 – Taking part by Zoom: what will it be like?

 

Part 3 – Why you should get involved

 

Part 4 – What will happen afterwards?

 

Part 5 – More reasons to get involved!

 

Part 6 – What John and Jim are most looking forward to in October

Another Look at Attitudes towards Extending the Transition

Slowly, the issue of Brexit is beginning to attract attention once more. The UK and the EU agree that the negotiations between them on a future trade relationship have not made much progress so far, albeit they disagree as to where the responsibility for that position lies. Meanwhile, the deadline for agreeing an extension to the transition process – the end of June – is beginning to loom rather large.

Consequently, claim and counterclaim are now being exchanged about whether an extension should be sought and agreed, not least because of the impact of coronavirus on both the talks themselves and the economies of both the UK and the EU. These inevitably include claims about what the public want, and in particular many an assertion that voters now back delaying the end of the transition.

A month ago, we reported that initial polling on the subject provided evidence that supported that claim. However, we also noted that, while divided on the subject, the balance of opinion among those voters at whom the government’s Brexit policy is primarily targeted – Leave supporters and those who backed the Conservatives in December- was tilted, albeit relatively narrowly, against the idea of an extension. Consequently, if the government were to seek an extension the Prime Minister would seemingly be running the risk of upsetting a significant proportion of those who gave him his parliamentary majority.

Three further readings in the last month have underlined this picture – but also suggest that the level of opposition to extending the transition may depend on how the issue is addressed in a poll. Details of these three readings, together with those of earlier polls are shown in Table 1.

As the far right-hand column shows, every single poll, including the three most recent, has reported that among voters as a whole, more are in favour of an extension than are against. (A fourth poll by ComRes found that 40% were in favour of an extension, while 35% wanted to keep the existing deadline, but it muddied the waters somewhat by also offering an option to bring the deadline forward, an option that was backed by 8%.) All also show that there is little doubt where most Remain voters stand on the issue. At least two-thirds and maybe as many as three-quarters are in favour of an extension. But then many of them will still be opposed to the principle of leaving the EU in the first place.

However, some of the more recent polling suggests that the position among Leave voters and those who supported the Conservatives in 2019 could be even more different from that among Remain voters than previous polling suggested. While a poll from Deltapoll once again reported only narrow majorities against an extension among these two groups, two differently worded questions that were both administered by YouGov evinced substantial majorities against.

Of particular interest was the most recent YouGov poll of 15 May. The wording of this question was exactly the same as that administered by the company on 8 April, except that the following piece of informational background was excluded: ‘However, negotiations have now been delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak.’ This omission seems to have made a considerable difference to the views expressed by Leave voters, among whom the level of opposition was now as much as 20 points higher than previously.

The other question asked more recently by YouGov that also reported a higher level of opposition among Leave voters than other polls also did not make any reference to the pandemic as a possible reason as to why the transition should be extended. Instead, it made reference to the possibility that doing so might allow for more time to conclude trade negotiations with the EU. Here, perhaps, it needs to be borne in mind that many a Leave voter is not necessarily concerned to ensure that a trade deal is achieved. According to polls by Kantar in March and April, rather more Leave voters (38%) would prefer to leave under WTO terms with no trade deal than would like a trade deal (28%), while Conservative voters too are divided as to which outcome they would prefer.

Both exercises stand in contrast to the recent polling undertaken by Deltapoll, which like Focaldata and the earlier YouGov polling, made reference to coronavirus as a reason for extending. And while this is not true of BMG’s polling, its question about the transition was asked in the midst of a myriad of questions about the pandemic, thereby perhaps helping ensure that the issue was at the front of respondents’ minds.

Some Leave voters and some Conservative supporters may well have doubts about the wisdom carrying on with Brexit regardless of the pandemic. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, most would apparently still prefer for the UK to have disentangled itself fully from the EU by the end of the year. And, whatever the rest of the electorate may think, that is not a mood the government will find it easy to ignore.

