Peter Kellner / Oct 2017
Turning points are easy to spot in retrospect, but can be hard to detect at the time. For this reason, the statement that follows is tentative, not definite; but if it turns out to be true, the implications for Britain’s future are profound.
Here goes: public opinion, especially working-class opinion, may have started to move against Brexit. The trend is not certain; and even if the recent shift is real, it may not last. However, the latest YouGov poll for The Times suggests that, for the first time since last year’s referendum, buyers’ remorse could be setting in.
In the figures I cite below, I have stripped out the “don’t knows”, so we can compare the data with the 52-48% vote last year to leave the EU. Since then, YouGov has conducted 41 polls in which it has asked voters whether “Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union”. The latest poll, conducted last week, finds that 47% think the decision was right, while 53% think it was wrong. This six-point lead for “wrong” is the highest that YouGov has detected. The previous biggest lead was two points.
On its own, this latest finding could be the result of a sampling wobble. The next survey might bounce back to 50-50 or thereabouts. But there are two features of YouGov’s research which suggest that something beyond a sampling wobble may be at work.
First, YouGov’s polls have detected a gradual shift in recent months. We can divide their 41 post-referendum surveys into three groups. YouGov conducted 24 surveys between last year’s referendum and the start of this year’s general election campaign. In 20 of these surveys, more people said the Brexit vote was right than wrong. In three surveys “right” and “wrong” were level-pegging. In only one was “wrong” narrowly ahead. Given sampling fluctuations, there was nothing to suggest any move from the 52-48% referendum result.
From the start of the election campaign in April, up to mid-August, YouGov conducted 12 polls. Five showed “right” narrowly ahead, four showed “wrong” just ahead and three had the two views attracting equal support. Taken together, the public view in the spring and summer months was 50-50.
Since mid-August, YouGov has conducted five polls. None of them has shown a majority saying the UK was right to vote to leave the EU. Four of them have shown “wrong” ahead, while one has the two sides level-pegging.
If there has been a shift in public opinion since the spring, it has been very slow. In individual polls the “noise” of statistical fluctuation is liable to swamp the “signal” of a gradual, underlying shift. But the overall pattern does suggest a real, if still modest, change in the public mood.
The second reason for concluding that the recent shift in the numbers is real can be found in the demographic pattern. We can see this if we compare the latest YouGov survey with the one it conducted at the very start of August – one of the typical 50-50 polls from that period. Back then, middle-class (ABC1) voters divided 60-40% in saying Britain was wrong to vote for Brexit, while working class (C2DE) voters divided 63-37% saying we took the right decision.
Last week’s poll has virtually identical figures for ABC1 voters (41% right, 59% wrong), but a seven-point shift among C2DE voters, to 56% right, 44% wrong. We cannot be absolutely certain that a seven-point shift is real: the margin of error in sub-samples is greater than for the sample as a whole. But when we look at the series of polls since the start of August, we see a steady decline in the proportion of C2DE voters saying Brexit was the right decision. (The detailed poll-by-poll figures can be viewed on YouGov’s website.) This feels more like a change in working-class attitudes than a sampling fluke; though whether it is lasting or temporary remains to be seen.
If that analysis is necessarily tentative, one thing is beyond doubt. The Government’s reputation for handling the Brexit negotiations is tumbling fast. In mid-April, when Theresa May called the snap election, more people thought the Government was handling the talks well (40%) than badly (35%). By the beginning of August, the figures were: 25% well, 51% badly. By last week, they were: 21% well, 64% badly.
The danger for the Government is clear. If ministers continue to fight each other, and if the talks with the rest of the EU remain deadlocked, then more and more voters may conclude that the UK is heading for the kind of Brexit that will be bad for jobs, prices and the economy generally, and won’t deliver the extra money for the NHS that the Leave campaign promised. If that happens, voters – and especially working-class voters, already feeling the pinch and fearing harder times ahead – may shift further to regretting last year’s vote to leave the EU.
That said, even if YouGov’s latest poll is exactly right, we are some way from seeing the degree of change in public opinion that will have a big impact at Westminster. Not unless we see a run of polls showing “wrong” leading “right” by close to 60-40% will Remainers have a strong case for citing public opinion as a reason to overturn the referendum result.
However, IF that shift does take place, and especially IF the shift continues to be greatest among working-class voters, then MPs would be wise to take notice. In particular, pro-EU Labour MPs from the Midlands and North who were spooked by the size of the pro-Brexit vote last year in their own constituencies, would have reason to return to the Remain fold. They could then join the clamour for Labour’s leadership to shift its policy, and work with SNP, Lib Dem and pro-EU Conservative MPs to secure a Parliamentary majority to abandon Brexit, or at least hold a fresh referendum.
A longer version of this appears in Prospect