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.

What Might Voters Make of the Chequers Agreement?

It cost the Prime Minister a couple of cabinet ministers along the way, but the British government has now outlined the future relationship it would like the UK to have with the EU post-Brexit. A three page summary of its vision was published following a Cabinet away day at Chequers last Friday, while today a white paper giving much more detail is due to appear. The government now faces the task of persuading the EU to sign up to its proposal – and of convincing both MPs and voters that its implementation would represent a good deal for the UK.

What are its chances of winning over voters (of whose views MPs can be expected to take at least some cognisance)?  One way of addressing that question is to assess how far the content of the UK government’s proposal matches the hopes that voters expressed before the Brexit negotiations began. In autumn 2016 and again in winter 2017, that is, not long after the EU referendum but before the UK government triggered Article 50, we conducted two surveys of attitudes towards the possible contents of Brexit. How does the Chequers Agreement measure up against their results?

Two findings particularly stood out from that research (and indeed these have been replicated in more recent surveys of ours conducted during the course of the Brexit negotiations). The first was that around nine in ten supported maintaining free trade with the EU in both goods and services. This desire was seemingly underpinned by the fact that around two-thirds agreed that British firms should have to comply with EU regulations on the design and safety of all the goods that they make (a view that would seem to accept the need for ‘regulatory alignment’) and that a similar proportion endorsed the principle of ‘bank passporting’.

The second key finding was that at least two-thirds believed that those wishing to migrate to Britain from the EU should have to apply to do so in the same way as people from outside the EU, while there was a similar level of support for placing a limit on the number of EU citizens able to come to Britain to live and work. Indeed, seven in ten also accepted that British citizens who wanted to move to a EU country should have to apply to do so.

These expectations have, of course, always seemed impossible for the UK government to meet given the EU’s firm belief that free trade and freedom of movement go hand in hand with each other. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Chequers Agreement looks like something of a half-way house. It envisages free trade (and acceptance of a ‘common rule-book’) on goods but not on services (including financial services). At the same time, it affirms that there will be an end to free movement but leaves open the possibility of a ‘mobility framework’ that might mean that it will be easier for EU citizens than non-EU citizens to come to Britain.

Such a half-way house might be thought to offer something for everyone and thus represent a compromise to which most voters might be willing to accommodate themselves. However, the risk is that few feel a sense of ownership, while many are aware of the building’s shortcomings.

Initial polling on voters’ attitudes towards the Chequers Agreement suggests that this risk is a real one.  In a poll conducted by Survation immediately after the Chequers meeting, only 34% described the agreement as a ‘sensible compromise’. Meanwhile, although only 23% said they actually disapproved of the deal, equally only 26% felt that it was the ‘right deal for Britain’. Meanwhile, in a poll undertaken on Sunday and Monday, YouGov found that only 14% were willing to say that the Chequers agreement would be good for Britain.  Leave voters appear more or less as unenthusiastic about the agreement as Remain voters.

In truth, both polls also suggest (unsurprisingly) that many voters have yet to make up their minds about the government’s proposal. Even so, there is an apparent nervousness in the air. Both YouGov’s poll and another poll conducted by ORB over the weekend have found that approval of the government’s handling of Brexit and confidence in its ability to get a good deal have now fallen to an all-time low.  The government needs today’s white paper to help steady those nerves. Otherwise Mrs May might find her proposal being disowned by voters on both sides of the Brexit debate.

UPDATE: Further polling from YouGov, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday (after Boris’ Johnson’s resignation) and published today, confirms the impression that the Chequers Agreement is so far failing to secure the enthusiasm of voters, including not least those who voted Leave. Still only 13% think that the agreement would be good for Britain, while the proportion who think it would not be good has increased from 33% to 42% – a movement primarily accounted for by a 18 point rise (from 33% to 51%) among Leave voters. At the same time, approval of the government’s handling of Brexit has fallen yet further – not least thanks to sharp decline among Leave voters, the proportion of whom who think the government has been handling things well has halved during the last week from 32% to 16%.