The Brexit Divide: Forgotten, Not Disappeared

The coronavirus pandemic has come to dominate the political agenda. As a result, after three years of rarely being out of the headlines, Brexit is now barely mentioned, even though much remains to be settled so far as the UK’s future relationship with the EU is concerned. Meanwhile, far from being an issue on which voters are divided, there is agreement across the political spectrum that some way needs to be found to manage and perhaps eventually ‘defeat’ the virus – the only point of dispute is how this might best be achieved. This unity of purpose has helped engender a ‘rally to the flag’ effect that has served to boost the personal popularity of the Prime Minister and underpinned relatively high levels of satisfaction with how the government has been handling the crisis.

Given this backdrop, one can understand why it might be thought that the divisions of the Brexit debate have been left behind and that the country’s electoral landscape has been fundamentally redrawn. However, a look at recent polling suggests this is far from being the case.

In the table below we show separately for those who voted Remain in 2016 and those who backed Leave the average level of support for the parties as recorded by polls conducted in April. It also compares the current position with how people voted in last year’s general election, as measured by polls conducted by Lord Ashcroft and YouGov.

As was the case in the general election, the Conservatives dominate the political preferences of Leave voters, three quarters of whom currently say they would vote for the party. In contrast, Labour is still by far the most popular party among Remain supporters, nearly half of whom say they would vote for the party – again, little different from what happened last December. The Brexit divide is still very clearly in evidence so far as the pattern of party support is concerned.

True, what is noticeable is that support for the Conservatives has advanced somewhat among Remain voters, while staying relatively static among Leave supporters. At 28% the average level of support for the party is eight points up on the figure recorded at the election. To that extent at least, there is some evidence that the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has served to reduce the width of the Brexit divide, and that the Conservatives’ fortunes have been restored somewhat among a group where they declined markedly between 2015 and 2019. From the table, it looks as though much of this progress by the Conservatives among Remain supporters has come at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, who were the most popular choice in December for those Remain voters who defected from the Conservatives between 2017 and 2019 and who perhaps have now returned to the fold. However, an examination of the detailed poll figures on how voters have switched since December suggests that is only part of the story. In practice, Liberal Democrat voters appear to have switched to the Conservatives and Labour in roughly equal numbers, but the Conservatives have been the net beneficiary of switches between themselves and Labour.

This picture of a continuing and only slightly narrowed Brexit divide is also in evidence if we look at voters’ evaluations of the Prime Minister as measured by Opinium. As we might anticipate, during the election Mr Johnson was much more popular among those who voted Leave than he was among those who supported Remain. On average during the campaign, as many as 64% of Leave voters told Opinium that they were satisfied with the way that Mr Johnson was handling his job as Prime Minister, while just 20% were dissatisfied. In contrast, the position among Remain voters was almost the exact opposite, with 20% expressing satisfaction and 66% dissatisfaction.

The Prime Minister is now more popular than he was during the election among both groups – just as we would anticipate from a ‘rally to the flag’ effect that cuts across existing political divides. However, Mr Johnson is still much more popular among Leave voters than he is among their Remain counterparts. On average in the last month’s Opinium polls, no less than 77% of Leave voters have said that they are satisfied with how Mr Johnson is handling his job, while just 12% are dissatisfied. In contrast, Remain supporters are more likely to be dissatisfied with the Prime Minister (47%) than satisfied (37%).

What is true is that the gap between the two groups has narrowed a little – the proportion of Remain voters who are satisfied with the way Mr Johnson is handling his job has increased by 17 points, while among Leave voters the increase has been a more modest 13 points. But even though voters may have rallied to the flag during the pandemic, that does not mean that the political divide created by Brexit has disappeared – and on current form it is still likely to be with us when the immediate public health crisis is over.

