About half might change their minds
Views on Brexit have crystallised around perceptions of personal values. Breaking that link or changing values will be much harder than arguing the merits of a particular policy choice. We need to refocus our campaigning to address sovereignty and identity. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes.
The August 2018 poll by YouGov for the People’s Vote attracted most attention for the relatively high degree of support it showed for a referendum on the terms: 45% in favour, 34% oppose, 22% don’t know. Even after allowing for a rule-of-thumb +/- 3 %age points on headline numbers (there is a bigger margin of error on more detailed analyses) that shows a real lead amongst those who know, though it could easily be removed depending on what the don’t-knows decide. But the poll also had a lot of other information of interest to campaigners.
How committed are voters?
First, let’s flash back to the referendum exit poll undertaken by Lord Ashcroft. He asked when people had decided how to vote. Proportions were similar for Remainers and Leavers. Just under half had decided before the start of the year. I would regard those as having fixed views that could not have been changed by the campaign.
The August 2018 poll checked how far present views matched the referendum vote: 90% of 2016 Remainers and 84% of 2016 Leavers would vote the same way. 5% of 2016 Remainers would vote Leave, 8% of 2016 Leavers would vote Remain. There is therefore no sign of significant switching, and no sign of significantly differential rates of switching between Remainers and Leavers – remember not to find small changes/ differences as exciting as those who write headlines for campaign materials do. That is borne out by the overall current voting intention: 46R:40L. In other words, the country is still split half and half.
The August 2018 poll asked voters what would make them change their mind from their present stance? 57% of current Leave supporters and 45% of Remain voters said that nothing would make them change their stance. Compared with Lord Ashcroft’s poll that suggests that the Leave vote has hardened, and that the committedness of the Remain vote has stayed the same.
A greater linkage of Brexit attitudes with personal values
Based on data collected in 2017 H2, the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey carried out by the National Centre for Social Research focused on whether the referendum had clarified voters’ views on what had for most been a peripheral issue. NatCen’s key finding here is: “The EU referendum and the subsequent debate about Brexit have resulted in a crystallisation of attitudes towards the EU. People’s attitudes to staying or leaving are now more likely to reflect their sense of identity, their social values and what they think will be the consequences of leaving the EU than they were before the EU referendum campaign began.”. You can read a blog post by the authors which summarises their findings.
The BSA finds that Euroscepticism has been a long-running factor, with more than half the population wanting either to leave the EU or to reduce its powers. The shift within that to leaving is more recent, from about 2008. (It may be beginning to fall off from its 2016 peak but there are doubts about the accuracy of the 2017 number.)
At the same time, paradoxically, fewer people think that EU membership undermines British identity and more think that leaving would make us worse off.
However, the identity issue is key in solidifying Leave support: “For many advocates of a Leave vote, Britain’s membership of the EU offended their sense of being part of an independent ‘British’ nation that they felt should be able to govern itself.”. But identity did not only mean national identity. It also encompassed where people stood on a scale of social liberalism/ conservatism, a point also made by Professor Eric Kaufmann.
Yet again paradoxically, the proportion thinking that immigration is bad for Britain either culturally or economically has fallen over the years since 2011 when the question was first asked and continued to fall since the referendum; at about one fifth it is a minority view.
August 2018: what would make voters change their minds?
The answer to this question is of course affected by the options presented. There is also a complex mix between a respondent’s view of the likelihood of something happening and their response. So one has to be careful not to read too much into these answers.
The bigger issues with 10-19% saying it would lead them to change their minds are:
- The UK having to follow EU regulations without having a say over them
- Still paying £billions to the EU
- Not being able to make our own trade deals
- Some ECJ jurisdiction
- No great reduction in the number of immigrants
Less worrying were: the NHS would get worse, higher taxes, worsening economy, no EHIC for British visitors to EU, no help for poorer UK regions.
So the top four are sovereignty – given the low ranking of economy and NHS concerns, l suggest that even trade deals and budget contributions are likely to be more about sovereignty than economics; fifth is immigration.
We need to remember that Leave would try to persuade Remain voters to switch also. The bigger risks we have to watch out for are:
- The NHS would improve after Brexit
- No longer paying billions to the EU
- Help for poorer regions would continue
- Taxes would fall
- Freedom to make trade deals
- EHIC would continue
Less significant were: not having to obey EU regulations, an end to ECJ jurisdiction, fewer immigrants.
So Remainers are more concerned about public services.
Implications for campaigning
The polls on how fixed Leave voters’ minds are suggest that there are 8 million votes we could win from Leave voters and don’t knows if turnout is the same as 2016.
It’s not all good news. On the same basis, we might lose 11 million Remain and don’t know votes.
What the referendum campaign and its aftermath seem to have done is fix the Remain/ Leave decision more closely to individuals’ fundamental values. So to persuade Leave voters, we need a package of measures that addresses voters’ core values, including:
- Demonstrating that EU membership does not dilute English identity/ Creating support for a shared European identity in addition to English (the issue is more important for those who see themselves as English rather than British)
- Showing that EU immigration does not bring adverse cultural consequences
- Challenging the view that leaving would enhance Britain’s influence in the world
- Challenging socially conservative values
We would of course be challenging fundamental values, which is particularly difficult to do. Methods include:
We should also emphasise specific failures of the proposed Brexit deal. To some extent we can only do that once the deal is known. But some elements, such as the EU being a regulatory magnet (we will end up following their rules), are pretty well inevitable whatever the terms.
There is also some support in the surveys for campaigning to show that leaving would not improve the economy. However, economic harm was the message of the Stronger IN campaign, which failed. Many Leavers are willing to accept economic loss to obtain political/ social benefits; and those who believe in the economic advantages of Brexit are so committed to their view that they will not change. So we either need to rethink quite fundamentally how the message is put across or focus our efforts somewhere else.
To shore up support amongst Remain voters, an emphasis on the NHS is likely to be valuable, so the activities of Healthier IN are likely to be a big help. We should also do more to increase the sense in which EU membership reflects Remainers’ personal values – quite hard to do given the long-standing low identification in the UK with Europe.
It’s all to play for. However, we have to adapt the basis of our campaigning. There is little mileage in complaining about the 2016 referendum, and not much in exclusively going on about the negative economic consequences of Brexit. We have to focus on ideas of sovereignty and how European identity supports or complements English identity.
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