Chujan Sivathasan explores how Brexit has impacted levels of satisfaction with democracy, highlighting that those who voted Remain are still less satisfied with how democracy works in the UK than those who voted Leave.
Research has consistently found that those on the winning side of an election or referendum become more positive towards democracy, while those whose side lost become more pessimistic (what is often referred to as the ‘winner-loser gap’). This makes sense – winners can be expected to become happier with a system that has delivered a favourable outcome and will likely result in desired policies coming into effect, with the opposite applying to losers.
After the EU referendum, this is exactly what happened – with those who voted to leave (winners) becoming a lot more satisfied with the way democracy works in the UK, while those who backed remain (losers) saw a large drop in their level of satisfaction. A similar gap emerged between those on either side of the Brexit divide in trust towards MPs and government and also views on whether the referendum was fairly conducted.
But what of the winner-loser gap in attitudes to democracy among Leave and Remain voters now? Over seven years have passed since the referendum vote and more than three and a half since the UK formally left the EU. Have those on the Remain side come to accept the reality of Brexit and moved on, or do they continue to feel disappointment and anger towards the referendum outcome, expressed in a lower level of satisfaction with democracy?
Looking at British Election Study data on attitudes to democracy in the period since the vote, two key trends stand out. First, while initially high following the referendum, satisfaction levels among Leave voters proceeded to fall deeply to the point that by 2019 they even sat lower than those of Remain voters. This was likely linked to concerns at the time that Brexit wasn’t going to happen, with Article 50 being extended and successive deals getting rejected by Parliament.
However, following the 2019 election, satisfaction among leave voters jumped back up to their earlier level, with prominent Brexiter Boris Johnson in charge and the end goal of leaving the EU now back on track.
Second, since late 2019, there has been a re-emergence of the winner-loser gap that was present in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote. Crucially, even despite the significant passing of time, this gap has persisted.
Whilst it’s true that attitudes towards democracy have become more unfavourable overall, it continues to be the case that Remain voters are more pessimistic about democracy in the UK versus those who voted to leave the EU. According to the latest available data from May 2022, nearly six in ten (59%) of those who voted to Remain are very or somewhat dissatisfied with how democracy works in this country. This compares with only 45% of those who voted to Leave who think the same way.
In recent times there has been a noticeable shift in public opinion against the idea of Brexit, with support for rejoining the EU now standing at around 60%, linked partly to a decline in the perceived economic benefits of leaving the EU as well as demographic changes. Given these developments, a more accurate reflection of current attitudes towards Brexit would be to look at how someone would vote in a hypothetical second referendum (rejoin or stay out of the EU).
When we look at satisfaction with democracy by rejoin vs stay out, an even wider gap can be seen compared with Remain vs Leave – rejoin voters have an average satisfaction level of 2.04, versus 2.50 for stay out voters (with 1 being very dissatisfied with democracy and 4 being very satisfied). 63% of those who would vote to rejoin are dissatisfied with how democracy works in the UK, while just 41% of those who would vote to stay out share the same view.
Interestingly, even if we control for demographic differences (age, gender, education and household income) and factors that are known to influence democratic satisfaction (party identity and views on how the economy is doing and whether politicians care about what people like them think), those who back rejoining the European Union are still more likely to be dissatisfied with how democracy works in the UK compared to those who back staying out – more specifically, rejoiners have 1.5 times greater odds of being dissatisfied with democracy.
Beyond attitudes to democracy, how someone intends to vote in another Brexit referendum also seems to have an effect on a wider range of attitudes held towards society – with rejoin voters broadly holding a more gloomy outlook. Rejoin supporters, compared to those who back staying out, have a lower level of trust in MPs and would much rather trust the wisdom of experts over ordinary people. They are also more likely to think that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth and that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. And on the economy, rejoin backers are more likely to think that it is getting a lot worse and will continue to do so.
As scholars have noted, for democracy to continue to work, those on the losing side of an electoral vote need to accept the outcome (‘losers’ consent’). However, achieving losers’ consent is particularly difficult following a referendum – which can be contentious and polarising, have long lasting impacts and don’t usually provide an opportunity for a rerun that occurs with elections.
All of these applied to the Brexit referendum: the emotionally-charged campaign and vote created deeply-held ‘Remainer’ and ‘Leaver’ identities that persist today. Data has confirmed that leaving the EU has had a significant impact on the economy and none of the three major GB-wide political parties at Westminster currently advocates rejoining the European Union.
It is therefore not particularly surprising that views on Brexit continue to influence attitudes towards democracy and wider society in the UK. However, what isn’t so clear is whether this continued dissatisfaction among those on the pro-EU side will translate over time into lower political participation and increased apathy, particularly among younger voters – with the negative implications for British democracy this would entail.
By Chujan Sivathasan, Researcher, National Centre for Social Research.