 

Podcast: The impact of coronavirus on the Brexit process

Sir John Curtice, Ian Montagu and Alex Scholes discuss what impact the outbreak COVID-19 has had on attitudes towards Brexit, whether people feel that the UK’s transition period should be extended, and whether the coronavirus pandemic might affect the government’s plans for the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy.

 

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Are We Getting Used to Brexit?

One of the questions with which historians can be expected to grapple in future is whether the implementation of Brexit at the end of January did or did not reflect the view of a majority of voters. If they conclude that it did, then despite its many twists and turns, the Brexit saga might come to be regarded as a successful exercise in direct democracy. On the other hand, if they decide it did not, historians might be reflecting on how and why the UK left the EU even though by the time the decision was implemented there was no longer a majority in favour.

It might be thought that the outcome of the 2019 general election provides a clear answer to this question. After all, the Conservatives won an overall majority of 80 on the back of a promise to ‘get Brexit done’. However, only 47% of the votes cast in Great Britain were cast for parties (that is the Conservatives and the Brexit Party) that were in favour of the implementation of Brexit. In contrast, 52% were cast for parties that were willing to put the issue to another referendum. Meanwhile, the last half dozen polls of how people might have voted in another referendum to be conducted before the UK’s departure on 31 January on average put Remain on 53% and Leave on 47%. In short, it is far from immediately obvious that the majority for Brexit that was registered in June 2016 was still in place three and a half years later.

However, there is another way in which we can approach this issue. Even if we might wonder whether there was a majority in favour of leaving when the decision to do so was implemented, it might still be the case that once Brexit happened voters soon accommodated themselves to the new reality. As a result, maybe it is already clear that, now we are out of the EU, a majority of voters approve of what has happened.

Meanwhile, of course, events since January – in the form of the coronavirus pandemic – might themselves have had an impact on attitudes towards leaving the EU. Maybe the pandemic has raised new doubts in voters’ minds about the merits of a globalisation process (of which the EU is an exemplar) that seemingly made it very easy for the disease to spread rather rapidly around the world. Or perhaps it has raised doubts about whether the UK is wise to leave the EU single market in a world that could well prove economically more uncertain and fragile than seemed likely a few short weeks ago.

In truth, the coronavirus pandemic has probably made it more difficult to assess how attitudes towards Brexit have evolved since the end of January. Unsurprisingly, the attention of the media and the resources of the polling industry have focused on how the public is reacting to the lockdown, while Brexit has gone on the backburner. As a result, relatively few polls of where the public now stand on Brexit have been undertaken. However, there is just enough evidence for us to come to at least an interim, initial conclusion.

Attempting to assess where public opinion now stands on the principle of the UK being in or out of the EU is far from straightforward. Now that we have left, the substantive issue at stake is no longer whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU, but rather whether it should stay out or re-join. It might therefore be thought that this is the choice that should now be put before respondents. That has certainly been the approach adopted by BMG Research, who on three occasions since the beginning of February have asked people whether the UK should ‘join’ or ‘stay out’ of the UK. Each time rather more have said ‘stay out’ than ‘join’ – on average by 47% to 42% (or 53% to 47% once Don’t Knows are left aside). In contrast, on the last half dozen occasions before the end of January that the company asked the question that appeared on the 2016 referendum ballot paper, on average Remain was ahead of Leave by 54% to 46%.

There is a one other poll that has taken a similar approach. Number Cruncher Politics has reported that only 38% now think the UK should join the EU, while 47% indicate that it should not. However, the company never asked people how they would have voted in a second EU referendum on Remain vs. Leave.

In so far as this there has been a change of outlook, BMG’s polls indicate that the principal reason is that those who voted Remain in 2016 are less likely to say that they would vote to join the EU now that the UK has already left than they were to indicate that they would vote Remain prior to the implementation of Brexit. On average, only just under three-quarters (74%) of Remain voters now say they would vote to join the EU, whereas immediately before Brexit 87% said that they would vote Remain. In contrast, Leave voters are as firm as ever in their belief that the UK should be out of the EU – 87% say they would vote to stay out, the same as the 87% who previously said that they would vote to Leave. In short, it appears from this evidence that some Remain voters have indeed accommodated themselves to the prospect of Britain being outside the EU.

