The loudest voices on all sides of the Brexit debate have two things in common: they all seem convinced that they know what the public thinks, and they all believe that their supporters are in the majority. Their arguments are often based on myths. Here are four of them, and the evidence that shows why they are wrong.
Myth one: Voters are so fed up with the whole process that they just want to get Brexit done.
The slogan “get Brexit done” dominated the set at last week’s Conservative Party conference. But however fed up voters feel, most think that the right outcome – their preferred form of Brexit, or staying in the European Union after all – matters more than a quick resolution. Recent Opinium surveys have found consistently that just one in three voters agree that “I don’t care how or on what terms Britain leaves the EU as long as we leave as soon as possible”.
Myth two: voters haven’t changed their minds about Brexit since the 2016 referendum.
It’s true that more than eight of ten voters say they would vote the same was in a fresh referendum. But among the minority, more Leave than Remain voters are having second thoughts. Figures in individual polls vary slightly; but an average of recent surveys shows a steady 53-47 per cent preference for Remain. This represents a five-point swing to Remain since 2016. Few general elections produce bigger swings than this.
YouGov surveys show that Conservatives who voted Leave in 2016 remain solid for Brexit. But more than one in four Labour/Leave voters now back Remain or don’t know how they would vote. Shifts away from leave are greatest among working class voters under fifty, NHS nurses and mothers of young children – voters attracted three years ago by hopes of higher-paid jobs and better funded public services, but who now fear the impact of Brexit on both.
Myth three: If voters were persuaded in a new referendum to vote the same way as last time, Leave would win once again.
This the assumption underlying the unofficial slogan, “tell them again”. Its truth seems obvious – but in fact it’s not the case. Two-and-half million teenagers have reached voting age since 2016. Although turnout in this age group tends to be low, those that would vote are overwhelmingly in favour of wanting Britain to stay in the EU.
Over the same period, two million Britons have died. Older voters divided two-to-one in favour of Brexit in 2016.
Taking these two demographic factors together, and allowing for turnout differences, a referendum today would result in 600-700,000 more Remain voters and 800-900,000 fewer Leave voters – even if not a single person changed their mind. As the Leave majority three years ago was just under 1.3 million, this means that a referendum today would produce a Remain majority on demographic factors alone.
Myth four: Voters don’t want another referendum.
Brenda from Bristol’s reaction to the start of the 2017 general election – “you’re joking, not another one” – is widely thought to reflect majority views on a fresh referendum. She doesn’t. One way or another, the final decision about Brexit must be taken by either MPs or the wider electorate. If Britain is to leave the EU without a deal, the latest YouGov survey finds that, by almost two-to-one, voters think the decision should be taken by a referendum than by Parliament. If a deal is agreed with Brussels, the margin widens to more than two-to-one.
This blog first appeared in The Independent