‘Better Informed?’ The Impact of the Brexit Debate on Voters’ Attitudes towards the EU

Do voters know what they are doing? This is a question that is often asked about referendums, not least by those who doubt voters’ ability to grapple with major issues of policy. Since the EU referendum it has, perhaps, been regarded as a particularly pressing question by some on the Remain side. For example, the charge that many Leave voters were ill-versed in the economic consequences of leaving the EU not be explicit in analysis that has suggested that Leave voting areas were more likely to suffer economically from Brexit, but it is certainly implied. Meanwhile the claim on the Leave side’s referendum battle bus that ‘We send £350 million to the EU every week’, money that it was argued could be spent instead on the NHS, is often presented as an example of the kind of (allegedly) misleading propaganda that helped beguile voters into backing Leave.

In a chapter in the latest British Social Attitudes report, published today, we examine how public attitudes towards the EU have evolved over the longer term in the wake of the referendum campaign and its aftermath. In particular, we ask whether the public’s attitudes towards the EU became ‘better informed’ following the referendum campaign and the subsequent debate about what the shape of Brexit should be.

Of course, this immediately raises the question as to what we mean by ‘informed’. Our approach is that voters’ attitudes towards EU membership can be said to be ‘informed’ if they reflect their underlying identities and values, together with their perceptions of the consequences of staying or leaving. Voters are therefore said to have become ‘better informed’ if the relationship between their attitudes towards EU membership and those identities, values and perceptions has strengthened. Note that we do not question the foundation of those identities, values and perceptions – we are merely asking whether voters are better able to bring them to bear in making up their minds about EU membership.

To see whether this crucial relationship has changed in the wake of the Brexit process we included on the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey – conducted in the second half of 2017 – a suite of questions that had previously been asked on the 2015 survey, interviewing for which took place after that year’s general election but well before the referendum campaign had got into gear.

Included in this suite of questions is one about Britain’s membership of the EU that BSA has asked on a regular basis since the 1990s. It reads:

Do you think Britain’s long-term policy should be…

 … to leave the European Union,

to stay in the EU and try to reduce the EU’s powers,

to leave things as they are,

to stay in the EU and try to increase the EU’s powers,

or, to work for the formation of a single European government?

In 2015 only 22% chose the ‘leave’ option.  By far the most popular response, backed by 43%, was that Britain should stay in the EU but try to reduce its powers, a sentiment to which the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, seemed to be trying to appeal in his efforts to ‘renegotiate’ the UK’s terms of membership in early 2016. Now, however, as many as 36% say would prefer to leave. Sentiment against the EU has evidently hardened during the course of the Brexit process, albeit that the proportion saying Britain should leave the EU in response to this multi-option question is still less than is found when polls simply ask voters to make the binary choice between Remain and Leave.

But amongst whom is support for leaving higher now than it was in 2015? Perhaps support for leaving has increased irrespective of, for example, people’s sense of identity or what they think the economic consequences of Brexit would be. But, alternatively, maybe support for leaving the EU has increased more markedly among those who agree that EU membership has undermined Britain’s distinctive sense of identity than it has among those who disagree with that proposition. Similarly, perhaps support for leaving has increased more among those who think that leaving the EU would be good for the British economy than it has among those who think Brexit will be damaging economically.

Today’s chapter shows that, for the most part, it is the latter pattern that is in evidence. For example, among those who think that being a member of the EU has undermined Britain’s identity, there has been a 22-point increase since 2015 in the level of support for leaving the EU. In contrast, among those who disagree with the proposition, the rise in the proportion choosing leaving has only been seven points.

In a similar vein, among those who think that Britain’s economy will be better off as a result of leaving the EU support for leaving  is 18 points higher than two years ago, whereas among those who think the economy will be worse off the rise has been a more modest six points.

