Is There A New Geography of Brexit?

Posted on 17 August 2018 by John Curtice

Much excitement has been created this week by an analysis of YouGov polling data released by the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign and first reported by The Observer. Using a statistical technique (multi-level regression and post-stratification) that, inter alia, helped YouGov anticipate that the Conservatives would lose their overall majority in last year’s general election, the analysis identified 112 constituencies where it had previously been estimated by Prof. Chris Hanretty that a majority of voters had voted to Leave in 2016 but where a majority were now estimated to be in favour of Remain. Described by Best for Britain as ‘a monumental shift in public opinion’, the impression, at least, was given that the analysis was evidence of a significant new swing of public opinion in favour of Remain.

The reality, however, was much more prosaic. The polling data on which the analysis was based is primarily, though not exclusively, a large 10,000 sample poll conducted earlier this month by YouGov for another anti-Brexit campaign, The People’s Vote, which is campaigning for a referendum on whatever Brexit deal eventually emerges. The data were reported as showing that support for Remain across the country as a whole now stands at 53%, while support for Leave was estimated to be 47% (which, indeed, were the figures that had been previously been published for the People’s Vote poll in particular). That, of course, represents a five-point swing from Leave to Remain as compared with the result of the 2016 referendum, when Leave won 52% and Remain 48%. But it is more or less in line with other polling conducted during the last three months which, on average has put Remain on 52%, Leave 48%. So there is no evidence in these numbers of a significant new swing to Remain. Rather it simply represents confirmation of other recent polling that Remain appear to be slightly ahead.

However, that still leaves the estimate of 112 constituencies where in 2016 there was a Leave majority but where Remain are now thought to be ahead. That sounds like a lot of constituencies. Indeed, it is sufficient to ensure that, in contrast to the position in 2016, over half (341) of the 632 constituencies in Britain are now thought to contain a majority of Remain supporters. However, the figure is but a reflection of the relatively even spread of the Leave vote across much of provincial England together with Wales in the 2016 referendum. There were no less than 115 constituencies in 2016 where Prof. Hanretty estimated that Leave won between 50% and 55% of the vote. If the 5% swing since 2016 implied by YouGov’s polling had occurred in each and every constituency, that would be sufficient to turn all of these 115 seats from being majority Leave seats to majority Remain constituencies – albeit only narrowly. In other words, it would be surprising if any analysis of polling based on a 53% Remain vote across the country as a whole did anything other than identify over 100 constituencies where the majority outcome would now be different.

True, the analysis that underlay Best for Britain’s headline figure did much more than simply assume the whole country had swung to the same extent. The statistical technique that was employed uses polling data to identify the probability that voters with particular characteristics will vote Remain or Leave, examines government statistics and other sources to calculate the proportion of people with those characteristics in each constituency, and then combines the two to estimate the likely outcome of a ballot in each seat. Consequently, if particular kinds of voters (perhaps in particular kinds of places) have swung from Leave to Remain, then the analysis should find a bigger swing to Remain in places with more such voters – and conversely a lower swing elsewhere. But the fact that the analysis emerged with more or less the same number of seats swinging from Leave to Remain as would be anticipated from a uniform movement across the country as a whole means that the estimated variation in the swing had little or no net impact on the total number of seats whose status is thought to have changed.

A Shift Within Labour’s Ranks?

However, that does not mean that the variation which is said to have been identified is not of interest. One of the aims of those currently campaigning against Brexit appears to be to try to persuade the Labour party in particular to change its stance, and at least come out in favour of a second referendum if not indeed to oppose Brexit entirely. Thus, it was notable that the Best for Britain analysis is reported as showing that the swing from Leave to Remain ‘has been driven by doubts among Labour voters who backed Leave’ and that, consequently, it is greatest in Labour heartlands in the North of England and Wales.  Doubtless anti-Brexit campaigners are hoping that this finding will help persuade Labour MPs representing constituencies where a majority voted Leave in 2016 that a change in the party’s stance would not be so harmful electorally as some of them at least seem to fear, albeit that we have previously shown that, even outside London, a majority of Labour voters in Labour seats voted for Remain.  This finding was certainly quoted eagerly this week by the former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

