It was not so long ago that the British public wondered whether they would ever hear the end of Brexit.
The issue dominated political discourse to such an extent that it became difficult to recall a time when we talked about anything else.
But the debate over Britain’s relationship with the EU did not always grab the public’s attention.
At the time of the 2010 general election, just a decade ago, only six per cent of the public indicated that Europe was the most important issue facing the country.
Our new OpenElections project increases the transparency around what parties and their candidates say during general election campaigns.
As part of the project, we analysed the content of more than 8,600 election leaflets from the last four general elections since the start of the last decade.
As parties are not required to make their leaflets publicly available, our leaflets are gathered by crowd sourcing.
It does mean that the leaflets we have do not cover all the communications distributed, but nonetheless, they provide interesting insights into the rise of Europe as an electoral issue since 2010.
Let us start by looking at how many leaflets talked about Europe during general elections. During the 2010 general election, just 9.4% of our leaflets included a mention related to it.
Indeed, the Conservatives were the only party, besides UKIP, to give any meaningful attention to matters related to Europe or European integration.
The issue remained at the fringes of parties’ general election campaigns in 2015. UKIP may have won the European Parliament election just a year before, but only 19% of our leaflets mentioned Europe in 2015.
Fast forward to the post-EU referendum era – only two years! – and Brexit is dominating campaign communications. More than two-thirds of the 2017 general election leaflets in our data set include a reference to Europe, rising even higher to 69.1% in 2019.
To emphasise the prominence of Europe, all parties talked about it in more than half of the 2019 leaflets that we have from them. This is to be expected from parties that framed their 2019 election campaigns around ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Stop Brexit.
Build a Brighter Future’, but parties of all colours could not stop talking about Brexit in their leaflets. It had well and truly risen from a supporting act to the main event.
Table 1. Percentage of leaflets mentioning Europe/Brexit
Can anyone escape from Brexit leaflets?
It does not seem so. If you did receive an election leaflet in 2017 or 2019, irrespective of where you live, odds are that it mentioned the issue of Europe.
Looking at the leaflets we have from 2019, the share of leaflets talking about Europe ranges from 54.5% in Scotland to as high as 83.3% in the North East.
The range is smaller for our 2017 leaflets, from 50 per cent in Scotland to 74.8% in the East Midlands, but it still shows at least half of the leaflets in our data set mentioning Europe in all parts of Britain.
Table 2. Percentage of leaflets mentioning Europe/Brexit by region
|East of England||13.8||20.1||67.8||71.7|
|Yorkshire and the Humber||12.4||20.7||59.3||65.3|
We also looked at the extent to which different parties talked about Brexit in Leave versus Remain seats in 2019.
The most interesting comparison here is the extent to which the Conservatives and Labour tailor their electoral communications to the constituency.
Unsurprisingly, given the Conservatives’ ‘Get Brexit Done’ message, the Conservatives mentioned Brexit/Europe much more commonly in Leave seats than Remain ones. 72.6% of the Conservative leaflets we have in Leave seats mentioned Brexit, in comparison to only 41.8% of their leaflets we have in Remain seats.
The opposite is true for Labour. Their leaflets were more likely to talk about Europe in Remain seats.
Table 3. Percentage of leaflets mentioning Europe/Brexit by Leave and Remain seats in 2019
But how did the different parties talk about Brexit? Below are some examples that highlight the contrasting saliency that different parties assigned to Brexit in their 2019 leaflets.
Head over to @OpenElectionsUK on Twitter, where we are sharing more examples of how different parties and candidates talked about Brexit in their election leaflets, and visit the OpenElections website, where you can explore the crowdsourced database of over 8,600 leaflets, filtering by party, election year, constituency, policy dimensions, party leaders, and opposing parties – as well as contributing by uploading new leaflets.
By Caitlin Milazzo, Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham, Siim Trumm Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham and Joshua Townsley, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. You can find out more via Twitter.