Lessons from the ‘Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks’ Poll

Posted on 6 November 2018 by John Curtice

Last night saw the publication of the biggest poll yet on attitudes towards Brexit to come from a non-partisan source. Survation interviewed just over 20,000 voters between 20 October and 2 November for a Channel 4 programme, Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks, made by Renegade Productions in which voters were asked their views on some of the key issues in the Brexit process and on where they now stood on the merits of Britain leaving the EU. The large sample size makes it possible to drill down further than usual into which sections of society hold which views and why – while the data have also been subjected to multi-level regression and post-stratification modelling in order to ascertain how people in each local authority might vote if there were to be another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Two headlines stand out. First, many voters are very unsure what to make of the negotiations that are taking place in Brussels. Second, as more or less every other recent poll has ascertained, the country now appears to be narrowly in favour of remaining in the EU rather than leaving, but the reasons for this switch do not simply lie in Leave voters being more likely to have switched to Remain than vice-versa.

To ascertain whether voters might back the deal that Theresa May is hoping to bring back from Brussels the poll asked, ‘From what you have seen or heard so far, if there was a vote tomorrow on the type of Brexit deal that the UK Government is aiming to achieve from the EU, how would you be likely to vote?’. Among those willing to offer a response, only 43% say that they would vote in favour of the deal, while 57% would vote against. So, on balance the country appears to be opposed to what it thinks will emerge from the talks.

However, these figures leave aside the 34% said they did not know how they would vote on the deal. At the same time, both Remain and Leave voters are quite evenly divided on the issue, albeit with Remain voters slightly more likely than Leave supporters to be opposed. (Just 25% of Remain voters would vote in favour, while 38% are against. In contrast, 30% of Leave voters would vote in favour and 33% against). This is seemingly an issue where many Remain and Leave voters do not find it possible to come to a judgement by simply relying on their prior predispositions. This, coupled with the high level of Don’t Knows, suggests that there is still plenty of room for attitudes to change once the details of the deal are known and politicians on both sides of the argument attempt to persuade voters as to whether the deal is a good one or not.

This becomes even clearer when the poll attempted to identify what might be voters’ red lines in deciding whether they would support or oppose any deal that may emerge from the negotiations. Voters were asked whether the UK should or should not agree to various provisions if to do so were the only way to secure a deal. They gave a decided thumbs down (by 67% to 16%) to accepting ‘limitations on the UK’s ability to make trade deals’ and a more muted one (by 45% to 31%) on the issue that is reportedly still proving difficult to resolve in the negotiations, that is, ‘new checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK’. Moreover, these are issues on which both Remain and Leave voters are of much the same mind.

So far then, it would seem that the UK government have read the public mood correctly. However, in what is perhaps the most surprising finding of the poll, no less than 62% said the UK should, if necessary, accept a provision that meant that ‘After Brexit, UK and EU citizens, who wished to do so could live and work in each other’s countries’, while only 21% were opposed. Even as many as 55% of Leave voters said the UK should be willing to sign up to such a provision. The wording was, of course, intended to refer to ‘freedom of movement’, yet another of the UK government’s red lines, and central to the debate about immigration during the referendum campaign.

The lesson seems to be that whether or not something is a red line for the public depends on how it is described. ‘Checks’ and ‘limitations’ are seemingly unpopular, especially when they appear to represent a curb on the UK’s sovereignty. In contrast, giving people individual choice apparently is not. If that is the case then much may depend when a deal is unveiled on how the various key issues come to be framed in the public mind, which in turn could hinge on the relative ability of the government and its opponents to sell their side of the argument to voters.

This, of course, still leaves the issue of whether the UK should be leaving the EU at all. Here the findings were broadly in line with those of other recent polling, with a headline figure of 54% Remain, 46% Leave. This, incidentally, is the figure that was reached after the data had been analysed by Chris Hanretty using multilevel regression and post-stratification to estimate how each local authority area would have voted, and the results for the 380 counting units aggregated back up to produce a Britain-wide figure. This analysis, which suggested that the swing away from Leave was greater in areas that had voted most heavily for Leave in 2016 and especially so in ones where Labour were relatively strong, added a point to the estimated swing to Leave as compared with the conventional weighting applied to the data by Survation.