But what evidence is there in the polls that Labour voters who backed Leave are now particularly likely to be having second thoughts? A look at the data from the large poll conducted for the People’s Vote campaign certainly suggests that Labour’s vote now looks to be even more pro-Remain than it was at the time of the 2017 election (when the party was more successful at winning over Remain than Leave voters). The poll suggests that no less than 77% of those who now say that they would vote Labour would now also vote Remain. In contrast, at the time of the 2017 election YouGov estimated that 68% of those who voted Labour then had voted Remain in 2016. (Meanwhile, at 74%, the proportion of Conservative voters that favour Leave still looks to be much the same as it was in June of last year.)

There is, though, more than one possible reason why the balance of opinion might have tilted yet further in favour of Remain amongst Labour supporters. One is that Labour have been more successful in retaining and/or winning over the support of those who back Remain than it has those who supported Leave.  Of this there is some sign. While, as already noted, 77% of those who currently support Labour are also currently Remain supporters, the equivalent figure (in the same YouGov/People’s Vote poll) for those who voted Labour a year ago is, at 75%, slightly lower. However, while this difference might mean that Labour have gained more Remain than Leave supporters in the last 12 months, it could also mean that the party has lost more ground among those who back Leave than those who favour Remain. This is something that ICM in particular have been tracking. And on average in their last four polls, only 77% of 2017 Labour voters who backed Leave in 2016 now say they would vote Labour again, compared with 84% of those who supported Remain.

Still, this is evidently not a sufficient explanation for the higher level of support for Remain amongst Labour voters identified by YouGov. What evidence is there, then, that Labour voters have shifted from Leave to Remain? The fact that 75% of YouGov’s 2017 Labour voters now say that they back Remain, whereas in 2016 only 68% of them did so, certainly implies (though does not prove) that this indeed may have happened. But if this were a sign of a recent conversion from Leave to Remain amongst Labour voters we would expect to find that those who voted Labour in 2017 are keener on Remain now than they were at the time of last year’s election. However, according to data collected by Survation at least, that is not what has happened. In three polls that that company conducted immediately after the 2017 election they found on average that at that time, 72% of those who voted Labour backed Remain. But in three polls that Survation conducted in June and July this year, the company found that, at 69%, the proportion of 2017 Labour voters that now support Remain is fact not higher, but slightly lower.

So how do we make sense of this seemingly contradictory evidence? Well, there is another group of citizens who are, perhaps, all too easily forgotten in the current febrile political atmosphere – those who did not vote in the EU referendum and, indeed, those who did not vote in the 2017 general election. This group’s attitude to Brexit and their party choice is decidedly distinctive.

It has been evident for some time that those who did not vote in 2016 are more likely to say that they would now vote Remain rather than Leave. That this is still the case has been confirmed by recent polling by Deltapoll; in two polls the company conducted between May and July, 44% of those who did not vote in 2016 said that they would now back Remain, while only 16% indicated support for Leave. Much of the overall narrow lead that Remain currently enjoys in the polls is a product of this imbalance amongst non-voters.

But Deltapoll’s analyses add a new piece to the jigsaw. They indicate that those who did not vote in 2016 are not only more likely to back Remain, but also are much more likely to support Labour.  The company’s recent polls suggest that around three-fifths back Labour, while no more than one in five, and maybe even fewer, would vote Conservative. Indeed, these polls also have Labour well ahead amongst those who did not vote in the 2017 election, suggesting that some of these new supporters have come to support Labour within the last twelve months.

Part of the explanation for this pattern, of course, will be that some of these new voters will have turned 18 within the last two years, and given that young voters were much more likely to vote Remain in 2016 and Labour in 2017, we might well expect this cohort of new voters to help swell the ranks of Remain supporters within Labour’s ranks. In any event, Deltapoll’s evidence is a reminder that the battle for public opinion over Brexit is not simply a battle between the existing serried ranks of Remain and Leave supporters. It is also a contest for the eyes and ears of those who did not vote two years ago. And in Labour’s case in particular it looks as though as it could be a contest that matters as it considers the electoral politics of Brexit.

A shorter version of this blog appears on The Conversation website.

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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

43 thoughts on “Is There A New Geography of Brexit?