These are far from isolated examples. The chapter shows more generally that the increase in support for leaving the EU has been more marked among (i) those who do not feel European, (ii) those in England whose English identity is stronger than their British identity, and (iii) those who are more concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration. People’s views about the EU reflect their sense of identity more strongly now than hitherto. The same is true of people’s values, that is, whether they are a libertarian (or social liberal) who is comfortable living in a diverse society or an authoritarian (or social conservative) who prefers a more homogenous social environment. Support for leaving has grown more among authoritarians than libertarians. Meanwhile those who think that leaving the EU will enhance Britain’s influence in the world have registered a much sharper increase in support for leaving than have those of the opposite view.

So, despite the criticisms that have been made about the quality of the referendum campaign and the subsequent debate about Brexit, voters’ attitudes towards the EU have become somewhat ‘better informed’ during the last couple of years. Those whose underlying identities, values and perceptions of the consequences would lead one to anticipate that they would back leaving the EU are now more likely to express that view. Conversely, support for staying in the EU is now, relatively speaking, more popular among those who one would anticipate ought to be predisposed towards that view.

This development perhaps helps explain why attitudes towards Brexit have been relatively stable during the last two years.  Attitudes that are firmly rooted in people’s identities, values and perceptions are less likely to be labile than those that are not. But, of course, if those identities, values or perceptions themselves were to change, then maybe the future trajectory of attitudes towards Brexit would begin to look rather different. So far, however, neither side in the Brexit debate seems to have made much progress in that endeavour.

This blog is co-authored by Sarah Tipping, Research Director at NatCen Social Research

P.S. There is more! Today’s British Social Attitudes report also looks at the impact that attitudes towards Brexit had on how people voted in the 2017 general election and confirms the argument we have made previously that Brexit helped to reshape the character of Conservative and Labour support in Britain – with uncomfortable consequences for both of our two largest parties.

Two Years On: Many A Doubt But Few Changed Minds

Britain spent just four months debating whether it should leave the EU or not after David Cameron had renegotiated our terms of membership. In contrast, the country has now spent as long as two years debating how the majority decision to leave should be handled. It is a debate that has left many voters doubtful about the ability of the politicians to deliver a successful Brexit, but so far it has largely failed to persuade them that they made the wrong choice on referendum day.

Given how divided the country was two years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that on balance voters were never that optimistic about what would transpire from the Brexit process.  For example, when towards the end of 2016 ORB started tracking attitudes towards Brexit on a regular monthly basis, they found that the 36% who agreed that ‘the Prime Minister will get the right deal for Britain in the EU negotiations’ were counterbalanced by the 36% who disagreed. Equally, our own research using NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel found in February 2017 that while 33% thought that Britain would secure a good deal from the Brexit negotiations, 37% believed it would get a bad deal.

But now pessimism is the order of the day. Our own research found that by October last year only 19% thought that Britain would get a good deal, while no less than 52% believed that we would get a bad one. Meanwhile, although in their three most recent monthly readings ORB have found that the proportion who agree the Prime Minister will get the right deal is still as high as 34%, this group is more than outnumbered by the 47% who disagree. Although Mrs May’s Lancaster House speech instilled some confidence in the Brexit process for a while, that soon dissipated in the wake of her performance in last year’s snap general election – and has never been restored since.

Where the blame lies in most voters’ minds for this state of affairs is quite clear – with the politicians. In the last three months, no less than 62% have on average told ORB that they disapprove of the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, while just 38% approve. Meanwhile, in their near weekly readings of the public mood, YouGov are now reporting that more voters than ever feel that the government is handling Brexit badly. In their last four polls, no less than 63% have on average expressed that view, while just 22% believe that the government is handling the process well.

True, Leave voters still have more faith in the Brexit process than their Remain counterparts. In our most recent wave of research 28% of Leave voters still thought that Britain would get a good deal, whereas only 11% of Remain supporters did so. Meanwhile, in YouGov’s last half dozen polls, 36% of Leave supporters have said that the UK government is handling Brexit well, well above the 14% of Remain supporters who hold that view. Nevertheless, the loss of faith has been more marked amongst those who voted Leave. There has, for example, been a 21-point drop since April of last year in the proportion of Leave voters who think that the government has been handling Brexit well, compared with just a six-point fall among Remain supporters. Those who voted Remain were sceptical about the government’s handling of Brexit from the outset; now, however, many Leave voters share their view.

However, the blame is not just thought to lie with the UK government. The EU is widely thought to be handling the Brexit process badly too. In March, for example, Ipsos MORI found that while 54% thought the UK government was doing a bad job handling Britain’s exit from the EU and only 38% thought it was doing a good job, equally 58% reckoned the EU was doing a bad job and only 30% a good one. And while Leave voters may have become more doubtful about the UK government’s performance, they are, unsurprisingly perhaps, even more likely to be critical of the role being played by the EU. Such a perspective is unlikely to encourage Leave voters to change their minds about the wisdom of leaving.

In any event, Britain is still more or less evenly divided in its views about whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave, just as it was two years ago. In the last three months eight readings of how people might vote in a second referendum have been taken, albeit using slightly different approaches to asking the question (see here, here and here). On average (once the Don’t Knows are left to one side) these have been put Leave on 48.5%, Remain on 51.5%. The only (albeit potentially crucial) difference is that it is Remain that now appears to be slightly in the lead, whereas two years ago it was Leave that prevailed in the referendum.

But, of course, when the polls are this close, their real message is that nobody can be sure who might win if the referendum were to be run again – after all most, albeit not all, of the final referendum polls two years ago put Remain narrowly ahead, yet Leave still won. Moreover, in so far as there does appear to have been a slight swing to Remain, it is not the result of particular doubt amongst Leave voters about the wisdom of their choice. On average in recent polls, only 7% of those who said they voted Leave now say they would vote Remain – no more than the 7% of Remain voters who now say they would vote Leave. Rather the swing to Remain, such as it is, has been more or less wholly occasioned by the views of those who did not vote two years ago; 44% of this group now say they would vote Remain, while only 19% state that they would vote to Leave. Just how many of these voters would make it to the polls second time around is inevitably highly uncertain.

This, though, has not stopped those who would like to see the Brexit decision reversed from campaigning in favour of a second referendum when the details of the deal have eventually been finalised. But this is an issue on which voters themselves are not only divided but is also one where the balance of opinion depends on how the issue is addressed. When on numerous occasions both Opinium and YouGov have asked voters whether there should be a referendum, they have consistently found that a majority are opposed. But when both companies have asked a different question, that is, whether the public should have a vote on the ‘final deal’ or should be allowed to have the ‘final say’, they have found majorities in favour (see here and here). That helps explain why the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign that is arguing in favour of another referendum describe the ballot as a ‘vote on the final Brexit deal’. But whether in the event voters would welcome another referendum on the deal is as uncertain as the likely outcome of any such ballot.

Still, in truth, much of the negotiating about Brexit has yet to happen. The next few months leading up to the October Council of Ministers will be crucial. Maybe they will see a decisive tilt in the balance of public opinion in one direction or the other. But, so far at least, voters have proven remarkably reluctant to change their minds even though many are now doubtful about what Brexit will bring.

 

The Lords Amendments – What Do Voters Want MPs To Do?

Tomorrow and Wednesday, the House of Commons will consider the 15 amendments that the House of Lords made to the EU Withdrawal Bill against the government’s wishes. Three of these amendments in particular have been the focus of most attention. The first two would require the UK government (i) to keep the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA) and (ii) to try to negotiate a customs union. The third would enable the Commons to instruct the government to negotiate a better deal on Britain’s future relationship with the EU should Parliament reject the original deal in the ‘meaningful vote’ upon which the Commons itself insisted last December – the effect of which would be that parliamentary rejection would no longer automatically mean that Britain would leave the EU without a deal.

Much heated debate in the Commons chamber – and arm twisting outside it – can doubtless be expected as the government attempts to get its way. But where do the public stand on these three key issues? If MPs wish to implement the ‘will of the people’ rather than listen to the whips, is it clear which way they should vote?

