Seven years on from the referendum, party identity once again outweighs Brexit vote.
Is it possible to depolarise? Can entrenched divisions fade? Throughout the Brexit debates of 2016-2020 it seemed as though the UK was a country entirely and permanently divided between Leave and Remain camps. Brexit stood firmly at the top of poll trackers of public concerns and dominated parliamentary time. Such was the electoral force of the debate around the UK’s exit from the EU that it propelled Boris Johnson into Downing Street with an 80-seat majority with a promise to “get Brexit done”.
However our new research - The Seven Year Itch - suggests that Leavers’ passion may now be waning. Here are the findings.
1. Brexit vote identity is fading
In early 2020, right after the 2019 general election, 50 percent of the public told More in Common that how they voted in the Brexit referendum was important to their personal identity. The People’s Vote marches or Farage-led Brexit rallies were not simply a Westminster artifice but instead a reflection of strongly entrenched views for half of the public. In contrast, just a third said that the political party they voted for was important to their identity.
Polling in June 2023 however paints a different picture. Less than four years after our previous poll, the number of people saying that Brexit is important to their identity has fallen to 39 per cent. And Brexit-related identity has been narrowly overtaken by the 40 percent of people who say the political party they vote for is important to how they see themself. Politics as usual has started to reassert itself and Brexit as a point of political discord is becoming less polarised.
That shift in Brexit’s importance to the public’s identity is accompanied by a significant drop in the salience of Brexit as an issue, with only 12 per cent of the UK population now saying that Brexit is a top issue facing the country. Among our British Seven Segments, only Progressive Activists - who are the most politically engaged - remain particularly animated by Brexit.
2. Brexit depolarisation is not equal
After the 2019 election the number of Leavers and Remainers who said that Brexit was important to their identity was the same at 50 per cent, respectively. Today, the number of Leavers who say that Brexit is important has fallen by 19 points, but the number of Remainers who say the same has fallen by just four points. In short, what persists of “Brexit Identity” is being driven in large part by Remainers.
3. Asymmetrical depolarisation is driven by perceptions of an ‘unsuccessful’ Brexit
Nearly two thirds of voters say that Brexit has not been successful. The eight in ten Remain voters who say that might well be expected, but nearly half of Leave voters also agree that Brexit has not been a success. From focus groups we know that those Leave voters who think that Brexit has been a failure are split between those who demonstrate genuine ‘Bregret’ and think we should rejoin, and those who think our political class has failed to take advantage of the benefits of Brexit. Whatever the reason why individual Leave voters feel that Brexit has been a failure, the result is that they find it harder to take pride in a Leave identity.
4. Britain would vote to rejoin if a referendum were held today.
If another referendum took place, then Rejoin (rather than “Stay Out”) would win by a comfortable 16 point margin. 86 percent of 2016 Remain voters would vote to rejoin along with 17 percent of Leave voters. That outweighs the 83 per cent of 2016 Leave voters and 14 percent of Remain voters who would vote to stay out; it is not however, the most notable shift.
The swing towards rejoining the EU is primarily driven by those who were too young to vote in the 2016 general election - only 18 percent of this group would vote to stay out of the European Union and 82 per cent would vote to rejoin. A shift in favour of rejoining is then being driven as much by demographic change as by Leavers-turned-Remainers.
5. The idea of a new Referendum is in itself divisive
Britons are split 41-41 on whether the UK should hold another referendum within the next five years, with even 25 per cent of Remain voters sceptical about the idea of re-running the 2016 vote. From our focus groups we know that this hesitancy is driven by a desire to avoid a return to the divisive Brexit wars of the late 2010s and a worry that it would distract the country from dealing with real and immediate domestic issues such as the cost of living and NHS backlogs.
6. Most don’t know Starmer’s EU policy
Prior to this research, in polling for the Power Test , we asked if the public knew what Keir Starmer’s EU policy was. Over half of the public responded “don’t know”, while only 19 per cent correctly identified that he has pledged that a Labour government would stay out of the EU, Customs Union and Single Market, but pursue a closer relationship with Europe. Fifteen per cent think that a Labour government would take Britain back into the EU.
This ambiguity appears to serve the Labour Party well. We found that, although Labour voters would clearly like Keir Starmer to pursue a closer relationship with the bloc, when it comes to actually rejoining those voters who have either directly switched to Labour from the Conservatives or who are now undecided - the true swing voters - would in fact be less likely to vote Labour if the party committed to rejoining the EU.
That said, the shift against Brexit does create the space for Labour to make louder overtures about the potential closer relationship with the European Union, without the fear that this will alienate voters who left the party in 2019 and who they are trying to win back.
7. The politics of Brexit (de)polarisation now favour Labour
Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn were the two top reasons people gave for voting Conservative in 2019. With Corbyn gone and the politics of Brexit having shifted, it has become much harder to identify a unifying glue to keep the Tory 2019 coalition together.
The Tories’ 2019 victory was powered in no small part by a group of socially conservative but economically more statist voters who had traditionally voted Labour but who shifted to the Tories, first in the 2017 election and then in greater numbers in 2019. In More in Common’s segmentation we refer to this group of voters as ‘Loyal Nationals’. Their swing to the Conservatives played a significant role in powering Tory victories in seats across the north and the Midlands - in what has become known as the Red Wall.
While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party undoubtedly played a role in that shift, so too did a combination of Brexit and other cultural drivers. These drivers trumped the fact that most Loyal Nationals were not aligned with traditional Conservative economic policy. However, as Brexit polarisation fades, economics has clearly reasserted itself as the driving political force. The result is that their vote is now being driven by bread and butter issues such as the cost of living, interest rates and the NHS and as it stands they disapprove of the Government’s performance in these areas.
As a result, the realignment of Britons’ electoral loyalties looks - temporarily at least - to have reversed with Loyal National voters, returning to the Labour fold. However the wider result of Brexit disillusionment among Loyal Nationals appears to be a growing lack of faith in all politicians and their promises.
Conversely, the enduring Remain identities are preventing the Conservatives from winning back the group of Remain voting but more economically right leaning voters - a group that we call ‘Established Liberals’. This group began to shift away from the Conservative Party under May and Johnson, but are much more positive about Rishi Sunak - and prefer him as PM. However the Conservatives’ brand issues and Brexit legacy are preventing these voters from returning to the Conservative fold.
In short, the electoral benefit for the Conservatives of a Brexit-triggered realignment appears to have been reversed by the different ways in which the pace of depolarisation of Leavers and Remainers across the British Seven Segments has evolved over the last seven years.