  1. people voted for a variety of reasons in brexit referendum my brother voted as protest against tory gov not believing for one minute leave would win and now regrets it boris backed leave purely to oust dave it was all lies and self interest Report

  2. This is pure brainwashing, and it drives me mad, that such false slogans get into peoples minds

    They are not really foreign, UK has more than fair part of representation

    EP is elected… everything else is appointed by EP

    EU is a platform where multiple countries agree on doing business principles… Don’t you think, that if 28 countries agree on something it must be good…

    After, 50 years of work of thousands people to create better synergies within a club, all you cans say is “it is sht” without knowing what it is Report

  3. I agree to one thing, there is a natural bias to vote against government on such things… IF government was pro Brexit, i do think the public would have voted very different Report

  4. I believe that the referendum was unconstitutional for many reasons. 1. It was used as a leadership vote of confidence (for party political reasons). 2. There is considerable evidence that there was external interference by a foreign power (Russia). 3. The referendum is advisory and is not a mandate. Here we must remember that the majority of the MPs who represented most of the constituents were for remaining. The referendum result should have been used a tool for renegotiating within the EU. 4. The complexity of leaving the EU required more information and facts – here the leave campaign lied several times, something that should not happen – again reasons for nullifying the result. Report

  5. Those that wish to be ruled by an unelected foreign bureaucratic parliament may well vote to stay in. If that is the wish of the people then so be it. They it seems to me are the uneducated and stupid people the remainers always talk about. Report

  6. Prof Curtice does a very good job of posing questions based on poll results, different questions each time.

    And when each question gets discussed, each discussion eventually becomes a discussion about Brexit itself, which is perfectly fine.

    What is a bit less perfectly fine is that the Remain line always ands up being some variation on the theme of ordinary voters being too uninformed or intelligent to vote on the issues that affect them, and for which they pay taxes.

    I think quite a lot of people in the “elites” pay lip service to democracy, but would actually prefer to live in an oligarchy.Report

  7. What’s this one time referendum? Nothing lasts for ever. Nothing is finally decided. We just make decisions that last until the next one. Get real. Report

    1. One time referendums are for when you’re on the winning side (not that any winning condition was actually legally specified in this particular advisory vote). Obviously they don’t really exist as well demonstrated by eurosceptics banging on about it for 40odd years before this, second, referendum on the subject.

      That is largely why such matters are a waste of time outside of the few countries that take the time to do things properly (eg Swiss) as they’re usually a resort of weak leaders dealing with internal party politics or dictators.

      The reality is though that if this ends up still in a mess by march, yet another vote might be seen by parliament as the only way out, either so they can bin the whole thing or be able to wash their hands of the decision, depending on the way it goes.


    2. So what? Nothing lasts for ever, the USSR being an example. How is that relevant here? There was a decision to make and we made it.

      Unless you want to take the right to vote away from the population and vest it in some self-appointed “elite”, as Fascism and Communism do, democracy is about the best system around.Report

  8. It’s interesting how people boost polls that produce results they like. This weekend, Labour have been pointing out that the Sun’s Deltapoll gives Labour a lead over the Conservatives, but the same poll also has some interesting numbers on Brexit.

    Acording to Deltapoll, 40% think we should just leave, no matter what, 31% favour another in-out referendum, and 15% want to leave but with a second referendum only on accepting or rejecting the deal on offer. [Sounds like 55% total for leave, but I guess it’s arguable.]

    13% say they have changed their minds since the vote, 61% have not changed their minds and 25% do not know whether or not they have changed their minds. [I really liked that one.]

    Only 11% of leavers say they have changed their minds, while 15% of remainers say they have.

    On the question if we should just leave on March 29 next year as planned, 47% say Yes, 28% say No, and 8% say they Don’t Know. [No, that doesn’t add up to 100%. Maybe some voters don’t know whether or not they don’t know.]

    The whole thing is worth a look.

    1. The change minds wording is vague if you look at the actual proper poll info ( which is always far more reliable than the write up in whatever rag commissioned the poll by someone who probably couldn’t get gcse in maths! As far as this goes I suspect it’s picking up people who’ve changed minds on brexit but not sides (i.e. weak leave to strong leave). The idea that that many of either side have actually changed side is simply not backed up by any other polling or surveying.