The question of whether Britain should remain in the European single market or not has long been a central issue in the Brexit debate. It has become so because remaining in the single market would imply continuing to accept freedom of movement, and concern about immigration was a key motivation behind much of the Leave vote. One key lesson from polling on the subject in the immediate wake of the EU referendum was that what voters prioritised – staying in the single market or ending freedom of movement – depended quite heavily on how the question was asked. However, since then two companies, Opinium and ORB, have continued to track public opinion on the subject, enabling us to see whether there is any evidence of a clear swing of opinion in one direction or the other.

The short answer is, ‘No’. In its most recent poll published yesterday, Opinium found that 38% favour ’staying in the single market even if it means allowing free movement of labour’ while 34% support ‘ending free movement of labour even if it means we leave the single market’. These figures are little different from other recent readings by the company. In seven previous readings since last year’s general election on average 39% have prioritised staying in the single market while 36% have favoured ending free movement. True, prior to last year’s election, the balance of opinion seemed to be tilted slightly in the opposite direction, but such shift in opinion that may have occurred has still produced no more than the narrowest of leads for staying in the single market.

But even this conclusion is not supported by the responses that ORB have secured each month in answer to the question, ‘How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Having greater control over immigration is more important than having access to free trade with the EU’. When the question is put this way, opinion remains almost perfectly evenly divided. In the six polls ORB have undertaken this year, on average 44% have agreed with the proposition (thereby prioritising immigration control), and 43% disagreed (and so emphasised free trade). Meanwhile, perusal of the answers obtained by ORB ever since the first reading in November 2016 fails to reveal any consistent trend in favour of one option or the other.

In contrast to the debate about single market membership, the argument about whether the UK should remain in ‘a’ or ‘the’ customs union has only come to prominence more recently. That means few polls have asked about the subject, while those that have been undertaken have emerged with seemingly divergent findings.  More recent polling does little to suggest that voters have now come down clearly on one side or the other. In two recent polls Opinium have found that only very slightly more think that ‘staying in the customs union to prioritise our current trade links with the European Union’ should be the government’s priority than think that ‘leaving the customs unions to grow our trade links outside of the European Union’ should be. At the same time, as many 22% say that they had not heard about the customs union before. This evidence hardly seems like a clear cue for MPs to follow.

Little further clarification is to be found in the responses to an alternative approach to the question adopted last month by ICM. At first glance, it seems to suggest that opponents of a customs union are more numerous than supporters. Only 24% said that, ‘It is very important to stay in the customs union, so firms can trade with the EU more easily’ while 35% indicated that ‘It is very important to leave the customs union properly, so the UK can strike its own trade deals’. However, there was also a third option that read, ‘the best solution might involve some sort of compromise, perhaps along the lines of the customs partnership, because the alternative proposals are both flawed’. This attracted the support of 26%. Quite what respondents understood by the term ‘customs partnership’ can only be guessed, but above all, perhaps, the finding is a reminder that for many voters being in or out of a customs union is not necessarily the article of faith that it seems to have become for many of the protagonists in the debate.

There is, of course, a simple reason why for the most part opinion continues to appear evenly divided over what Brexit should mean. The country remains more or less evenly divided on the merits of leaving the EU in the first place. At the same time, Remain voters are more likely to back staying the single market and being part of a customs union, while Leave supporters tend to want Britain to be able to control immigration and to exercise its sovereignty by negotiating its own trade deals. Two equally sized camps with two very different outlooks inevitably means a public opinion that is split down the middle on what Brexit should mean.

On the third key issue being discussed by MPs this week, that is, what role parliament should have in the Brexit process, opinion is perhaps not quite so evenly divided, but even so, is hardly firmly on one side or the other. There seems, on balance, to be some inclination among voters to accept that Parliament should have some kind of say on the Brexit deal. Certainly, when the Commons insisted last December that it should have a ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal, 41% told ICM that MPs should have such a vote, while just 24% expressed the opposite view.  Meanwhile, in its most recent poll, Opinium reported that 43% back the more specific proposition that MPs should have a final vote on whether to accept or reject the deal, while only 37% took the opposite view.  At the same time, YouGov have found that as many as 42% think it would be ‘legitimate’ for Parliament to reject the Brexit deal, while only 34% think that it would not.

