Deborah Mattinson and Tom Clarkson reveal the five things they have learned about Brexit from talking to voters
It is two years since we launched BritainThinks’ Brexit Diaries project. Back then we recruited 100 people: 52 ‘Leavers’ and 48 ‘Remainers’ in 10 locations around the country, and asked them to keep regular diaries, noting anything that struck them about Brexit as the days and months unfolded. We chose the diary method to give us unprompted answers – insight unframed by asking the question. It worked beautifully and revealed not two, but four distinct voter segments: at one end of the spectrum we had the ‘die-hards’: people who are entirely pleased about the referendum result and have no concerns about leaving, while at the other end we met the ‘devastated pessimists’ – people disappointed by the result and who can see nothing positive about leaving. Crucially, we also identified two ‘swing voter’ segments: the ‘cautious optimists’: Leavers who are pleased about the result but have some significant concerns, and ‘accepting pragmatists’ who are disappointed by the result but can see some upsides to leaving the European Union. We began to track these groups over time with larger polls and more in-depth focus groups. Here are some of the things that we have learned.
1 – We continue to be a divided nation
The segments speak for themselves and have barely shifted in size since March 2017, when we first polled. Almost two-thirds of opinion is clustered at the extremes: ‘devastated pessimists’ are 33 per cent of the population, while ‘die-hards’ in favour of leaving are 30 per cent. But the remainder of the population is made up of two groups with more nuanced attitudes: ‘cautious optimists’ are at 16 per cent and ‘accepting pragmatists’ at 12 per cent.
These divisions on Brexit are symptomatic of deeper faultlines in modern Britain – of which Brexit is the symptom rather than the cause. These varying groups of Leavers and Remainers are startlingly different in their fundamental outlook on the world, on everything from feminism to the environment.
Increasingly, too, we self-identify along key fractures in society. More than six in 10 describe themselves as ‘have-nots’ rather than ‘haves’, and we have heard many people in focus groups in small towns around the country describing where they live as a ‘left-behind community’.
For many, the revelation of this division is one of the worst aspects of the Brexit debate. When asked to choose three words to describe modern Britain, ‘divided’ is the most commonly chosen. Seven out of 10 of us believe that Britain will become still more divided in the coming year, and one of the key concerns among those who oppose a People’s Vote is that it will reopen old divisions.
2 – The national mood is pessimistic about Brexit
Immediately after the referendum, Leave voters’ comments were characterised by their optimism – as one told us then: ‘I am looking forward to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to rebuild the country – more police, better hospitals, more schools and teachers.’ Now even Leave voters are crestfallen.
In recent focus groups among representatives of our swing segments, the body language was telling. Slumped shoulders, long faces and sighs of exasperation kicked off the conversation on Brexit. Now, neither Leave nor Remain voters have any enthusiasm for the kind of Brexit that we are heading towards: ‘We’ve not got anything back, we’ve given loads of concessions, they’re in control.’
Leave and Remain voters are united in their despair at the political class’ handling of Brexit. Many did not think that Brexit would last this long – the public often express surprise that we did not leave the EU the day after the 2016 referendum. Voters worry that many more urgent priorities are now being ignored due to the Brexit navel-gazing. Meanwhile, three in four say that our focus on Brexit has significantly hampered our ability to address other major issues facing the country – with key concerns including the cost of living, housing, crime, schools and the National Health Service, to name a few.
3 – No one comes out of the Brexit process well
One of the most striking patterns from our focus groups is the extent to which the political establishment as a whole is blamed for the mess. This rage at a perceived combination of incompetence, indecisiveness and interference is non-specific – Brexit is a ‘plague on all your houses’. Eighty-three per cent of the public agree that ‘the entire political establishment has failed the country on Brexit’. Our most recent poll also shows that, since the referendum, voters’ views of the Conservative party, the Labour party, the British parliament and the European parliament have all worsened.
For the leaders of the two main parties, the news is correspondingly bad. Theresa May’s performance on Brexit has long been critical for her public profile. Despite the sense that she has been resilient to the many challenges she has faced, voters are largely damning – she scores minus 32 per cent when voters are asked if her reputation has improved or worsened since the referendum.
But Jeremy Corbyn, previously relatively unscathed by Brexit and judged to be a ‘man of principle’, is now faring worse than May at minus 51 per cent. The previously held belief that Corbyn is a man who stands by his convictions – a view expressed by both his supporters and his opponents – appears to be wavering. Sixty-nine per cent of the public agree that, on the issue of Brexit, the Labour leader ‘is more concerned about party politics than the national interest’, and just 16 per cent disagree that this is the case. The comparable figures for May are 45 per cent and 39 per cent, suggesting that the public is much more united in its disapproval of Corbyn’s actions than of May’s. Voters cite his lack of decisive action on Brexit and are confused by his focus on a new general election: ‘What on earth would that do?’, asked one frustrated voter in Slough.
4 – Many voters have switched off from the debate
In recent focus groups we asked voters to place themselves on a spectrum ranging from zero to 10 according to how well informed they felt about May’s deal regarding the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. In each session, the majority placed themselves at zero on this scale. ‘What deal?’ several asked, bemused. Voters tuned out of the details of the Brexit debate some time ago. Impressions of the deal may be negative, but they are rarely rooted in any sense of its actual content – just seven per cent agree strongly that they ‘have a good understanding of Theresa May’s deal’ (men are far more likely to claim knowledge than women, reflecting the pattern of almost all market research) and most voters struggled to articulate why they did not like the deal, when pushed. Many referred back two and a half years to the referendum campaign when asked for top-of-mind views.
Most people in the UK are not particularly interested in politics, and Brexit is the worst kind of politics in many respects – it is highly technical, it is difficult for many to identify the facts and it lends itself to exactly the kind of ‘Punch and Judy’ debates that voters hate. Many talk about a constantly evolving jargon which is difficult to keep up with – with terms such as ‘no deal’, ‘customs union’ and the ‘backstop’ being treated as everyday by broadcasters but feeling like a foreign language to the public. As a result, people around the country say that they are proactively disengaging from Brexit – switching off the television or the radio when coverage of Brexit appears. ‘I just turn it over, because it just goes on… I’m sick of hearing the same thing.’
5 – Despite this lack of knowledge and negativity, many voters have faith that, in the end, it will all be OK
Although trust in the main Brexit cast of characters has declined over the process, we still find strong resistance to believing that the ‘worst’ can actually happen. Eight out of 10 agree that ‘it is impossible to predict what will happen if the UK leaves the EU without a deal’ and in focus groups people push back. ‘It’s like Y2K – all the panic and the doom and the soothsayers saying the world is going to end and then everyone woke up and it was just 1 January.’
This resistance to perceived media scaremongering is often driven by faith in an unseen and non-specific ‘they’: in focus groups, the public repeatedly talk about the idea that ‘they’ will sort Brexit out, ensure that it is not disastrous and that life carries on as normal.
It is not entirely clear who ‘they’ are – there is certainly no distinction drawn between the ‘establishment’, the executive, the legislature, the civil service or even the Royal Family are variously suggested. Voters’ own suggestions for who might manage the crisis more effectively speak to what they feel they are lacking at the moment: national treasure David Attenborough or England manager Gareth Southgate were popular suggestions. As one voter said of Southgate: ‘He managed to sort out the England football team, so maybe he can sort this mess out too!’
Deborah Mattinson is founding partner and Tom Clarkson is research director at BritainThinks
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