The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

23 Jun 2023

Politics and Society

Public Opinion

Sophie Stowers explores UKICE’s latest round of polling with Redfield and Wilton, finding that at a time of economic uncertainty, for many voters, we are now living in a post-Brexit era.

Seven years ago today, the UK took to the polls and delivered its verdict on EU membership. It hardly needs saying that an awful lot has happened since, but one of the longest lasting consequences of that day seems to have been its impact on our politics.

The B-word was a key issue in the 2017 and 2019 elections, unpicking voting patterns that had been in place for over two decades, as red constituencies turned blue. The country continues to be split almost down the middle on whether the issue of EU membership is settled or not.

45% of voters say that how a politician campaigned in the referendum is still key when deciding whether to vote for them or not. And over 70% say that they still identify as either a Leaver or a Remainer.

The dominance of Brexit makes sense, given that almost everything in British politics in the years since 2016 has been viewed through the prism of the referendum. Yet back in April, Professor Paula Surridge argued that the Brexit era may in fact be over – and the next general election may not be about it at all.

Based on UKICE’s latest round of polling with Redfield and Wilton, Paula might be right. We see from our data that attachment to the Leave/Remain labels which have resonated so strongly over the last several years is waning. Though a large proportion of respondents express some identification with the terms Leaver/Remainer, just a quarter say this outweighs any other form of political identification, such as with a political party. Indeed, voters are almost as likely to say they have no political identity as they are to identify with a Brexit one.

And, when asked what the most important divide in British politics is at the moment, just 16% say the Leave-Remain cleavage. Instead, voters are more likely to cite those splits which have traditionally underpinned British politics- such as left vs right, or working class vs upper/middle class.

Admittedly, we do still see a pattern of 2016 Remain voters preferring to vote for those who campaigned for their side in the referendum, and vice versa for Leave voters. Overall, however, this becoming increasingly unimportant to voters.

Rather, we see large numbers of the electorate preferring parties and politicians to focus on issues other than Brexit. When we ask people about the policies that will be important to them at the next General Election, the economy, healthcare and crime are repeatedly mentioned. Interestingly, these three issues are top priorities for voters no matter how they voted in 2016 or 2019, or how they intend to vote at the next election.

Of course, these issues, particularly the economy, cannot be completely detached from Brexit. But our data chimes with ongoing research which shows that, at a time of economic uncertainty, UK-EU relations is a distant concern for most of the public. Indeed, voters are more likely to say the war in Ukraine or the cost-of-living crisis is having a bigger impact on their lives than Brexit.

For Labour and the Conservatives, what this signals is that a focus on these domestic issues – and the policies to address them – will be more important in winning over voters than talk of a closer relationship, another referendum, or re-opening negotiations. For Labour, this is vindication of their policy of essentially avoiding all discussion of Brexit. Their approach of committing to tinker around the edges of the TCA as it stands, to ease the economic impact of leaving the EU, may chime with a public which is concerned about the economy, but no longer wants to talk about Brexit.

For the Conservatives, as Paula highlighted in April, it means the party can no longer rely on ‘banging on’ about Brexit to hold its fragile electorate coalition together. Those voters who lent their vote to the party in December 2019 now simply have other priorities. Instead, Sunak must play into ‘traditional’ campaign issues, such as the NHS and crime- perhaps the first PM to do so since 2015.

For many voters, we are now living in a post-Brexit era. Perhaps that means the next election will be a trip back to pre-referendum politics.

By Sophie Stowers, Researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.


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