However, any survey research is sensitive to the wording of the question asked. Any change to the wording of a question can result in a change in the distribution of responses – and perhaps especially so when, as in this case, the change inverts which option is presented as the status quo (albeit that the change reflects reality). If attitudes really have changed, we should also be able to identify that change when the same question has been asked both before and since the implementation of Brexit.

One question that certainly can and has been asked the same way is YouGov’s oft repeated question that reads, ‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?’. In a half dozen readings that the company took between mid-October (after the European Council meeting that agreed to a revised withdrawal deal) and the end of January, on average 41% said that the decision was right and 47% that it was wrong – figures that were little different from those the company had been obtaining for some considerable time. In contrast, in three readings taken since the beginning of February the figures have averaged 43% and 45% respectively. In short, this polling suggests that there might have been some increased support for Brexit since its implementation, but not necessarily on the scale implied by BMG’s research – and not necessarily sufficient to ensure that a majority now believe that the right decision was made.

True, a very similar question to the one posed by YouGov was also recently fielded by Number Cruncher Politics at the end of March. It, in contrast, found that 48% thought that the decision to leave was right while 40% believed it was wrong – different to the position two years previously. On the other hand, when in March Kantar included on their poll a question on whether people would vote to Remain or to Leave, it found that 37% would vote Remain and 34% Leave (the remainder said Don’t Know or that they would not vote), figures that match those that the company had obtained in September and little different from those of 38% Remain, 37% Leave, reported in October. Meanwhile when in early February YouGov repeated their long-running Eurotrack question on whether people would vote to Remain in or Leave the EU, 42% said Remain, and 40% Leave, a three point fall in the Remain lead as compared with the previous month.  All that we can say is that these fragmentary pieces of evidence do not provide a reliable basis upon which to caveat the picture that has been painted by YouGov’s ‘In hindsight’ question.

Like BMG, YouGov’s data suggests that some Remain voters may now have accommodated themselves to Brexit. In the company’s more recent polls 84% of Remain voters said that the decision to leave was wrong, whereas in its last half dozen polls before the end of January that figure stood at 88%. However, this suggests that the proportion who have done so is much smaller than implied by the data collected by BMG. Meanwhile, it may also be the case that a few more Leave voters are now convinced of the choice they made back in 2016; 85% now say that the decision was right, compared with 83% before the end of January.

All in all, the evidence leaves plenty of room for dispute about the extent to which so far at least voters approve of Brexit now that it has happened. While it seems very likely that there has been some increase in support for Brexit, such that a majority might now vote to stay out, whether as a result a majority now think that the decision to leave was the right one is far from clear. All that we can say with any certainty is that Britain still looks more or less evenly divided on the issue, much as it did before Brexit Day. Meanwhile, the division so far at least has proved immune to the coronavirus pandemic. Both the most recent reading from BMG and that from YouGov more or less replicate the results of the polls they conducted between the beginning of February and the introduction of the coronavirus lockdown. It may currently be hidden from view, but the Brexit division is still with us.

This blog was edited on 8 June 2020 following clarification from YouGov as to the wording of the question that was asked on its Eurotrack survey in February 2020.

The value of care workers; insight from attitudes towards post-Brexit immigration policy

The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly cast a fresh perspective on the occupations we value. Health workers have been lauded for ‘risking their lives’ on the ‘front line’, language that hitherto has usually been applied to the bravery of those serving in the armed forces abroad rather than the dedication of those working in a public service at home. At the same time, the prevalence of COVID19 deaths in care homes and apparent difficulties in providing social care workers with protective equipment has meant that fresh light has been cast on the importance of the work undertaken by a sector that is dominated by low pay and, in the view of many, dogged by limited resources.

