Brexit polls – a step change since the end of May.
YouGov, in collaboration with The Times, has been asking one key question, more or less every fortnight since June 23rd 2016:
‘In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union.’
Despite responses to other questions which seem to suggest that the UK is getting behind Brexit, the responses to this unambiguous, direct question have changed little over the last year. Leavers and Remainers have been relatively evenly balanced, but there is a slow but steady move away from wanting Brexit. It is not the will of the electorate, the residents or the citizens of the UK.
When the proportions from the 30 YouGov polls, asking the same question, are applied to the referendum voting numbers across all the UK plus Gibraltar, the preference has moved solidly into a UK preference amongst the registered electors, for remaining in the EU. All of the last four polls give solid majorities for Remain, and five out of the last nine of them give remain majorities greater than any previous YouGov poll majority for either Leave or Remain and greater than the winning majority for Leave at the referendum. Even without any adjustments the trend is obvious. And, in addition to the 12 month trend, there seems to have been a step change at the end of May.
Adjusted YouGov polls results since August 2016.
Bars below the line are the ‘leave’ majority, bars above the line are ‘remain’ majority.
The green line showing a 3% rise towards Remain is a linear regression fit to the data.
So why do the media suggest that the UK is happy with Brexit?
Many poll questions are framed with the supposition that the Brexit train is on the track. For example: ‘Do you think the government should work for a good deal with the EU’ is bound to get a very positive response which can be reported as ‘some large majority of the UK is looking for a good divorce deal with Brussels’. Such questions make the assumption that the Brexit decision is irreversible and that the electorate is powerless to do anything about Brexit, other than seek a good deal.
The key question ‘do you think it right or wrong to leave the EU’, however, actually measures the will of the UK without any assumptions.
Leave won the referendum by 3.8%. The adjusted YouGov polls for 31st May, 7th June and 13th June give majorities for Remain of 4.3%, 2.5%, 4.1% and 3.5% respectively. On average that is more than a 7% swing to Remain.
YouGov ask what the people voted at the referendum, so further analysis shows where this trend is coming from. For twelve months the support for both sides has remain more or less 90%, that is nine out of ten who voted Leave still think Leave is right and nine out of ten who voted Remain still support Remain. The key difference is the increasing engagement and preference of some of the 12.9 million electorate who failed to vote last June, plus the new 18 year olds now able to vote. For instance, in two of the latest polls the Remainers in this group have more than 20% majority. 20% of 12.9 million is nearly 2.6 million, which cancels out the Leave majority achieved at the referendum (1.27 million), and gives a 4% majority for Remain.
Both a trend and a step change, but they come as no surprise. Some facts:
The trend – basic demographics and greater engagement
Since the referendum about three-quarters of a million UK teenagers have turned 18, with most of them eligible to vote, although their turnout to vote is typically 58%. At the other end of the age range a similar number will no longer be voting. The over 65s have a higher turnout of 70% or more. Younger voters (18-24) were estimated to be three-quarters in favour of remaining with the older voters two-thirds in favour of leaving. It means, every year, about 150,000 are added to the Remain total and nearly 250,000 taken from the Leave total. That gives an added majority, every year, of nearly 400,000 to Remain. The winning margin at the referendum was 1.3 million, so the past year, plus another three years (2020) would secure a result for Remain even if the all the previous non-voters didn’t bother to turn out again (see dashboard here). 2020 is just after the negotiations finish, just when there could be a second referendum.
And there is good evidence that voting intention on Brexit is correlated to education more than to age. Once you are a graduate, you are always a graduate. It means that people hold their views on Brexit as they get older. As time moves on, the UK becomes better educated and so remaining in the EU becomes increasingly the preference. That probably accounts for 1% of the rise shown in the green line.
30 YouGov polls show that those who did not vote are becoming increasingly
polarised, as mentioned before. It implies that more of them would be likely
to vote now than last June, if they are ever given the opportunity. The
majority, by a large margin, support Remain. That probably accounts for the
other 2% in the green line.
The step change
2017 election announcement brought Brexit into focus again. The election
results, and nine most recent polls – since the election was announced,
suggest that a hard Brexit has less appeal than the Prime minister believed.
The country seemed to say ‘if we have no alternative - because we are being
forced into it - we had better go for a soft Brexit.’ But the key question
is whether we should leave or not. The polls say not, although in this
‘mother of democracies’ it seems the UK government is both powerless and
unwilling either to recognise or to implement a change of mind.
Inflation has undergone a recent step change from 0.5% 12 months ago to of 2.9% in June 2017. According to the analysts, this is a result of the slide in the value of the pound. That, in turn, is due primarily to uncertainty caused by Brexit, and it is now making its mark on people’s pockets.
Trust in a working coalition with the DUP is not high in the country, with many fearing that the fragile politics of Northern Ireland will suffer as a result. The politics of the border in Northern Ireland are more in focus, and the UK does not want Brexit to be a reversion to the ‘troubles’ of the 1980s. The population of the UK, its commerce and industry all want stability, not the stability of a hard Brexit, but, if the question is asked 30 times, the stability of remain.
So, after one year of polls, the trend is clear. The UK wishes to remain in Europe and the 2017 election has brought that desire more into focus. Simply assuming that the train is on the tracks so there is no turning back is a misuse of our fragile democracy. People have made up their minds, and the UK government should recognise that.
Professor Emeritus, Computing Education, Staffordshire University
Anglican Chaplain, Costa del Sol West