However, relatively little of the net movement away from Leave was generated by direct switching from Leave to Remain. While 10% of those who voted Leave in 2016 said that they would now vote Remain, this movement was almost counterbalanced by the 7% of Remain voters who indicated that they would now vote Leave. The difference between these two figures generates an overall swing of 1% from Leave to Remain, too little on its own to overturn the result of the 2016 ballot.

By far the biggest single source of the swing – worth some 2% – came from the preferences expressed by those who did not vote in 2016 but who now state a voting intention. Roughly twice as many of this group (41%) say that they would vote Remain as state that they would back Leave (20%) – a finding that echoes many another poll. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the movement arises because those who voted Leave in 2016 are much more likely than Remain voters to state that they definitely would not vote again and because Leave voters are also a little more likely to say that they are undecided how they would vote a second time around. In short, the central message of the poll is that, if there were to be another referendum, much would depend on who did and who did not make it to the polls. A second referendum is still far from guaranteed to produce the pro-Remain majority for which most of those campaigning for such a vote are apparently hoping.

What perhaps is more important than the overall swing to Remain in the poll suggested by the poll is the evidence that it provides of further demographic and political division. No less than 57% of those in the poll who said that they did not vote were aged under 35. Thus, given what we have said so far about the current preferences of those who did not vote in 2016, it should come as little surprise that the poll suggests that the swing to Remain is highest among younger voters, and that the age difference in attitudes towards Brexit is even bigger now than it was two years ago. The poll puts the swing to Remain at between eight and nine points among those aged between 18 and 45, whereas there is no swing at all among those aged 65 to 74 and there is actually a slight (two -point) swing to Leave among those aged 75 and over.  No less than 64% of those in the oldest age group would now vote Leave, compared with just 23% of those aged 18 to 24.

But what is also clear is the extent to which Brexit has become a fault line between Labour and Conservative supporters. No less than 71% of those who say they would now vote Conservative in a general election also say that they would now vote Leave, while 73% of current Labour supporters would back Remain. Both figures are well up on those that pertained at the time of the EU referendum, when, on average, the polls suggest that 60% of those who voted Conservative in 2015 backed Leave, while 64% of those who voted Labour at that election voted for Remain. Part of the reason for this growing divergence is, of course, the fact that the Conservatives lost ground among Remain supporters in last year’s general election while they made advances among Leave voters, and that Labour was more successful at gaining ground among Remain voters than Leave supporters. But today’s poll also suggests that the divergence has been increased further by the fact that Labour Leave voters (75% of whom would vote Leave again) are less likely than Conservative Leave voters (91%) to say that they would vote Leave again, while Conservative Remain voters (78% would vote Remain again) are less loyal to Remain than Labour Remain voters (94%). It appears that the different messages emanating from the parties about the consequences of Brexit are having an impact on some of their supporters.

Not that Remain and Leave voters agree on what those consequences would be. No less than 76% of those who voted Remain reckon that Brexit will be bad for the economy, while 57% of those who backed Leave think it would be good. Meanwhile as many as two-thirds (66%) of Leave voters believe that Brexit will be good for immigration, while only 19% of Remain voters hold that view. These are, of course, familiar patterns. What, perhaps, is more interesting is that the poll seems to confirm our previous suggestion that it is attitudes towards the economic consequences of Brexit that are especially important when it comes to whether or not voters have changed their minds about Brexit. Just 48% of those 2016 Leave voters who now think that Brexit would be bad for the economy say that they would vote Leave again, while, similarly, only 58% of 2016 Remain voters who now believe that Brexit will be good for the economy would vote Remain again. None of the other perceived consequences asked about in the poll (which included the impact of Brexit on the NHS and on people’s household finances as well as immigration) were as strongly related  to voters’ propensity to change their minds.

