OPINION26 November 2019

Applying Brexit lessons to the 2019 general election

Brexit Election 2019 Opinion Public Sector UK

For those looking to understand public opinion, many of the insights from Brexit still ring true ahead of the forthcoming election, reflects Deborah Mattinson.

downing street sign

Last December, I wrote a piece for Research Live identifying five lessons for researchers offered by the Brexit campaign. As we hurtle into the final fortnight in the 2019 general election, it seemed worth revisiting these, to see how well they still apply.

1. Sometimes traditional methods hit the spot

Back then I sang the praises of an old-school diary method of data collection – an excellent method rarely used nowadays. The BritainThinks team had generated important unprompted insight using this approach, for example the observation that ‘leave’ voters rarely talked about the economy while ‘remain’ voters talked about little else.

I’m still a fan: the technique works well for all campaigns including, of course, elections. In fact during the Brexit campaign we were replicating a diary approach we had first used in the 2015 election demonstrating how little voters noticed about  policies, focusing instead on leaders and the wider party brands.

2. Our country is divided, complex and hard to understand

This was never more true. In the referendum piece, I talked about the segmentation that we had developed to avoid a simplistic, binary analysis and get a deeper understanding of the underlying views on Brexit. In 2019, the need for careful audience identification is as great as ever. In some ways it is more complicated than past campaigns, in others more straightforward: our analysis suggests that old party divides matter less and have been replaced by the Brexit vote.

Our mood of the nation project also tells us that people are more pessimistic than ever before. They want the country to get back ‘to normal’. In recent focus groups we adapted the US slogan, ‘make America great again’, asking voters to fill in the gap. The words they chose were telling – make Britain ‘calm’, ‘one nation’ or ‘normal’. Understanding this context thoroughly is a vital building block for understanding behaviour (and predicting future behaviour).

3. The world can change fast but public opinion is remarkably intransigent

Following 2016, I talked about how little our ‘Brexit tribes’ had changed over time (despite the best efforts – and often extravagant claims – of campaigners).

That said, 2017 was the election campaign that proved campaigns can make a difference. However, there were some very specific (and unusual) circumstances. The electorate was looking at two ‘new’ leaders effectively for the first time. May had high expectations to live up to, while Corbyn had only to exceed the very low bar set for him. He turned out to be better than expected while she was much, much worse. I knew how much things had changed when a focus group member told me that they would trust May to look after their house if they went on holiday, but not their pet cat.

2019 feels more like business as usual – the public has a fairly settled view on the main party leaders and, as such, they are not paying much attention. Forty-two percent say they have noticed nothing at all, which means short of a major breakthrough, views will change little. This neatly leads into the next point…

4. The public engages little with policy detail unless it can make a personal link

Confirming the data above, in a focus group last week, I asked undecided voters what they recalled from the campaign so far. I was met by a deafening silence.

The 2019 campaign illustrates a different, related ‘truth’:  less is more. Most of the policies unveiled would have an impact on people’s lives. The problem is a different one – there are so many, and they are so generous. As one focus group member said: “I want to believe in Father Christmas but I’m struggling with this, I’m really struggling”. One campaign leaflet listed 66 policies on its back! Less is more and in the end, if voters do not believe you can deliver, it doesn’t really matter what you promise.

5. Beware confirmation bias when interpreting findings

I had been struck by ‘elite’ stakeholders’ failure to read the mood beyond the M25 during the Brexit campaign. This led to the firmly held, but wrong, belief that ‘remain’ would win, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2019, I wonder if we might be witnessing a different problem. Following 2017, a caution has set in that is causing many commentators to lose confidence in their own judgement, refusing to make predictions and caveating everything: “It’s too close to call’; “Anything could happen”.

I guess in the end the original point still holds true. Look at the evidence – don’t let your prejudice cloud your judgement. But do trust your judgement – otherwise, why should anyone else?

Deborah Mattinson is founding partner at BritainThinks