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One year on: Did the 2019 election result reflect voters’ views on Brexit?

12 December 2020 | Tags: Brexit, WhatUKThinks

New analysis published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and whatukthinks.org suggests that the 2019 election, held a year ago today, had only limited success in reflecting voters’ views on the issue that it was intended to resolve – Brexit.

The research, by Professor Sir John Curtice, confirms that most Leave supporters voted for a pro-Brexit party (83%) and most Remain supporters backed a party that was supportive of a second referendum (83%).

However, despite its evident importance, voters’ choices largely appear not to have reflected their views about how Brexit should be pursued:

  • The Conservatives, who pledged to leave with the deal negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were more likely to receive the backing of those wanting ‘no deal’ (75%) than the backing of those who preferred to leave with a deal (66%). The Brexit Party’s withdrawal from constituencies being defended by the Conservatives left many voters unable to express their view on whether the UK should leave with or without a deal.

Arguments during the election about how Brexit might be stopped also had little impact on how people voted:

  • Support for Labour, who promised to negotiate a revised deal and put it to a referendum, was just as high among those who wanted Brexit cancelled immediately (52%) as it was among those who preferred to remain after holding a referendum (53%).
  • The Liberal Democrats, who were willing to cancel Brexit if they won a majority, were more successful among those who wanted a referendum first (26%) than they were among those who wanted to cancel Brexit without a ballot (21%).

The analysis is based primarily on two surveys conducted shortly before and after the election via NatCen’s online-telephone panel, with random samples of just over 2,400 respondents.

It makes clear the extent to which the Conservatives’ success rested on their ability to garner the vote of most Leave supporters.

No less than 79% of those who currently supported Leave voted for the party, thanks not least to the popularity of Boris Johnson among Leave supporters. Meanwhile just 12% of Leave voters backed Labour in the election.

In contrast, the votes of Remain supporters were divided between Labour (49%), the Liberal Democrats (22%), the SNP and Plaid Cymru (8%), and the Greens (4%), with 15% backing the Conservatives.

Collectively, the pro-second referendum parties outpolled the pro-Brexit parties by 52% to 47%, a tally that matches the evidence of polls at the time on the levels of support for Remain and Leave.

However, the divided loyalties of those who backed Remain enabled the Conservatives to secure the parliamentary majority they needed to execute Brexit.

Professor Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research and Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, said: “One apparent advantage of an election over a referendum was that voters could express their views on alternative ways of implementing, or indeed stopping, Brexit. Yet these choices seemingly made little difference to how people voted, and instead the ballot became a quasi-referendum on Leave and Remain.

However, people’s votes were refracted by a party system and an electoral system that proved more advantageous to one side in the Brexit debate than the other. As a result, it is far from clear that the outcome of the election reflected the majority view on the principle of Brexit.

While the introduction of referendums as part of Britain’s democratic life has proven controversial, this analysis suggests a similarly critical eye should perhaps be cast over the use of elections as a means of resolving particular public policy issues.”

Read 'Was the 2019 General Election a success?' on the WhatUKThinks website.

ENDS

For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel

NatCen Media and Communications Officer

oliver.paynel@natcen.ac.uk

Direct: 0207 549 9550

Mobile: 07734 960 071 

Notes to editors

1. This research was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (https://esrc.ukri.org/) as part of its ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ initiative. Responsibility for the views expressed here lies solely with the author.

2. The National Centre for Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (www.natcen.ac.uk).

3. What UK Thinks: EU provides impartial, up-to-date information on public attitudes to the European Union in the wake of the majority decision that the UK should leave the EU (www.whatukthinks.org/eu/).

4. UK in a Changing Europe is an authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations (https://ukandeu.ac.uk/) .

5. The data in this research come principally from two surveys using NatCen’s random probability mixed mode panel. The participants were a random sample of adults originally interviewed for a recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. One survey, of 2,429 people was conducted during the last three weeks of the election campaign itself (21 November – 11 December 2019), the other of 2,411 people shortly after the election (31 January – 1 March 2020). A total of 2,411 respondents answered the questions on both surveys.