But that does not mean that voters necessarily think that Parliament should be free to do whatever it wants, should it decide the deal is good enough. Only 33% think it would be acceptable for Parliament to follow rejection with a reversal of the decision to leave the EU, while 45% think it would not. Voters might be willing to accept that Parliament has a role to play in holding the government to account for its conduct of the Brexit negotiations, but that does not necessarily mean they think it has the right to reverse the decision to leave the EU that voters themselves made in the first place. Some decisions, it seems, are for neither government nor Parliament to make.

How Brexit Became A Problem For Nicola Sturgeon

When the outcome of the EU referendum was announced, it looked at first glance as though it represented a golden opportunity for the nationalist movement. The divergence between the majority Remain vote in Scotland and the majority Leave vote across the UK as a whole provided what must have seemed to nationalists like a perfect illustration of how Scotland’s ‘democratic wishes’ could be overturned by voters in England whose values are not in tune with those of a majority of Scots.

However, new research released today as the SNP convenes in Aberdeen for its spring conference suggests that far from being an opportunity, the debate about Brexit has become a problem for the nationalist movement.  Based on the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey, the research – an early release of a chapter that will appear in the latest British Social Attitudes report due out next month – shows that attitudes towards Europe have become a new dividing line in attitudes towards independence and appear to have played an important role in the decline in SNP support in last year’s UK general election.

Not that support for independence has fallen in the wake of the Brexit referendum. On one of the three measures of attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed carried in the Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, support for an independent Scotland currently stands at 45% – a little higher than the 39% recorded in 2015 before the EU referendum got underway. On a second measure, support is a little lower (46% rather than 51%). Meanwhile, at 48%, the proportion saying they would vote Yes in anther independence referendum (leaving aside those who said Don’t Know) is exactly the same as the 48% who, on the 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, said that they had voted Yes in the September 2014 ballot (a reminder that all such surveys are subject to chance variation). All in all, it looks as though the overall level of support for independence has not significantly changed in the wake of the Brexit debate.

However, what has changed is the extent to which that people’s views about independence depend on what they think about the EU. Before the EU referendum those who were doubtful about the EU – who are far more numerous than might be anticipated from the 62% Remain vote in the EU referendum – were just as likely as those who held a more favourable view of the EU to support independence. Now, however, support for independence is markedly higher amongst ‘Europhiles’ than ‘Eurosceptics’.

According to the latest SSA survey, as many as 58% of Scots can be classified as ‘Eurosceptic’, that is, that they either want Britain to leave the EU, or (more commonly) believe that the EU should have fewer powers than is currently the case. Just 37% can be regarded as Europhiles, that is, they either think the EU should remain as powerful as at present or (in a few instances) should be even more so.

Back in 2015 – before the EU referendum but after the independence referendum – 41% of Eurosceptics backed independence on the first of our three measures (that is, the measure on which the overall level of support for independence is now higher), little different from the 39% of Europhiles who took the same view. Now, however, no less than 56% of Europhiles say that they support independence, well above the 40% of Eurosceptics who do so.

Much the same picture is found if we compare those who say they would vote for independence now with those who said that they did so in the 2014 independence referendum (on which the overall level of support for independence is unchanged). Four years ago, Eurosceptics (49%) were slightly more likely than Europhiles (44%) to have voted Yes. In contrast, no less than three-fifths (60%) of Europhiles now say they would vote Yes in a second independence referendum, whereas only 40% of Eurosceptics say that they would do so.

In short, in tying the prospect of a second independence referendum to the possibility of keeping Scotland in the EU, Nicola Sturgeon appears to have created a new fissure in the nationalist movement. Before Brexit, that movement had managed to transcend the debate about Europe. Now it finds itself relatively less able to appeal to those who are sceptical about the EU than it is to those who are keenest on the European project. And, unfortunately for the First Minister, there are many fewer Europhiles north of the border than the outcome of the EU referendum suggested.

