Two tribes is not the way to reconnect with abandoned Britain
The EU referendum result was a close one – 52% to 48% suggests a country deeply divided, and there are clearly good reasons for being concerned about that. But the polling the TUC commissioned for when the polls closed suggests that the country isn’t as divided as the close vote suggests. And that’s crucial to our plans – as an organisation that did more than most to advocate a Remain vote – to reconnect with the millions of people, including union members, who voted to Leave. I should perhaps add that nothing in what follows is intended to delegitimise the result. The TUC accepts that a decision has been made, and that, in the new Prime Minister’s phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit.’
First, although a lot of voters (45% – slightly more in the case of Leavers) had made up their minds how to cast their ballot before the campaigning had even begun, it’s important to note that 7% of voters told us they decided how to vote in the last day or two, and 17% in the last month. That’s nearly 6 million people.
Second, as you would expect with that many people deciding near the day, 18% of Remain voters said they were ‘quite close’ or ‘very close’ to voting Leave, and exactly the same proportion of Leave voters could see themselves having voted to Remain. Interestingly, pretty much the only difference among union members in our polling on this sort of question was the fact that 29% of union members who voted to Leave were ‘quite close’ or ‘very close’ to voting the other way (among union members voting Remain, the same 18% were potential switchers.)
Clearly, there was a lot to play for up until the last few days – which is some comfort for those of us who put a lot of hours in that week, even if we didn’t get the result we wanted.
These figures show that although there were a lot of people with fixed views on the referendum, six million of the 33 million who voted (and of course, the additional eight million who didn’t vote at all) clearly weren’t in that category.
Even people with settled views on Leave or Remain could change their minds (either way, of course – there is a certain symmetry in most of the figures above), and of course it’s not the case that voting one way or the other makes it possible to assume we know why any individual voted the way they did.
We asked the usual questions about the three issues that were the most important in helping them decide which way to vote. Among Leave voters, immigration was mentioned by 72%, and controlling our laws by a slightly bigger 75%. But that means 28% of Leave voters (about five million people) didn’t think migration was even one of the top three issues determining their vote.
Nearly a third of Leave voters put public services in this category, while the same proportion of Remain voters said workers’ rights (we know from other questions though that this is about salience: about four fifths of voters in both camps want to keep their workplace rights), the fourth most important issue for Remain voters behind UK influence in the world (42%), jobs (41%) and investment (34%).
So there were many people with varying reasons for voting the way they did, with Leave voters more concentrated on a few issues than Remain voters (union members’ top three issues were even more diverse.)
Then there’s the type of voter. It’s broadly true that age and occupational classification were the defining characteristic of Leave and Remain voters. Two thirds of C2DE voters (C2 means skilled manual) aged over 65 voted to Leave, and 71% of ABC1 (white collar) voters under 35 voted to Remain. But significant numbers of pensioners voted to stay in the EU (a third of retired manual workers, more for the retired non-manual workers) and nearly half (46%) of manual workers under 35 voted for Brexit – hardly a uniformly pro-European younger vote.
Is this detail just designed to confuse? It certainly suggests that simplistic classifications of voters don’t work, which is why we’ve come up with more complex explanations – such as the abandoned who have lost out in the deindustrialisation and casualisation of the last few decades, and now express concern about the pace of change in their communities to which immigration has contributed.
But more importantly, it means that we still have, in murdered MP Jo Cox’s phrase, more in common than divides us, and there are things we can do and say that can bring a superficially divided society together.