Tom Clarkson: Three reasons why Leave voters still won't switch sides
There is little evidence to suggest that many Leave voters are having serious 'Bregrets'.
Nearly two years since the EU Referendum, no one feels like they’re winning from Brexit. That’s one of the headline findings from BritainThinks’ latest research, based on online qualitative research among 30 ‘Brexit Diarists’ as well as a series of focus groups and nationally representative polls.
This time last year, BritainThinks’ research repeatedly revealed the high hopes that Leave voters had for post-Brexit Britain. One Leave voter, encapsulating the mood of 52% of the electorate, told us: "I am looking forward to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to rebuild the country: more police, better hospitals, more schools and teachers."
Twelve months and a general election later, and this positivity has disappeared. Two-thirds of the public think that negotiations are going badly and just a quarter think it likely that the UK will get a good deal at the end of negotiations.
Theresa May – who in focus groups prior to last year’s election campaign was lauded for her strength and decisive leadership – is now derided by both Leavers and Remainers. Many Leave voters believe that her heart is not really in it – "[The Government] are trying to find a way not to leave" – while Remainers think that May and her Cabinet are "the blind leading the blind" and simply aren’t up to the job. "It could not be worse. We look like mean-minded fools," said one.
Jeremy Corbyn is hardly faring much better. When asked to rate his performance on Brexit specifically (he undoubtedly appeals to many on other issues), voters consistently give him very low scores. Few Leavers or Remainers think that he has shown any real interest in the issue, whether out of cynicism or apathy. One Remain voter told us: "I don’t think the Labour Party has a priority for Brexit…maybe nuclear disarmament?!"
Despite this disillusionment, however, there is little evidence to suggest that many Leave voters are having serious 'Bregrets'. Although a handful of polls have suggested a change of heart, the long-term poll of polls indicates very little movement since the referendum. Our research has pointed to three reasons for this lack of movement.
Firstly, most voters are bored by Brexit. "The process is everlasting, tedious and confusing", as one Remain voter put it. Normal people dislike politics at the best of times, but many see debates on Brexit as a particularly bad variant of the "he said, she said" dynamic that they detest. Add to this the often very complex nature of the key issues, and few are actively considering (or reconsidering) their position from the referendum.
Second, our research has underlined how "Leave" or "Remain" have ceased to be markers of a one-off voting decision in 2016. Instead, they have become instead, for many people, part of an identity which comes with a range of associated worldviews. This only strengthens the (already strong) tendency for voters not to want to change their mind.
Third, while many have concerns about the process of leaving the EU, the arguments that led 52% of the electorate to vote Leave – principally around immigration and sovereignty – still resonate: "The losers will be lazy spongers who don’t come here to work" as one Leave voter put it in a recent study.
So what happens next? Our research suggests that there is some (often tentative) support across the Brexit divide for a vote on the final deal between the UK and the EU. Unsurprisingly, Remain voters tend to see this as a chance to “right the wrong” of the 2016 referendum. But Leave voters are also positive, with some saying that it is important to ensure that the people’s voice is heard on this issue of a generation. As one Leave voter puts it: "Why should the public not have a say? It was us that voted Leave in the first place."
Tom Clarkson is an associate director BritainThinks, where he leads Brexit research.