This development also seems to have affected the SNP’s fortunes in last year’s UK general election. In the 2015 election, when it almost swept the board, the party straddled the EU divide. Both a half of Eurosceptics (51%) and a half of Europhiles (49%) voted for the SNP. But in last year’s ballot, support for the party fell to just 36% among Eurosceptics, whereas it almost held up at its previous level (47%) among Europhiles.

It looks as though rather than simply being a rejection of the SNP’s plans for a second independence referendum, as commonly assumed, the decline in SNP support at the last UK election also reflected a greater antipathy to the party amongst Eurosceptics, for some of whom independence had evidently come to look a rather less attractive prospect now that it was more firmly tied to keeping Scotland in the EU. Far from being an opportunity, Brexit has, it seems, proven disruptive for Scottish nationalism, just as indeed it has for almost every other political movement and party in Britain.

This blog is co-authored by Ian Montagu, Senior Researcher at ScotCen Social Research. It is also posted on the whatscotlandthinks.org website.

How Brexit Shaped The Local Election Vote

It is perhaps not immediately obvious that local elections might be of interest or relevance to the Brexit process. After all, such elections are meant to be about who can best empty the bins rather than who can cut the best deal with Brussels. However, in practice, the broad ups and downs in party performance in local elections tend to reflect the national popularity of the parties. And given the prominence of the debate about Brexit in our national politics, we therefore cannot discount the possibility that Brexit might have had an influence on how people voted in the local elections.

After all, Brexit certainly played a role in shaping the dynamics of party support in last year’s general election. Support for the Conservative party increased between 2015 and 2017 amongst Leave voters, whereas it fell amongst those who voted Remain. Conversely, though the relationship was not as strong, Labour advanced more amongst Remain voters than it did amongst their Leave counterparts. These patterns were also reflected in the geography of party performance. The Conservative party gained most ground in areas that voted most heavily for Leave but fell back in constituencies where support for Remain was highest. Labour, meanwhile, saw its vote increase more in Remain voting areas than in places where Leave secured most support.

So, a key question about the local elections is whether a similar pattern can be discerned. Do the results confirm the evidence of the 2017 election that the Brexit divide has become more closely aligned with whether people vote Conservative or Labour? Here we address that question, relying on a collection of the detailed voting figures in just over 900 wards that were collected on Thursday night and Friday by the BBC.

The seats up for grabs in this year’s local elections were in the vast majority of cases previously fought over in 2014, on the same day as the European Parliament elections. Crucially, this was long before the EU referendum as well as last year’s general election. Consequently, the baseline against which the parties’ performance was being measured was unaffected by voters’ reactions to the Brexit process. Therefore, if Brexit influenced how people voted the same way as it did in last year’s general election this would mean that the ups and down in party support should have been different between Remain and Leave voting areas even if Brexit was playing no greater a role in shaping how people voted than it did twelve months ago.

Table 1 shows the average change in party support since 2014 broken by the level of support for Remain in the council district in which each ward was located. It is confined to those wards which were fought by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in both 2014 and 2018. It is immediately apparent that whereas on average the Conservative vote flatlined in areas that voted most heavily to Remain, it increased by almost ten points where Leave had performed strongly. There seems to be little doubt that the increased concentration of Conservative support amongst Leave voters that was in evidence in last year’s general election has been replicated in the local elections.

One reason why this was the case is quite clear.  Back in 2014 UKIP were riding high. That support disappeared in these local elections, just as the party’s vote collapsed in the 2017 general election, not least because in many wards the party failed to nominate a candidate. The table shows that the level of support for all other parties combined, including UKIP, fell more heavily in areas that voted strongly for Leave than it did in those that backed Remain. In 2014 UKIP had performed best in places which went on in 2016 to vote most heavily for Leave. Consequently, the fall in UKIP (and thus Other) support in these local elections was greatest where UKIP had previously been strongest, and thus in Leave voting areas.