The question of which occupations we value is one with which policy makers were already having to grapple in the wake of Brexit. One consequence of the decision to leave the EU, and with it the abandonment of freedom of movement, is that the UK is having to reshape its immigration policy. It is having to ask what criteria should be used to determine who should and should not be able to come to Britain to live and work?

One possible criterion that is reflected in the government’s proposals for post-Brexit immigration policy is the skill level associated with a job. Under these proposals, those working in skilled jobs would find it much easier to enter the country than those in unskilled occupations. Skill would for the most part be measured by educational qualifications and income – on the assumption that the value of an occupation is reflected in the qualifications it requires and the remuneration that it attracts. However, the requirements would be somewhat easier to satisfy for those engaged in what is defined as a ‘shortage occupation’. The latest version of the list of such occupations includes many health service jobs, including (often less well paid) nurses and paramedics as well as (usually well remunerated) doctors. It does not, though, include those working in social care – though it was recently estimated that nearly 8% of the vacancies in the sector in England are unfilled.

There is considerable polling that suggests that voters are more supportive of the admission of highly skilled migrants than they are of those who have few, if any skills. Examples are to be found, for instance, here, here and here. However, there are questions to be raised about this approach to ascertaining public attitudes towards immigration. First, it might be thought that the use of the terminology, ‘low skilled’, in any poll question cues respondents into a negative response. Second, the approach assumes that skill is indeed a criterion that voters think should be used in determining who should be admitted. Finally, the answers to such questions do not give us any clue as to which occupations voters actually think are ‘skilled’ (on which these data from YouGov are instructive).

Because of these problems, in undertaking our research on attitudes towards post-Brexit public policy as part of our Future of Britain project, we have taken a different approach. In March and September last year we asked respondents to NatCen’s mixed mode panel whether those engaged in particular occupations – doctors, bankers, care workers and hotel cleaners – should be a high or a low priority when deciding who should be able to come to Britain to live and work. Those engaged in the first two occupations would usually satisfy the government’s proposed skill requirements, while those in the last two would not.

As we might anticipate, doctors were most likely to be regarded as a high priority. In both surveys around 80% said that they should be a ‘very’ or ‘quite high’ priority, while only 2-3% thought they were a low priority. But the next most popular occupation was care worker. On each occasion, well over half (55-57%) said that they should be a high priority, while only around one in eight felt that they were a low priority. In contrast our other ‘skilled’ occupation – banker – was regarded as a high priority by only 16%, while more than twice as many (36-37%) took the opposite view. Indeed, bankers even fared a little less well than hotel cleaners, who were regarded as a high priority by around 20% and as a low priority by around a third.

Leave voters – whose concerns about immigration played an important role in shaping the outcome of the 2016 referendum and on whom the government was primarily reliant for its election victory last December – are, as we might anticipate, somewhat less likely than Remain supporters to say that any particular group should be a priority. However, they share the same perception of the relative priority of our four occupations. Over three-quarters of Leave voters think that doctors are a high priority, while approaching a half say the same about care workers. Meanwhile, only 15-16% believe that hotel cleaners are a priority and just 13% bankers.

We can, of course, guess why bankers in particular might be regarded as a low priority, associated as the profession is in the public mind with the financial crash of 2007-8. However, their unpopularity points to the possibility that the value of an occupation in voters’ minds does not lie simply in the skills, qualifications, or remuneration with which it is associated. Rather, it may also rest on the social benefit that it is thought to deliver. And by that criterion at least, it seems that, low skilled though they may be (though that is a perception that voters do not necessarily share), care workers were already relatively highly valued by voters long before the coronavirus struck. Now that their work has come to public attention, adapting post-Brexit public policy to reflect that outlook might be thought something that the government would want to consider.

How do voters feel about delaying the end of the transition?

For the first time since the EU referendum, Brexit has gone on the backburner of media attention as the UK endeavours to get on top of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet there are still decisions to be made. As things currently stand, the transition period, under which the UK continues to be part of the EU single market and Customs Union even though it formally left the institution at the end of January, is due to come to an end at the end of the year – to be replaced (it is hoped) by a new trade deal that is in the course of being negotiated. However, those negotiations have been disrupted by the pandemic, not least because both the head of the UK negotiating team, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, have been ill with COVID-19. Meanwhile, discussions between the two sides are now having to take place by videolink rather than face to face.

Against this backdrop, it has been suggested that the transition period might have to be extended until such time as both the UK and the EU have had the opportunity to give their full attention to the talks. But if any such decision is to be made it has, under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, to be agreed by the end of June. Moreover, any such manoeuvre would require parliamentary approval as the UK legislation has made it illegal for the government to seek an extension to the transition.

Three companies, BMG, Focaldata and YouGov, have now conducted GB-wide polls that have asked voters whether the transition period should be extended in the wake of the pandemic. They have asked rather different questions, while they have varied in whether or not they allow voters to say ‘Don’t Know’ or offer them a middle option along the lines of ‘neither support nor oppose’. Nevertheless, the three companies paint a relatively consistent picture in which around twice as many voters are in favour of extending the deadline than are opposed. From this it would seem that the UK government need not be unduly concerned about the electoral consequences of seeking an extension.

However, underneath the headline figure is a familiar sight that the pandemic has not erased – Remain and Leave voters hold very different views. Unsurprisingly, Remain voters are mostly in favour of delay. Two polls by YouGov suggest that around 79% are in favour and only 8% opposed, while BMG put the figures at 66% and 10% respectively. (Focaldata do not provide a breakdown by EU referendum vote.) But then, there must be a strong suspicion that many Remain voters would be in favour of delay even without the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mood among Leave voters is very different. True, the polls suggest they are divided in their views, and that a significant proportion are now doubtful about the wisdom of the government’s timetable. Even so, on balance somewhat more Leave voters are opposed to an extension than are in favour. On average YouGov suggest that 37% are in favour and 46% opposed, while BMG put the figures at 34% and 45% respectively.

Boris Johnson’s electoral success last December rested primarily on the support of Leave voters, nearly three-quarters of whom voted Conservative in contrast to just one in five Remain supporters. Due in large part to this overlap between those who voted Conservative and those who back Leave, the polls to date suggest that rather more Tory voters are opposed to an extension than are in favour. It is therefore the possible reaction of Leave voters with which the Prime Minister primarily has to concern himself, not that of the electorate as a whole. And at the moment at least their views mean there is a risk that a delay would fracture the electoral coalition that delivered him his parliamentary majority.

Of course, it may be that the Prime Minister’s popularity is such that Conservative voters would be willing to follow his lead if he were to opt for a delay – and that Tory MPs would be willing to do so too. But as things stand at present, Mr Johnson would certainly need to deploy his powers of persuasion effectively if he were to attempt to extend the Brexit transition.

 

Going Digital with Deliberation

The Covid-19 measures on social distancing are forcing researchers to assess how they can continue to find out what the public think when we cannot meet them in person.  This is particularly true of work like mine, which involves wanting to know what people think after they have had the chance to consider new information and deliberate about it.

Our current work on the Future of Britain project is a good example of this kind of research. It is investigating what the public think should happen in the UK on certain policy areas once we leave the EU.  To do so it is using an approach called Deliberative Polling, in which people are brought together for a weekend both to question experts and deliberate among themselves. The impact this deliberation has on their attitudes is measured by surveying their views both before and after the event.

We were planning to conduct such a poll in Birmingham in June – but now can no longer do so. However, an alternative approach to Deliberative Polling that we tried last year points to a possible solution – not just for Deliberative Polling but for all forms of deliberative research.

