Understanding the Leave Vote: What Tipped The Balance?

Posted on 7 December 2016 by Kirby Swales

Six months on from the EU Referendum, today we publish a new analysis paper that looks at the question ‘Who voted Leave and why?’. The paper uses new data from NatCen’s mixed mode random probability panel as well as the extensive evidence available in the British Election Study internet panel.

The paper reveals that the foundations of the Leave campaign’s success rested on the support it secured from three distinct groups of voters:

  • Economically deprived, anti-immigration (12% of the population, 95% voted Leave).
  • Affluent Euro-sceptics (23% of the population, 75% Voted Leave).
  • Older working classes (16% of the population, 73% voted Leave).

So rather than simply being based on the support of the ‘left nehind’, the success of the Leave vote was underpinned by its ability to draw together a broad- based coalition.

It was clearly a very close vote, and so the obvious question is to ask what whether it could have gone the other way. What tipped the balance? In our report, we draw out four likely candidates:

Low turnout amongst Remain supporters. The Remain vote softened during the campaign – 19% of those who said in May they would vote Remain did not end up voting at all.

The impact of ‘new voters’ The EU Referendum attracted a set of voters, who had not voted in the 2015 General Election, and they were more likely to vote Leave.

Countering the argument on economic risks. It is clear that the public were less clear about the impact of leaving the EU on the economy than they were on its implications for immigration and sovereignty. The Leave campaign’s messages resonated more strongly with the public.

‘Not following the party line’. Leave secured support amongst the supporters of all political parties, and was just as successful amongst those on the ‘left’ as those on the ‘right’. People were more likely to follow the position of the newspaper they read than the political party with which they identify.

So although there had been a slow burn of growing Euroscepticism in the years leading up to the referendum, a particular set of circumstances helped tip the balance in favour of Leave.

It remains to be seen if the divisions highlighted in the Referendum heal or continue to drive and disrupt politics in Britain. Into this mix, it will also be interesting to see if the newly engaged voters from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to vote and, if so, which party captures their support.

Kirby Swales

By Kirby Swales

Kirby Swales is Director of the Survey Research Centre at NatCen Survey Research

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