      All those questions were statements with strong/somewhat (dis) agree, neither agree or disagree options plus a don’t know which the sun seems to be conflating in its reporting.

      Also among the questions that the sun chose to not report (!) was that 44% agreed Vs 30% disagreeing with a statement about brexit being an historic mistake that people were only just realising.

      The very mixed bag deltapoll picked up really goes to show the impact the wording can have.Report

  9. Only 37% of the electorate voted in 2016 referendum and of that number half voted to leave the EU so it’s around 17’5 ish of the entire electorate that voted to leave, and we now know that over spent on there campaign by something like 675,000 quid plus the campaign was based on a pack of lies.
    So why are we going thru this process when we all know it’s not the will of the people .
    This government are wasting millions of pounds on something the silent majority don’t want and wasting time doing things that they don,t want.
    There were also millions of ex patts that did not get there voting papers in time, probably on purpose.
    So the referendum can not be legitimate .Report

    1. Legitimate in what sense? Parliament voted six to one to hold a referendum. It then voted by wide margins to invooke A50 and pass the European Union Withdrawal Bill. it even voited by a huge majority, 319 to 23 in December 2017, *not* to hold a second referendum.

      That’s all that counts.Report

    2. I don’t think that figure of 37% is correct. I thought the turnout amongst those eligible to vote was about double that. However, I agree with your sentiments. Parliament however also decided to ask the people so at some level devolving the decision. Report

  10. We had a referendum on Brexit that makes it different. However, apart from the conduct of it, we did not know what we were voting for. Most people now accept that a no deal would be worse than remaining so let’s have another vote when we know precisely what we are letting ourselves and our children in for. Report

    1. And do we “know” what we are voting for in a GE? Do we “know” what each Party will really put into law in the five years after a GE? Do we “know” what the effect of that will be on our hypothetical children?

      As I said before, I wish Remain would at least make arguments that are generally valid, not just ad hoc arguments cooked up for Brexit.Report

        1. Full marks for smugness, but to remind you of your own words, it was the “knowledge” of the voters you were on about, not democracy itself.

          Introducing voting tests based on knowledge takes us back to the US literacy tests in the segregated south, if not worse.

          Tests based on your personal judgement of what is an is not “knowledge” takes us to even worse territory.

          There is a good reason why some commentators refer to Remain as a project of the elite to deprive those they look down on from their vote on the pretext of superior knowledge.Report

    2. I could not agree more with Peter Hirst – the amount of ‘funny money’ and the dodgy use of what was supposed ot private data, cast a serious pall over that supposedy democrtic process. Without accurate information democracy does not work. We now have if not totally accurate information, at least enough to show that we were sold a pup. The knpwedge we now have comes from Government and other reputable sources. That is not being smug!Report

      1. Ok the questions should be 1) Accept 2) Decline or 3) Remain

        Reasons :- They are clear breaking of Electoral rules and the misuse and overspend of both Leave campaigns. Use of mined data by foreign firms ( System Analytica & AIQ )

        Incidentally and this is getting annoying now there were ” Project Fears ” from both sides unless you choose to ignore the myriad of slogans and 100s of millions of Turks , Serbians, Albanians that were supposedly coming here oh and shopping baskets in the ” sun ” newspaper that were clearly fraudulent oh and the famous bus. So of the high horses please about a Remain Project Fear when in fact the world economy unexpectedly exploded into action and exports were up on a 20% deflated £ !Report

        1. The questions should be “1) Accept 2) Decline or 3) Remain”.

          Then we know the answer already. Labour have already said that they wil not vote for a no-deal Brexit, so even if they abstain, Parliament will vote to accept the deal that the Government agrees with the EU. So out of 1) and 2) you inevitably get 1).

          3) isn’t even a starter, because A50 says that once you invoke A50 you leave the EU two years later, with or without an agreement. There is no mechanism for the member that invokes A50 to undo it. A50 is EU law, not law that any member state can unlaterally change. Your own jurisdiction lasts until you invoke A50, and after that it’s up to the EU.

