New research shows Leave were better at getting their vote out in the EU Referendum

First, Remain supporters were less likely to turn out to vote:  

  • 19% of people who told us in May 2016 that they backed Remain did not vote in the Referendum. Only 11% of people who backed Leave did not vote.
  • In all, 30% of people who a month before the Referendum said they would vote Remain did not do so, either because they did not vote or switched to Leave (compared with 21% who switched away from Leave).

Second, new voters were vital to the outcome of the Referendum:

  • Over half (54%) of people who did not vote in the 2015 General Election voted in the Referendum, and six in ten (60%) of this group voted Leave.
  • Similarly, those who said that they had not very much or no interest in politics were significantly more likely to vote Leave in the Referendum (56% and 80% respectively).

The combination of more Remain than Leave supporters failing to vote and the emergence of new voters may explain why many, including the NatCen survey, underestimated the Leave vote (1). The NatCen survey carried out in May 2016 found a leave vote of 48% (47% when we created a model aimed that accounted for turnout in the 2015 General Election) – when this exercise was repeated with the same people after the Referendum 51% said they had voted leave.

A new electoral force?

The report also reveals a group, described in the report as “economically deprived and anti-immigration,” that contains a high number of new voters (34% did not vote in the General Election, but voted in the Referendum) and people with similar views and experiences.

People in this group turned out in large numbers at the Referendum and voted Leave. They make up 12% of the population and are more likely to be aligned to no political party. They are also struggling financially, are favourable towards the welfare state and believe immigration to have made things worse for Britain.

Did Labour lose it?

Although the finger has been pointed at Labour for failing to get its supporters to vote Remain, the same proportion of Labour supporters (36%) voted Leave as did supporters of the SNP.

In fact, all political parties, with the exception of UKIP, had significant proportions of their supporters vote in the opposite direction to their Party’s position. Even the Liberal Democrats, perhaps the most longstanding pro-Europe party, saw 26% of its supporters vote Leave.

More likely to vote with newspaper than Party

Alongside this, the research finds that people on either side of the Referendum debate were not divided by the usual left-right politics that we see at General Election. In fact whether you are politically left or right had no bearing on which way people voted in the Referendum. Instead on the Remain side were social liberals and on Leave social conservatives.

In fact, people were more likely to follow the position of the newspaper they read than the political party that they support.

The Sun and Daily Express had the highest proportion of Leave voters (both 70%), closely followed by the Daily Mail (66%). Meanwhile, only 9% of Guardian readers voted Leave.

Kirby Swales, Director of Survey Research at NatCen said: “There are many reasons behind the outcome of the EU Referendum, but a key factor in the Leave campaign’s success was that they managed to galvanise a wide-ranging group of people. This included a group of politically disengaged people and this goes some way to explaining why many polls underestimated the leave vote: their models simply did not account for these new voters. Alongside this, the Referendum signalled a move away from traditional left-right politics and towards voting according to underlying political attitudes. Whether this is a one-off change for a once in a lifetime decision, or is the start of a step-change in the political landscape remains to be seen.”


Download the report ‘Understanding the Leave vote’.

For more information contact:

Sophie Brown:, 020 7549 9550 or 07734 960 069

Leigh Marshall:, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850


  • Please note that the overall turnout in the Referendum was 72.2% whereas in the NatCen Panel the estimate was 83%. This is an over-estimate, so although this is closer to the turnout than is seen in most other surveys and polls, we should be aware that this survey cannot fully account for the behaviour of all people who did not turn out to vote.
  • NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
  • The UK in a Changing Europe initiative – – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. It provides an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965 and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.