Two Years On: British Public Opinion and EU Membership

Two years ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union in a public referendum.

This article shows where public opinion stands on the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU, and whether people would like another vote.

In short

  • Hypothetical and Real Referendums: A real referendum could extend or overturn this change, and turnout is inherently uncertain.
  • A People’s Vote?: Whether most people back a referendum is dependent on question wording. For consistent questions, support is slowly increasing.

Asking the Question Again

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?

The example ballot paper was provided by the Electoral Commission. (Source: ITV/Electoral Commission)

These polls were mostly conducted by Survation and BMG Research. The three most recent Survation polls, conducted through internet panels, show Remain leads of a single point or a tie.

‘If there were another referendum…’

If there were another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, how would you vote?

There have been 24 polls so far asking variants of this question (23, when only including members of the British Polling Council).

Even in the first six months of this year, the results have been erratic, ranging from an eight point Remain lead (ComRes/Daily Mirror, 11th January 2018) to a five point Leave lead (ORB/Sunday Telegraph, 7th — 8th March 2018).

The large variation in responses may be due to inconsistent wording and answers people can give in those polls.

YouGov’s Eurotracker

If there was a referendum on British membership of the European Union, how would you vote?

YouGov have also asked similar questions in other EU member states, and if Norwegian respondents would like to join the EU.

Since the referendum, this question has been asked 20 times. In recent months, this poll has shown small leads for Remain.

‘In hindsight’

In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?

GfK have also asked this question twice.

This image shows only the YouGov polls of the hindsight question. (Source: What UK Thinks EU/NatCen)

Whilst ‘Right’ was ahead in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, there have been small ‘Wrong’ leads in this polling series — broken only by one tie and one ‘Right’ lead — since October 2017.

The available polling evidence demonstrates a small shift towards the Remain option, largely driven by the views of 2016 non-voters.

There are few guarantees in politics: any movement seen in surveys for a hypothetical referendum may be extended or reversed during an actual referendum campaign. There is also the underlying uncertainty of who would turn up to vote in a second referendum.

Public Vote or Final Say?

The Independent claimed on 9th April that “support is growing for a fresh referendum on the final Brexit deal”. Eloise Todd, the Chief Executive of Best for Britain (who sponsored the YouGov poll) described the poll as a “turning point moment”. Later that month, the People’s Vote campaign was launched.

The basis of this claim were the responses to the following question:

Once the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over a Brexit deal have been completed, do you think the public should or should not have a final say on whether Britain accepts the deal or remains in the EU after all?

44% said there should be a “final say”, and 36% said there should not, with 19% replying they were ‘not sure’.

However, this poll was the first time that particular question had been asked, so it cannot back up the claim that “support is growing for a fresh referendum”.

Also, the same poll contained another question, where people answering the survey were split between the two questions:

Once the negotiations between Britain and the European Union over a Brexit deal have been completed, do you think there should or should not be a public vote on whether Britain accepts the deal or remains in the EU after all?

This question had a different response. 45% said there should not be a ‘public vote’, and 39% said there should be, with 17% left ‘not sure’.

A plurality backed a second referendum in one question, but opposed it in another: providing strong evidence that the answers are dependent on the way the question is framed.

As Professor Curtice summarised:

This finding reflects the attempt we made in January to explain why Survation and ICM had produced results that were much more favourable to the idea of a second referendum than those that had been published by Opinium and YouGov — we suggested that it was because the description of a second ballot used by the former pair of companies adopted a more ‘populist’ tone that emphasised the role of voters as the final arbiters in the Brexit process.

It also matters what the ‘reject’ option in this new referendum is implied (or is explicitly stated) to mean.

When looking at consistent questions, there is some evidence from YouGov that support for a second EU referendum is growing, albeit slowly and irregularly:

However, these polls do not back the idea that public attitudes have crossed a “turning point”.

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