          That means that the UK has no jurisdiction over A50, Parliament has no jurisdiction over A50, UK Courts have no jurisdiction over A50, Fionna Millar has no jurisdiction over A50, The House of Lords has no jurisdiction over A50, and so no UK referendum would have force at all. The most it could do is to “advise” the Government to to something the Government cannot do.

          Is it possible that you are really suggesting a referendum on Brexit in all 28 member states? Because that, plus a change of EU law that would have to go to the ECJ plus the Commission, is what it would take.

          And by the way, if the EU is proposing to change the AA50 that we can’t change, why exactly are they spending two years negotiating with us as if A50 isn’t going to change?

          And you are “annoyed”? Of course you are annoyed. Having enthusiastically endorsed a referendum you were sure you would win, and then losing the debate, losing the referendum, after making a bunch of insane predictions that would make a cat laugh, who would not be annoyed?Report

    1. So what about those who would be 17 when your imaginary referendum might take place. Presumably two years after your referendum, you would have another referendum to give them a say, and then perhaps another referendum every two years in perpetuity, to ensure everybody who didn’t have a vote gets one within a couple of years.Report

      1. That’s one issue. Another is what the question of such a vote would be. Would it be “Stay in or leave?” which is going to look pretty lame if we’ve already left, or whether to accept the leave deal, after we’ve already accepted it, or not.

        Maybe we could have a referendum on what the question of a second referendum should be.Report

    2. That is also an argumtne for following every GE with a mini GE at yearly, monthly or weekly intervals. One day after any important vote there is always one day’s worth of people who did not qualify to vote, then the next day, two, and so on.

      I wish people would at least make arguments that are of general validity, not just cooked up ad hoc for brexit.Report

  11. If, as the text says, the main motive here was to push for a second referendum, and the question would be either to accept the negotiated settlement or a no-deal Brexit, I’m not sure what the fuss is.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the legal basis for Brexit is *not* the first referendum, but three Parliamentary votes, one to hold the referendmu, which passed six to one, the second to invoke A50, which passed 498 votes to 114, and the vote on the European Union Withdrawal Bill, which passed 326 to 290.

    I think that to suggest that we should ignore three clear votes in Parliament because someone has done “regression analysis” – not even a new poll – on existing voting numbers, is a trivialization of democracy.

    It was *always* the case that we would vote once and then leave the technical details of Brexit to parliament. It was never suggested that we would have rolling referendums to over-ride parliament.

    I think we have to ask who actually is sovereign in the UK. Is it Parliament, or the polling industry?Report

    1. The three votes in Parliament show only that the great majority of MPs were concerned to comply with their party whips and, barring an honourable few, not at all to represent, still less to act in the best interests of, the electorate. What they cannot have been doing in 2016/17 was exercising their independent judgment in Burkeian fashion on what was in the country’s interests, as they, like the rest of us, had not at that point got anywhere near enough relevant information to make any informed judgment at all in favour of Brexit or of the consequences of voting as they did on the issues before them.

      Now that we, and they, have at last got a lot more information, and hence a much better appreciation of what the various ways of Brexiting are likely to lead to, it is apparent to many, including MPs, just how stupidly rushed all three votes were. They cannot be undone, but if, as appears, a substantial majority of MPs are against Brexit, they should in all conscience now combine to achieve whatever they think best for the country, if necessary irrespective of what party whips may tell them to do. Though they could of course act directly to get what they want, I suspect that they will be wary of countermanding the 2016 referendum result on their own without a second referendum supporting that change. The 2016 referendum should never have been held, and the matter should have been thrashed out and decided in Parliament, but given what has happened it may only be “politic” to give the people a second vote before Parliament reasserts its supremacy..Report

      1. No, the Parliamentary votes showed that MPs were doing what they do on all issues, which is to try to represent the interests of their voters. Every decision has to be taken at some instant in time and by some collection of voters, in this case MPs.

        As for “what we know now”, what we reall know is that every single Remain predication turned out to be completely falsified by reality. There was no immedite recession, no rise in unemployment, no wave of jobs leaving the country, no collapse in investment and no collapse of the NHS. It was all a bunch of apocalyptics nonsense and this quarter the UK is gowing faster than the rest of the EU, as it has been for decades.

