Age, Education and the EU Referendum

In a Facebook note, ‘The Great Brexit Debate’ page attempts to argue that the relationship between age and voting Leave in the EU referendum depends on knowledge.

The article is incorrect in its argumentation, ignorant of social research, and tendentious in its use of statistics. This note has been shared over 100 times.

In short

Education dominates age: The article falsely asserts the educational relationship is due to age. Older graduates are more likely to have voted Remain.

Political knowledge does not determine EU voting: From a 2016 Ipsos MORI study into perceptions of the EU, political knowledge appears to have little to do with voting preference.

Social attitudes: It is social attitudes, and views on immigration, that help drive EU referendum voting choice, explaining the age relationship.

Age and Education

There are two notable relationships in polling for the EU referendum.

As a respondent’s education level rises, the propensity to vote Remain also increases. Similarly, as a person gets older, the likelihood to vote Leave grows.

NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey 2016 found a similar relationship to Ipsos MORI.

The author writes:

The older a person is, the more knowledge they accumulate.

The article states Ipsos MORI polling data for the EU referendum (based on pre-referendum surveys), and then states:

We can clearly conclude that statistically, the more knowledgeable a person is, the more likely they are to be a Leave voter.

This is flawed reasoning: political knowledge could be unrelated to the choice to vote Leave, and other factors could plausibly link age and EU referendum choice.

The article then seeks to argue that the educational relationship is really to do with age:

In the 1960s university degree courses were only available to 10% of young people, in the 1980s around 14% went to university and from the 2000s onwards it has risen dramatically to nearly 50%.

So the younger you are, the more likely you are to have a degree.

This suggestion is false. We can look at how age and education together affect the Remain share of voters in the EU referendum:

Whilst older graduates have a lower Remain share than younger ones, it is still well over 50%. (Source: NatCen)

Education is a more important demographic factor than age.

Social Attitudes

Based on the British Social Attitudes survey, we see that the EU referendum was principally divided on education, together with a smaller generational divide.

This pattern is entirely expected if voters acted according to their views on immigration. The centrality of immigration was found in a book called Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU, by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley.

NatCen research — using their mixed mode panel in September 2016 — found a huge disparity in the likelihood to vote Leave based on social attitudes. Among those which recalled voting, 18% of ‘libertarians’ chose Leave compared to 66% of ‘authoritarians’.

The definitions of each term can be read in the full report. (Source: NatCen)

Those labels reflect general views on society: ‘libertarians’ desire individuality and diversity, and ‘authoritarians’ prize order and tradition. It should not be surprising that, given Vote Leave campaigned under the slogan “Take back control”, there should be a high Leave vote share among ‘authoritarians’.

Older people and those without qualifications tend to favour order and tradition, whereas younger people and graduates have more liberal social values.

A common lens for social attitudes are views on immigration. (Source: NatCen)

For the EU referendum, the resulting choice appears to be rooted in concerns of the social consequences of the UK’s membership.

Political Knowledge and Perils of Perception

The article’s thrust is that greater political knowledge induces a higher likelihood of voting Leave. We can test this assertion directly.

Prior to the 2016 EU referendum, Ipsos MORI used their online panel to ask adults aged between 18 and 75 about factual statements relating to the EU.

If this thrust were correct, then we would expect those intending to vote Leave to consistently outperform Remain voters on factual questions.

The results are decidedly mixed — falsifying this theory.

The British public typically overestimate the number of EU immigrants. (Source: Ipsos MORI)

Based on a split sample, 55% of those intending to vote Remain thought it was true that “the UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back”, compared to 89% of Leave voters.

Similarly, 23% of Leave voters answered it was false that MEPs were “directly elected by the citizens of each member state they represent”, compared to 15% of Remainers.

The EU referendum was a complex mix of attitudes, identity and evaluation.

Do not be misled by those selling simple stories for self-serving reasons.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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