Frank Pringle / Oct 2023
With the replacement of the near-omnipresent coverage on the UK’s departure from the EUin 2020 being quickly subsumed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergent cost-of-living crisis in the UK, polling data has continued to bob along alongside expert analysis by research organisations such as UK in a Changing Europe.
The recent publication by the think-tank, Exploring ‘Bregret’: Public attitudes to Brexit, seven years on, presents another example of the slow inclusion of ‘Bregret’ into the contemporary political lexicon.
However, amongst this production, limited data and research exists on the preferences and opinions of young voters (18-24) who were all too young to cast a vote in 2016, which this article will call the ‘Left Outs’.
UK in a Changing Europe’s report’s central topic of research is the concept of ‘Bregret’ –whereby Leave voters reconsider their original decision in the 2016 referendum and would now opt to vote Remain if given the chance again. In pursuit of researching the extent of ‘Bregret’, they partnered with polling firm PublicFirst and conducted focus groups of voters in Bassetlaw, Thurrock, and Ashfield – all former industrial towns in England which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU – as well as running a UK-wide opinion poll of 4,005 people.
The report’s headline figure, that around a fifth of Leave voters would have voted Remain knowing what they know now, still demonstrates that an overwhelming amount of – predominantly older – Leave voters would still vote to leave the EU. Just over half (51%) of those polled over the age of 65 continuing to opt for Leave, whereas only 10% of young Brits aged 18-24 would join them in this. The inter-generational divide on Europe in the UK remains.
Delving further into this generational divide, the report examined the preferences of those who were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum. These voters are particularly fascinatingas not one member of this demographic would have been 18 years old at the time of the 2016 referendum. The voting age in the 2016 referendum was also a source of controversy at the time, with various unsuccessful campaigns citing the need to expand the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds for the referendum.
The report highlighted that this Left Out demographic is more pro-European than those who could vote in the 2016 referendum. 59% of those too young to vote in the 2016 referendum stated they would have voted Remain, whereas only 53% of those polled opted for the same when given the chance as they did in 2016. Interestingly, only 11% of the Left Out’s said they would have voted to Leave, a third of the number of enduring Leavers amongst their older contemporaries (34%).
Underpinning these findings is a significant level of disillusionment with the Leave campaign in 2016. With Leave campaigners focusing little energy on any possible potential benefits of Brexit for young people – perhaps because no such benefits existed then nor now – over half of the Left Out’s think the Leave campaign ignored them throughout the 2016 campaign. However, the Remain campaign also didn’t curry favour with the Left Out’s, who are split over the Remain campaign’s interest in young people during the campaign.
For the Left Outs, contemporary political strife in the UK largely remains the fault of the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU. 58% of the Left Outs pointed to the impacts of Brexit as the reason why the UK economy has gotten worse over the last year, beating out the Covid-19 pandemic (51%) and the war in Ukraine (37%) – two reasons which are routinely parroted by government ministers when questioned on the UK government’s economic record. This exhibits young people’s strong dissatisfaction with the government’s continuing ignorance of the economic disruption of leaving the European Single Market and Customs Union.
Regardless of hypothetical preferences in the 2016 referendum, UK in a Changing Europe found that 59% of young people would vote for the UK to re-join the EU, whereas only 13% would opt for the UK to remain outside. Nevertheless, the report also pointed to fatigue amongst this group regarding Brexit as a cautionary factor to pro-Europeans. This shows that the Left Outs are positively pragmatic about the prospects of the future UK-EU relationship, with majorities for close UK-EU cooperation (61%), the UK holding a re-join referendum (53%), and for the UK re-joining the EU (56%).
The Left Outs are an ever-growing, pro-European voting bloc in the UK. This poses a danger to the staunchly anti-European Conservatives, but more acutely for the Labour Party – who court far greater number of young voters. With ambiguous, piece meal mentions of a broader UK-EU relationship by Keir Starmer and the Labour leadership, this likely (almost certainly) future government of the UK must address its internal European attitudes sooner rather than later. If Labour doesn’t know their voters, then this could pose trouble for them when election-time comes. The Left Outs will be here for the foreseeable.