        Having made hysterial predictions that completely failed, remain has no better answer that to make more. I would be more impressed if Remain could at least take a stab at explaining why they got things so wrong, and why they are still talking as if they got it right.

        Oh, and as for parliament “easserts its supremacy”, they never gave it up. The referendum was an advisory vote, and the three votes in Parliament are what really matters.Report

        1. Quarterly UK GDP Growth

          ————————— 2014 Fastest growth in G7
          2014 Q1 0.8
          2014 Q2 0.9
          2014 Q3 0.8
          2014 Q4 0.8
          ————————— 2015 2nd fastest growth in G7
          2015 Q1 0.3
          2015 Q2 0.5
          2015 Q3 0.3
          2015 Q4 0.7
          ————————— 2016 Fastest growth in G7
          2016 Q1 0.2
          2016 Q2 0.5
          2016 Q3 0.4
          2016 Q4 0.7
          ————————— 2017 Oops! Slowest growth in G7
          2017 Q1 0.3
          2017 Q2 0.3
          2017 Q3 0.4
          2017 Q4 0.4
          ————————– 2018 Oh My God!
          2018 Q1 0.2 Revised up from 0.1. Wow!
          2018 Q2 0.4 Another pathetic quarter of growth

          2018 Apr-May 0.2% The non-existant bounce back

          Source: ONS


          1. Strange that you use the ONS “previous” numbers, whe the current numbers are available. This quarter the UK grew at a rate of 0.4% per quarter.

            + UK GDP grew by 0.4% in Quarter 2 (April to June) 2018

            +GDP growth was driven by services, offset by a fall in production

            + Three-month growth continued to recover from flat growth seen in the three months to April 2018


            But thanks for posting your URL so that I could catch your error.Report

    2. “the second to invoke A50, which passed ”

      This seems to be a common misconception but strictly speaking that bill was not to invoke A50, it simply provided the power to do so to the executive with absolutely no obligation to do so.

      As for the first vote, that was explicitly to hold an *advisory* referendum as was made clear in the briefing paper and debate for it which even touched on the subject of supermajorities with the argument that such things were unnecessary for an advisory ref.

      So actually you’ve only got one vote and as had been made clear throughout history, parliament cannot bind itself.

      Ultimately this is all irrelevant. If, when it comes to the crunch, parliament gets cold feet they will seek for a way out, if they don’t they won’t. The temperature of those feet will depend entirely on an balance of perceived public opinion both then and further on based on how they think whatever deal reached will impact their electability.Report

      1. Of course it was to “approve” the invocation of A50. The executive had already anounced its intention of doing so. This is what’s called a distinction without a difference.

        And by the way, it’s that parliament cannot bind its *successors*. That is, a vote in one Parliament does not bind the next Parliament, since they can vote to repeal. Report

  12. Professor Curtice doesn’t mention the recent ComRes poll also of over 10,000 people but only in leave majority constituencies that returned a Labour MP in 2017
    This shows a 51.6% majority now for REMAIN (page 111). Although there is something odd because the original version had 348 pages, now there is only 332. The index and pages 83-95 have been removed for some reason. The missing page 91 showed in 2016 the same voters were 51.7% LEAVE.

    1. That is very interesting, but I am not sure what it means, if anything. Comres take polls on a wide range of topics. Should we go through all the polls that Comres has done and repeal any Parliamentary votes that conflict with comres?Report

        1. Seriously. Is every Parliamentary vote now going to be second guessed by some opinion poll? Or is this a special deal for Brexit?Report

          1. opinion polls are a tricky question, especially when they are accurate. Some countries ban them during an election and perhaps we should consider that. Report

          2. “opinion polls are a tricky question” Well, ding, ding, and we have a winner. Glad to see that you finally figured that out.

            Yes, opinion polls depend a lot on what question you ask, when you ask it, who you ask, what else is going on, and even on whether one answer signals more “virtue” than another.

            Fortunatley, we have a better solution. It’s the one-time referendm – one tiime to make sure everyone takes it seriously – with a secret ballot, preceded by a two year discussion period during which anyone can make any case they like.

            We do this pretty well in the UK, so let’s not screw it up with the EU’s favourite “vote till you get the answer we like” system.Report

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