Still, even if some voters have changed their minds about Brexit – and many are far from certain about how they might vote in a ballot about whatever deal that is brought back from Brussels – do they think there should be a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations? As previous polling has suggested, much depends on the kind of ballot that is proposed. Slightly more voters support (43%) than oppose (37%) a referendum in which the alternative was to Remain in the EU, as advocated by the People’s Vote campaign, but the lead is hardly decisive. Meanwhile voters are more or less evenly divided on the prospect of a ballot where the alternative to the deal would be to reopen the negotiations (39% support this idea while 37% oppose it), and on a vote where the choice would be between deal and no deal (38% support, 39% oppose). But as might be imagined, whereas a choice between accepting the deal and remaining in the EU is relatively popular among Remain voters, a ballot where voters were choosing between accepting the deal and leaving with no deal is slightly more popular with Leave voters. Just 15% of all voters oppose all three referendums, and just 16% support all three. Most (55%) support at least one but not all three. It appears that for most voters the question of whether another referendum should be held is not so much a question of constitutional principle but one of perceived political advantage. But perhaps that is only to be expected from an issue that continues to polarise the British electorate so strongly?


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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.

19 thoughts on “Lessons from the ‘Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks’ Poll

  1. The public have had a democratic vote,end of in my opinion ,I voted leave and stand by it,when first joined in seventies it was trade based,should have stayed that way,never mind the alleged talk as you have to go through the rough to get to the smooth,Europe are trying to scare other countries thinking of leaving and other Europeans are scared as we buy lots of goods from them like cars for example. By the way anyone who voted for a particular government and regrets it does not warrant another electionReport

  2. As an older man remembering the Common market and why I thought that joining together in a free trade area with no tariffs would be fine, I feel betrayed.
    The decision made by Edward Heath and others to sign up with political individuals to complete the design of a federal Europe was a traitorous act.
    The “ever closer union” wishes of the federalists is in direct opposition to my views and deep feelings.
    It was obvious that our nation choosing to stay out of the Euro and being coerced into contributing vast sums to the EU budget sowed the seeds of our withdrawal from the project.
    Businesses are perfectly capable of signing individual trade deals happily respecting price and quality controls and standards. If the EU organization had kept things on a NATO type basis all would have been well, instead, we are now fighting another war to turn the clock back which is a herculean task but one which must succeed.
    The collapse of the EU has started in its present federalist form and eventually it will settle into some form of association that is reasonable and does not challenge the creation and development of Nation-states which in most of Europe is still developing.

    I belive that the vastly incompetent Theresa May has neither the imagination or the vision of Brexit to succeed and that indeed her very incompetence together with a divided cabinet and party has guaranteed the “peoples deal ” which should have happened two years ago.

    The sudden shock of a departure on day one would have produced the same effect, the bureaucrats of Brussels would have been cold-cocked and left in the slipstream of the UK getting stuck into the new relationship.
    Immediate visits by our PM could have set in play a free trade agreement on present terms to be decided in one year. All present conditions to be kept in play until then. The docks would have stayed open the trade agreements kept in place.
    We allowed the EU time to procrastinate set the terms of play and then write Mays agreement together with her weak and venal team of civil servants running their own ideas in 10 Downing Street to the obvious dismay and dysfunction of her Government.
    In summary, the “Peoples deal” is now in place and commented on in the press by an insider working on the trade arrangements. The comment established that the EU together with our trade departments have cobbled together an initial arrangement for post March 2019 that will provide continuity while the trade deal is cocked up by May and gang. Planes fly and ships dock, the continental industrialists have decide not to wait until the last second but like our Industrialists want the certainty that they can pressure the stupid politicians into accepting now.

  3. The latest from Survation indicates how strange poll results can be. More remain voters (47%) than Leave voters (42%) oppose the proposed deal. That is, more Remain voters oppose a deal that keeps us much closer to the EU than a no-deal would.