That meant there was greater scope for all of the parties to register an increase in their support in Leave voting areas. But, on average, only the Conservative party seems to have been able to take advantage of the fall in UKIP support. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats advanced more strongly in the local elections in places that voted heavily for Leave. This represents strong circumstantial evidence that, as compared with 2014, the Conservatives were more successful than their rivals in garnering the votes of those who four years ago had been part of the UKIP bandwagon, and that this was an important element in the party’s relative success in Leave voting areas.

That said, in contrast to the swing between the 2015 and 2017 general elections, Labour’s performance was not markedly worse in Leave voting areas than in those that voted heavily to Remain. So, there is little evidence here of Labour’s vote having become more orientated amongst Remain voters. Most likely this is because although in general the Conservatives were the disproportional beneficiaries of UKIP’s decline, they were not exclusively so. In particular, Labour also seem to have profited from UKIP’s difficulties in those wards where Labour had previously been strong. On average Labour’s vote increased by 8.4 points in wards where the party had shared first and second place with UKIP in 2014, compared with 5.3 points in wards where the battle last time had primarily been between UKIP and the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, if we look at how the parties’ share of the vote in this year’s local elections compares with what they achieved in the 2015 local elections (held on the same day as the 2015 general election), we find that Labour’s support did increase somewhat less in areas that voted heavily for Leave, even though, once again, support for Other parties fell more heavily in such wards (see Table 2). At the same time, on this measure too, the Conservatives performed much better in places that voted strongly for Leave than in those that backed Remain.

So, as in the 2017 general election, Leave voting areas – and thus most likely Leave voters – swung to the Conservatives in this year’s local elections, not least as a result of their relative success in winning over former UKIP supporters. In Labour’s case the evidence that the party might have advanced more amongst Remain voters is less strong (just as was the case in 2017), not least because it too sometimes benefitted locally from UKIP’s collapse, though there is some evidence of such a pattern.  In any event, Labour’s loss of seats in some Leave voting areas is clearly more a reflection of the relative strength of the Conservative advance in such areas than a manifest weakness in Labour’s own performance in such circumstances – but, of course, under first past the post it is relative performance that matters.

But this still leaves us with an important question. Is the link between party performance and the outcome of the Brexit referendum any stronger now than it was in 2017? Does the pattern of voting in the local elections simply represent a replication and continuation of the behaviour that was already in evidence twelve months ago? Or does it provide reason to believe that the link between Conservative support and voting Leave has intensified further as a result of how voters have responded to the Brexit negotiations so far? That  seems to be what some Brexiteers think has happened.

To address this question, we have to adopt a rather different approach. The county council elections that took place last year were, for the most part, held in different parts of England and used different ward boundaries than this year’s local contests. There is thus limited opportunity to compare the pattern of voting in the two ballots directly. In any event, those county elections were held five weeks before the general election and the balance of party support changed significantly in the interim.  However, in some instances it is possible to aggregate the outcome of the 2018 local elections into complete parliamentary constituencies and compare the total tally for the parties with the outcome of the general election locally in 2015 and 2017. Table 3 shows, for just over 50 constituencies where it is possible to undertake this aggregation, the mean difference between the level of party support in the local elections and the level in both the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

One key pattern is apparent. As compared with 2015 the Conservatives performed better in heavily Leave voting areas than in predominantly Remain voting places. The party’s vote held up in the former, whereas it was eight points lower in the latter. However, this pattern is not in evidence if we compare the outcome of the 2018 local elections with what happened in 2017 – indeed, if anything, the fall away in the Conservative vote since last year was rather greater in Leave areas than Remain ones. There is therefore no reason to believe that the outcome of the local elections represents any kind of endorsement by Leave voters of how the government has been handling the Brexit negotiations during the last twelve months.

The local elections do not, then, provide any evidence that the link between voters’ attitudes towards the EU and their willingness to vote Conservative has strengthened further. But they do suggest that the reshaping of the electoral terrain that became apparent in the 2017 election was not a short-lived development. The elections confirm that the Conservative party now finds itself supported by a predominantly pro-Leave electorate, and that the party thus has an electoral incentive to deliver a Brexit that meets the aspirations of Leave voters. During the next few weeks and months we will see how the Prime Minister deals with that challenge.