YouGov has conducted focus groups for the Times (£) to understand those whose EU referendum vote and party alignment seem to conflict: Leave voters who vote for Remain parties, and Remain voters who now back Brexiteer parties.
Our first focus group was made up of 2016 Leave voters who still support leave, but voted for pro-remain parties (Greens, Change UK and the Lib Dems) at the EU elections, and would do so in the next General Election. There were a number of reasons behind their decision to vote Leave, much of it relating to control and sovereignty, but one recurring theme was a dissatisfaction with the pro-Remain Conservative Government of the time.
“I would like to say now that it wasn't a protest vote, because I feel a little stupid saying it was.... but it was. I think I did succumb to the hysteria around Cameron’s government, and thought somewhere on the back of my mind that maybe this could change things. If I stood back a little bit at the time, I probably could have realised how stupid that was”.
In general, however, hindsight did not make any difference to how they would vote tomorrow – though some of them would like to have been better informed, and less trusting, for most, the chaos around Brexit has further eroded their trust in politicians, but confirmed a belief that the UK is right to leave the EU. And there was certainly no sense that Labour could have done a better job.
“I think Labour would have done much worse. Considering it’s a Remain dominated party, there wasn't much ambition to get a great deal. I would rather remain in the EU anyway than leave to remain in a customs union. That would be the most backwards result in the world.”
“It's become a circus and all I see are clowns. Although that is an insult to clowns.”
On the more unusual issue of their party support in light of this, participants were aware of the conflict, and often struggled with it. They broadly saw themselves as political centrists, with a particular interest in environmental issues, and have generally been historically loyal to either the Greens or the Lib Dems (with some recent flirtations with Change UK).
“I find it very difficult as I am a bit of an eco-warrior so naturally vote Green but the fact they want to remain does make it difficult.”
Indeed, when pushed, none of them were tempted to change their vote, even with their party of choice pushing for a second referendum. There seemed to be a belief that the Lib Dems/Greens are unlikely to actually get into power and, crucially, they see Brexit as just one disagreement amongst a wider suite of policies that they agree with.
Also, their compulsion to vote Green/Lib Dem is as much about their dislike of the Conservatives and Labour as much as it is about their fondness for these parties – and, interestingly, for them, having firm and coherent political views (even on Brexit) was more important than the party’s Brexit policy itself.
“I would rather have a party in power I have some faith in being proactive in their commitments regardless of them being Leave or Remain.”
The second group consisted of people who voted remain in 2016 but are now staunch Brexiteers – many of them No Deal advocates. When talking about their Remain vote it became very clear that it was ‘soft’ – and many had only made a decision on the day, buoyed by a sense of the virtue of European co-operation and a ‘better the devil you know’ mentality.
By contrast, their views on Brexit were much more staunch, and had been formed by their perception of the EU’s intransigent behaviour towards the UK as much as their perception of the establishment trying to thwart Brexit. Indeed, the longer that the process has taken, the more it seems to have consolidated their support for leaving the EU
“The complete betrayal of the Brexit vote of leaving and the scare tactics used since has totally steeled my resolve to leave. I think there has been so much skulduggery in trying to derail Brexit.”
“If I’d have known then how the European Commission would play things, and how the EU would very quickly more towards more centralisation, I'd have voted Leave”.
There was also a belief that the EU are now pushing for a deeper level of centralisation and integration as a direct response to Brexit, and this makes the need to leave even greater. Most were content with the prospect of a No Deal Brexit, through a combination of impatience and concern that, if we do not leave, then we may never leave at all.
"I'd say it's what has gone on in Europe since, esp. with the various very rapid moves to increase centralisation and influence of Brussels. I was also very disgusted with how the Commission went about trying to - frankly - screw us over rather than negotiating in good faith a solution that would work for all."
In terms of their party support, most of the group were Conservative loyalists, with their vote now broadly split between them and the Brexit party, though the latter was less of an appealing prospect at a general election due to their lack of a policy portfolio. No other party were in the slightest bit appealing to them, and particularly not Labour, with unequivocal negativity directed to Jeremy Corbyn.
Though the groups were clearly different in terms of how they can be described, with the first group ‘conflicted’ and the second ‘converted’, what unites them is the sense of being politically homeless – or more specifically, that no one political party exactly reflects their views. Indeed, the first group may be interested to know about the existence of the SDP – a broadly centrist pro-leave party, though it did not come up in discussions. For this group, however, it is clear that Brexit is not the sole determiner of voting intention – and both the Lib Dems and Greens need to be conscious that there are leave voters amongst their ranks who need them to focus less on their remain agenda and more on other policies.
"Yes I am [conflicted]! if the greens were up for leaving they would have won IMO" (group 1)
For the second group however, Brexit was the paramount determiner of voting intention. Interestingly, when asked about a coalition between the Brexit party and the Conservatives there was unanimous positivity to the idea, and this perhaps demonstrates their unmet need for a party that has the ability to deliver a centre right policy platform whilst being pro-Brexit, and if necessary, pro-no deal. The question is whether a new Brexiteer PM will fill this gap and prevent them from voting for the Brexit party should a general election take place before Brexit is delivered.