    Possibly, in fact I think probably, Remain still think that if they dig their heels in an oppose *any* deal, they can reverse the referendum result. It’s a form of “brute force” thinking and I think that there will have to be more confrontation, more “no renegotiation” from Merkel and more “this or no-deal” from May to overcome it.Report

    1. Rather than ‘overcome’ your perceived ‘brute force’ thinking, perhaps a more Democratic approach would be to offer the Electorate a “this deal or Remain in the EU” vote where everyone has a vote to cast for their desired outcome. Whatever the result Democracy triumphs and the Government follows the decision accordingly.Report

      1. Anyone who offers the voters a referendum where one of the choices cannot be put into effect because the UK has no jurisdiction is just perpetuating the wishful thinking.

        If the EU wants to change A50, they and only they can do so. Ten referendums in the UK make no difference.

        And since 2016, have the EU offered to reword A50? Is there even draft legislation to do so? So far as I know, the farthest Barnier has ever gone is to say that the UK could change its mind on staying in the Single Market, not on staying in the EU.

        That said, no doubt people will go on clinging to straws, adn no doubt the press will encourage them to do so, so as to earn yet more page clicks.Report

  4. If you want people to make a sensible decision about something like Brexit, I think a good start would be to identify and eliminate all the options that are not options, even though some people insist in talking as if they were. Then stop including the impossible options in opinion polls, since their inclusion tends to give voters the illusion that they are live options.

    There isn’t an option to re-negotiate what has been negotiated. When two negotiating partners have arrived at an agreement, that’s it. It isn’t even clear what “better” means in such a situation. They agreed because each thought that it had arrived at an acceptable trade-off of its own interests. How can you do “better”? Do you try to persuade one partner that what it thought were its best interests really were not, and if so, why did you not do that in the past two years?

    There isn’t an option for a GE to lead to Labour restarting the negotiations, since time is fast running out, and in any case, all the melodrama this week is about the proposed agreement keeping us too *close* to the EU. Would we expect Corbyn to propose a new deal that takes us further *away* from the EU? And how would he sell that to an EU that appears to find the current proposed deal about right?

    And while we can have a second referendum if we want, it would have no jurisdiction over the EU, would change nothing about EU law, and in particular, would change nothing about the wording of A50.

    So eliminate these illusory choices and things get simpler. Do we want Parliament to ratify May’s proposed agreement, or do we go for a no-deal Brexit? Make that the question and you will have a Poll that tells us something useful.

    Parliament will vote for May’s deal, I think, even if it takes Labour MP’s to make up the numbers. Then we will spend the next five years griping about it.Report

    1. Jon. Your assumptions are somewhat cavalier, especially around the People’s Vote and A50. The legal status of A50 is still under consideraton by the European Court and it maybe that it can be legally unilaterally withdrawn with no impact on our current EU membership. Also it seems the EU27 would be prepared to delay A50 for the purpose of implementing a GE or a People’s Vote.
      So activities around this area are not yet illusory and your conclusions regarding the possible questions on a People’s Vote ballot are themselves, at the present time, somewhat speculative.Report

      1. I’m sorrry, but this is both incorrect and irelevant. A50 is part of the Lisbon Treaty that was signed as long ago as Gordon Brown’s administration. It’s not some tentative thing that might be thrown out any time.

        There is a psychological thing going on here. People who would like to reverse the referendum result *still* have to explain how it can then be reversed in law, so of course they refer to A50 as if it is some tentative or provisional thing, which it isn’t.

        The leading light here has been Joleyon Maugham, who has made a series of claims about it having been “shown” that A50 can be reversed, but in fact all that has ever happened is that an Edinburgh Court has referred the case – brouoght by him and some SNP MPs – to the ECB. Well, of course it did, given that an Edinburgh Court has no jurisdiction over A50, so all it can do is to refer the case to the ECB. And in two years, that’s it. Anyone who imagines that the EU is going to spend two years negotiating with the UK and *then* discover that A50 can be reversed is being a bit, well, optimistic. The guys in Brussels are a bit boring, but they are very thorough.

