On the seventh anniversary of the Brexit referendum, John Curtice examines Redfield & Wilton polling that shows how public attitudes towards Brexit have changed over the past year.
Much has happened in the year that has elapsed between today’s seventh anniversary of the 2016 EU referendum and the sixth anniversary a year ago. Two Prime Ministers have come and gone, one of whom is not even an MP anymore. Nicola Sturgeon has stepped down as First Minister of Scotland after as much as nine years in the post. Meanwhile, the UK economy finds itself in the grip of the worst inflationary spiral since the 1970s and facing the prospect of a record decline in living standards.
Attitudes towards Brexit have changed over the course of the year too. In the poll that it conducted for the UK in a Changing Europe last June, Redfield & Wilton Strategies reported there was now a narrow majority – of 53% to 47% – in favour of re-joining the EU. This was already a rather different picture from the one it had painted just five months earlier, when only 45% indicated they would vote to re-join, while 55% wanted to stay out. Now, however, in their latest poll Redfield & Wilton estimate that (after leaving aside those not expressing a preference) as many as 61% are in favour of re-joining the EU, while only 39% back staying out. That swing against Brexit reflects a pattern found more generally in the polls over the last year.
In this blog, we compare the results of the latest Redfield & Wilton poll with that of a year ago, with a view to identifying some of the sources of the change of mood on Brexit that has occurred.
Table 1 shows how in the latest poll Remain and Leave voters, together with those who did not vote in 2016, say they would vote now if asked to choose between staying out of the EU or re-joining. The figures are then compared with those from a year ago.
Most immediately, we can see that around four ion five of those who participated in the 2016 ballot – have not changed their mind about being inside or outside the EU. However, whereas a year ago Remain and Leave voters were more or less equally likely to stick with the choice they made in 2016, now Remain voters are thirteen points more likely to say they would vote to re-join the EU than Leave voters are to indicate that they would vote to stay out. The level of loyalty among Remain voters to the EU has increased, whereas the commitment of Leave voters to being outside the EU has faded.
Indeed, this turnaround in the level of loyalty among Remain and Leave supporters is underlined by another development. A year ago, those who said they would vote to stay out of the EU were relatively enthusiastic about participating in any second Brexit referendum. No less than 76% said that they would be ‘certain’ to vote, much higher than the equivalent figure of 63% among those who preferred to re-join the EU. Now, in contrast, those who would vote to re-join the EU are rather more likely (by 68% to 63%) to say they would be certain to vote. Redfield & Wilton’s estimates of the overall level of support for re-joining and staying out take into account survey respondents’ reported likelihood of voting, so this change is also part of the explanation for the swing in favour of re-joining the EU.
Meanwhile, we should note another feature of Table 1 – that as many as two-thirds of those who did not vote in 2016 say they would vote to re-join the EU, while only around one in six back staying out. This group comprises both those who opted not to go to the polls seven years ago, and those who were too young to do so. While here the pattern of preference is much the same now as a year ago, the number of those too young to vote in 2016, strongly opposed as they are to Brexit, is, of course, gradually increasing in size. Demographic change is also slowly generating a swing away from Brexit.
But what underlies the decision by some who voted Leave in 2016 to favour now re-joining the EU? As part of its regular polling for UK in a Changing Europe, Redfield & Wilton have been monitoring voters’ perceptions of the consequences of Brexit across a wide range of social and economic life. Table 2 shows that in some instances, Leave voters have become noticeably more critical of those consequences over the last year. In particular, there are notable changes in the balance of opinion on whether Brexit enabled aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic to be handled more effectively, on whether it changed Britain’s influence in the world and ability to control its own affairs, and on its impact on immigration, the economy, and the NHS.
However, the extent to which changed views are associated with a change of mind on whether Britain should be inside or outside the EU differs between the subjects. Table 3 shows for those topics where attitudes have changed the most over the last year, the proportion of 2016 Leave voters who would now vote to re-join the EU broken down by whether they think Brexit has had a beneficial or deleterious impact on that issue.
On some issues where the balance of public opinion has become more critical over the last twelve months, those who think Brexit has had a deleterious impact are around twice as likely as those who take the opposite view to say that they would now prefer to be in the EU. This is true of perceptions of the impact of Brexit on Britain’s influence in the world, its ability to control its own affairs, on aspects of the pandemic and on the economy. Sovereignty/control and the economy, two of the three most important issues in the 2016 campaign, still sway Leave voters.
The same, however, cannot be said of the other key issue in the 2016 campaign, immigration. Those Leave voters who think immigration from the EU has increased in the wake of Brexit are barely any more likely than those who think it has fallen to have switched in favour of re-joining the EU. Meanwhile, it is those who think non-EU immigration has fallen who are more likely to have switched in favour of re-joining. Immigration has, it seems, lost its former ability to influence attitudes towards the EU. Reversing the swing against Brexit will require an improving economy, not rhetoric about immigration.
By John Curtice, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research, and Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde.