Making social science accessible

23 Oct 2017

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

There is already a very wide debate on the determinants of the vote by the British electorate to leave the European Union. Many pundits and media commentators have suggested that the result reflects a broad discontent, and that the decision to leave the EU was forced on the country by old voters.

In analysing the cause of the Brexit vote, it is interesting to consider approaches from the quantitative social science that use data pertaining to ‘happiness’ to try to understand political decisions. We used the ‘Understanding Society’ dataset to examine why, when asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, people answered “Leave.” We found that various unhappy feelings contributed to this decision – but the key channel of influence was not through general dissatisfaction with life, but through a person’s more specific feelings about his or her own financial situation.

We based this on the answers to the classic ‘overall life satisfaction’ question present in the survey: “On a scale of 1 to 7 (where 1 = ‘Completely Dissatisfied’ and 7 = ‘Completely Satisfied’), please tell me the number which you feel best describes how dissatisfied or satisfied you are with the following aspects of your current situation. We also used the more specific version probing financial satisfaction: “How well would you say you yourself are managing financially these days? 1 = ‘Living comfortably’ to  5 = ‘Finding it very difficult’.”

Overall life dissatisfaction turned out to be predictive of a pro-Brexit position, but only to a limited extent. We found that, of the 2% of respondents who were ‘completely-dissatisfied’, only a small number (with any statistically significance) wanted to leave the EU. On the other hand, the effect of financial satisfaction was much stronger: people who feel steadily less happy with their financial situation are progressively more likely to favor the Leave position.

The magnitude if this effect is substantial: for example, UK citizens who feel things are very difficult financially are approximately 13% more likely (than those who feel their finances are comfortable) to be in favor of leaving the EU. Overall, our statistical analysis suggests that financial feelings are amongst the strongest correlates with voters’ views on the desirability of Brexit.

The effect of age

Despite what is commonly thought, our estimates suggest that the overall Brexit decision was not caused by old people voting disproportionally for ‘Leave.’ Instead, the Understanding Society dataset shows that only the youngest UK voters – those under the age of 25 – were substantially pro-Remain.  In all other age groups the sentiment seemed to be consistently tipped towards ‘Leave’: between their late 20s and their 70s, people who live in the UK have similar views on the desirability of EU membership.

The effect of other individual characteristics

Some other patterns consistent with the common wisdom and the existing literature emerged. We found a strong association between education levels and tendency to vote ‘Remain’: a university degree or equivalent made people more likely to vote Remain (by 16 % points). People with children were also pro-remain in the EU (by 4% points). There is also evidence of an ethnic influence:  those who classify themselves in the survey as ‘white British’ are somewhat more likely to vote for Brexit (by 6% points).

Interestingly enough, being unemployed had only a small positive effect on the decision to vote ‘Leave’. Being married had no significant effect.  Finally, and perhaps against some common wisdom, living in a rural area had no discernible consequences. There are also regional effects and some evidence of a slightly rising tendency to favour Leave.

There are two new findings that emerge from our study.  First, unhappy feelings – especially feelings about a person’s financial situation – contributed to Brexit.   Second, Brexit did not seem to be the effect of a clear generational conflict. Only the very young were substantially pro-Remain.

As the literature has already emphasised, emotions play a strong role in the way people vote with respect to the incumbent government. Voters reflect these feelings both in the general political elections and in the referendums by generally backing the government’s stance. A similar situation happened in Italy’s constitutional referendum, where voters rejected the constitutional changes promoted by the current government.

The fact that unsatisfaction more than the age of the population could be the ultimate cause of the Brexit vote has important implications. Voters’ moods can change much faster than demographics, so it is possible that if similar referendums were called in a different period, they might have had different results.

Politicians need always to monitor and to consider the “mood of the country” when they call citizens to vote. Perhaps calling a referendum in a period where people were particularly unsatisfied – as they were in the UK at the end of a long financial and economic crisis, with falling real wages and standard of living – was a big strategic mistake.

By Eugenio Proto, Associate Professor of Economics at Warwick University. Federica Liberini, Postdoctoral Researcher for the Chair of Public Economics, Andrew Oswald Professor of Economics, Warwick University and Michela Redoano Associate Professor in Economics, Warwick University. This piece originally featured on Vox.


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