        And the irrelevancy here is equally obvious. A50 is EU law, not UK law, so only the EU can change it. So talk about “legally unilaterally withdrawn” is just pointless. The UK can’t “unilaterally” change anything about A50, since we have no jurisdiction. in fact, during the A50 two year negotiation period we don’t even have a vote on the issue.

        It’s a free World, so if remainers want to indulge in wishful thinking, no-one can stop them. But it’s not a basis for policy.Report

  5. Having looking into this further, I think it was the results from Question 3 Table 5 from the Channel 4 Survation results (rounded figures = Leave 53%, Remain 47%) that were injected into the Indyref2 poll of polls figure for 2 November. This is for 3 reasons:
    1. The question is most closely aligned with the question Indyref2 is set up to answer
    2. The question is most similar to those asked by the polls Indyref2 regularly includes
    3. This table covers the results from all voters with ‘don’t knows excluded’ as does Indyref2
    4. The table includes corrections for likelyhood to vote which should make it the most accurate of those which relate to this question.

    Here is the link to the spreadsheet containing the results concerned, including Question 3 Table 5:

    Could this too be confirmed by whoever administers this site, please? I would get the info myself but the link to “Source data & notes for these graphs” on the page simply takes you back to the same page.


    1. Hi Housey,

      The EURef2 Poll of Polls includes the Survation poll conducted for Channel 4 between 20 Oct and 2 Nov. The reading included from this poll is Remain 54, Leave 46. For more information on the headline vote intention figure from the poll, please see para 8 of our analysis above. Notes and methodology for this poll are available here: https://www.whatukthinks.org/eu/questions/should-the-united-kingdom-remain-a-member-of-the-european-union-or-leave-the-european-union-asked-after-the-referendum/?notes (please see the last entry on the list).

      In case it is helpful to you, in order to examine the source data for each individual poll included in the Poll of Polls please click on one of the three links to the left-hand side of the Poll of Polls page (https://www.whatukthinks.org/eu/opinion-polls/euref2-poll-of-polls/). These take you to each of the three individual time series that we include in the Poll of Polls calculation (‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? (Asked after the referendum)’, ‘If there was another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote?’, and ‘If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote? (Eurotrack)’).

      Best wishes,


  6. Pollsters are such a farce, it’s been clear for about the last 6 months that opinion is changing away from Brexit, pollsters seem to just read the national newspapers, form an opinion, and then come up with the numbers to support it in the form of data adjustments, as such they echo the loud minority and the partisan national press, not the true feelings of the quiet majority. It’s why they always get it wrong unless it’s completely blindingly obvious. 2010 GE – wrong, 2015 GE – wrong, 2016 Ref – wrong, 2017 GE – wrong.

  7. After a little more research it seems very likely that Indyref2 now contains the Channel 4 survey, as the notes beside the poll say that it contains the results of just one Survation poll, carried out between 20 Oct and 2 Nov, exactly the same time bracket as is given for the Channel 4 poll on the current page.

    Could this be confirmed please by whoever administers this site?


  8. Channel 4 does itself a disservice by so brazenly stacking it’s studio audience with pro-remain and token multi-cultutal participants. The ‘general public’ in the studio were completely unrepresentative of the demographic make up of the UK.
    I voted remain but I think it makes the broadcaster look bad to skew things like this. Report

    1. I agree .The same problem afflicts the BBC question time program audiences. In my view saying they are self selecting (which is often the BBC’s defence) is not a convincing argument. Some effort needs to be made to ensure they are representative, as is done via stratification etc in polling. Else the program’s credibility is undermined amongst those whose views are under-represented.Report

  9. It was online – based on internet interviews:

    In general I would guess people comfortable with online surveys would be more likely to vote remain? I am sure they attempt to correct via stratification etc, but I would be interested to know how successful people think their corrections are.

    I wonder if the Indyref2 poll of polls is sample size weighted? If so, and assuming it has been included, perhaps the sample size of this poll could explain the recent change towards Remain in Indyref2? See here:

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