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FEATURE11 September 2018

Are people changing their minds about Brexit?

Brexit Features Trends UK

NatCen’s What UK Thinks: EU shows that as the Brexit negotiations have unfolded, some voters are feeling different about things – but is it enough to change the outcome if there was a second referendum? Jane Bainbridge reports

The argument for a second referendum currently playing out across parliament and the media centres on whether voters would feel differently about leaving or staying in the EU – once the exact details of what Brexit will look like emerge – and whether it would be more or less democratic for them to be given a vote on the final deal.

Which side of that argument you sit on may depend on whether you voted to Leave or Remain the first time. Those urging a second referendum are invariably doing so from the perspective that the outcome would be different a second time round.

It is within this climate that the latest NatCen research as part of the Changing Europe programme for What UK Thinks: EU was presented by Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen and professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

It looks at data from five NatCen Brexit surveys since September 2016 consisting of a mixed mode random probability panel with 2,048 members.

The key questions it wanted to address were: have voters’ expectations and evaluations changed during the Brexit process; and what impact are these expectations having on people’s support for Leave or Remain? However, the most recent polling was done before the Chequers agreement.

So, what does it show? The relatively dramatic finding that in a hypothetical repeat referendum 59% would vote Remain to 41% Leave (June 2018 poll) was quickly qualified with the fact that despite weighting to make it representative, the proportion saying they’d vote Remain has been creeping up in the NatCen surveys. In this sample, 53% said they had voted Remain first time round, five points above the actual figure.

Elsewhere, public attitudes on free trade within the EU have not changed. Nine out of 10 voters have always been in favour of free trade and this has remained steady since the referendum.

But when looking at attitudes towards treating EU migrants like non-EU migrants, there has been a notable shift, with those in favour falling from 74% in September 2016 to 59% in June 2019, while those against rose from 13% to 20%.

“There’s the Noel Edmonds question – if the EU says you can have free trade but you must have free movement; deal or no deal? The data is suggesting that immigration is less of a concern than at the time of the referendum,” says Curtice.

Those answering that Britain should ‘definitely not’ allow people from the EU to come here to live and work in return for allowing British firms to sell goods and services freely in the EU, has gone from 22% in September 2016 to 16% in June 2018. While those that responded it ‘definitely should’ have risen from 21% to 28%.

When asked about the anticipated consequences of Brexit for the economy, those who think the UK will be worse off has risen from 39% in June 2016 to 51% in June 2018; while those who think we’ll be ‘better off’ has dropped slightly from 29% to 25%.

But the most dramatic change has been seen when asking the question ‘will the UK get a good or a bad deal?’ In February 2017, 37% thought it would be a bad deal and that has risen to 57% in June 2018, while those thinking it’ll be a good deal has fallen from 33% to 17%.

“What constitutes a good deal may vary between Leavers and Remainers,” adds Curtice. 

However, the area that matters more than any other for voters, he says, is the economic consequences of Brexit. Over 90% of those voters who voted Remain in June 2016 and who think that Britain’s economy will get worse as a result of Brexit said they would vote the same way in a second referendum. And the same applies for those who backed Leave and who think the economy will be better off post-Brexit – more than 90% would vote Leave again. “In short, hardly anyone who endorses ‘their’ side’s economic argument has changed their mind,” says Curtice.

The distribution of attitudes matters and that’s a relative weakness of the Leave side, according to Curtice – their optimism is weaker than Remainers’ pessimism. “Remain voters are pretty pessimistic of the economic consequences of Brexit while only about half Leave think we’ll be better off,” he says.

A soft vs a hard Brexit doesn’t make much difference to how people would vote if given the chance again.

Even when Leave voters are pessimistic about the deal the UK will negotiate, it has less impact than one might expect because they often blame other people – the UK government or the EU – rather than question voting for Brexit.

“Voters are following the debate and do change their minds, but when following the process, it may be important to stand back and ask: ‘is this something that’s undermining what Brexit will deliver for the economy?’ That’s what will be crucial in changing minds. And it’s also a battle for the minds of those that didn’t vote,” says Curtice.  

And while there has been much debate about shifting demographics altering the outcome if there was a second referendum – older, Leave voters dying off and younger, Remain-leaning voters being able to vote this time – Curtice warns that there’s no guarantee that younger voters will turn out. “The first rule of psephology is younger people are less likely to vote.”