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

Posted on 6 November 2018 by John Curtice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Curtice

By John Curtice

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

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