Deliberative research is based on the belief that it makes for better democracy if people have a chance to have a say in the policies and issues that will affect them.   In this type of work at NatCen, we regularly bring together anything 30 and 300 people to discuss one of a range of subjects. Traditionally, the deliberations involve convening people in a workshop that lasts a few hours or events taking place across several days, finding venues with good logistics and accessibility and making sure there is a plentiful supply of biscuits.  Practically, they consist of a mixture of plenary type sessions and small group discussions and trying to avoid people getting lost as they move between them. Most of the things researchers already know about whether or not these are valuable ways to involve people in democratic processes – and what might be good conditions in which to undertake deliberations – assume participants are meeting in person.

However, in June of last year, the Future of Britain project branched out from this traditional face to face approach. It ran the UK’s first (and we think largest) Deliberative Poll using videoconferencing software. Over one (very sunny) weekend we brought together 180 members of the public from across Britain, together with NatCen research staff and panels of experts on the subjects we were discussing – immigration, food policy and consumer regulation. The event was held using Zoom and comprised a mixture of plenary sessions with the experts and moderated small group discussions.   We were purposely testing whether the conditions needed for effective deliberation could be replicated online – and, indeed, whether there are additional benefits of doing so, such as reaching people who are not usually able to attend events with a high time commitment.  And, of course, online deliberation also holds out the prospect of being less expensive.

 

Much of our experience was positive.

Participants were willing and able to deliberate online. People talked freely but respectfully about difficult and contentious topics (e.g. immigration) in their moderated small groups. The software enabled us to switch participants between their small groups and the plenary sessions with relative ease. We did secure the participation of some people who might not normally find it easy to attend an extended face to face event (either due to caring commitments or health issues). Participants’ evaluations of the event suggest that for them the experience compared favourably with that of face to face Deliberative Polls. Anecdotally we also came away with the impression that participants found it more congenial to be involved from the comfort of their own home.

 

“[the weekend] exceeded expectations and I learnt a lot.”

 “Thanks for being such a good host on our event, I found the whole weekend very interesting and informative.”

 “I loved it – I loved every minute of it, I wish I could do it again!”

 “Thanks to you and all the team for your help and support during an interesting and stimulating weekend.”

 

As I discussed at the SRA annual conference in December, on the basis of this experience we have also identified best practice for moderators in an online setting. This addresses in particular how to manage group dynamics and the role of non-verbal communication, as this differs from face to face interaction.

So, does this approach provide a potential solution to the challenge of undertaking deliberation during the public health crisis?

Well, we still have to grapple with the question of digital exclusion.  Our participants were recruited from a random probability survey (the NatCen panel) which many had completed online. For those who did opt in, being online was an increasingly familiar experience, and we were able to put in place the guidance and tools they needed to be able to access the event. But this still leaves the substantial body of people for whom – until now at least – videoconferencing is still unfamiliar or inaccessible. As might be anticipated, our experience suggests that both older people and non-graduates are less likely to report having access to the necessary technology.

Retaining people once they had said they would participate proved more difficult. The drop-off between agreeing to take part and actually doing do was higher than in our previous experience of face to face deliberation. The very sunny weather over the weekend of our event in June may well not have helped – but our experience underlined the possibility that people may find it easier to drop out when all they have agreed to do is to log into an event rather than attend one where their hotel and travel costs have all been paid.

Thanks to the impetus provided by the COVID19 crisis, NatCen will be trying to refine the use of digital interaction, which we believe holds promise not only for deliberative research but also a wider range of qualitative research.  Meanwhile, as we do more research this way, I will be keeping my attention on the wider question of how going online with deliberations can be a thoughtful tool for democracy.  According to one of our colleagues on the Future of Britain project, James Fishkin, ‘deliberation is democracy when the people are thinking’. It might be that the current health crisis heralds a new era in digital deliberation that will enable this to happen.