EU Referendum: why did the electorate vote to leave?

By Richard Smith

As researchers, we would obviously love to have had all voters in the referendum complete a mandatory survey after voting to explain their motivations. Although whether they would have admitted to their actual underlying emotional reasons for voting is arguable.

One election night online exit poll showed that younger voters were against leaving in a ratio of around 3:1, but that the over 50s tended to be almost 3 in 5 in favour of leaving.

There is some evidence; we can look at the geography of who voted for and against leave and make some assumptions based on demographics. The Guardian and others have been quick to point out the correlation between lower incomes, lower educational attainment and a higher leave vote.

All of this is useful information, and provides an indication of the background to some of the leave votes. However, like any quantitative measure it doesn’t explain the highly educated younger person in Scotland who voted leave, or the poorly educated pensioner in Newcastle who voted to remain.

Whilst Boris and co made some powerful arguments for Brexit, I think even he would admit that the vast majority of politicians, economists, world leaders and senior business folk were strongly recommending remain. In this scenario, one has to accept that at least to some extent vote leave was a protest vote; whole chunks of the population sticking two fingers up at the establishment, the media and society in general.  But why?

When we go onto an airliner we’re told to turn our mobile phones off as this ‘may affect the safe operation of the plane’. We suspect this isn’t really true because if it was dangerous they would temporarily confiscate our mobiles before we got onto the plane and ensure that they were switched off. Effectively, we suspect they are lying to us; it’s all about crowd control and convenience on their part.

By giving people the option of voting leave in a referendum, there was an implicit message that it was OK to vote leave; that you could decide one way or the other. This was closely followed by dire warnings of what could happen if you did vote to leave. The conclusion I think many reached was that they were being lied to.

The net result of this, rather than behavioural biases, appears a lot more like cognitive dissonance. Whist the EU clearly has its issues, I simply don’t believe that the majority of leave voters voted because they were appalled at the excesses of Brussels, meddling Eurocrat lawmakers or the lack of accountability (or indeed published accounts).  Instead they focussed on issues that they didn’t agree with (multi-culturalism, immigration; neo-liberal values), and convinced themselves that a vote to leave was consistent with (and a proxy for) a vote against all of these things.

In summary:

  • In giving people the opportunity to vote leave, but telling them not to, there was a mixed message which some felt ultimately to be deceitful and therefore rebelled against
  • In giving people the opportunity to vote leave, the government was presenting them with an opportunity to vote against all those aspects of modern Britain that they oppose and that make them anxious
  • This is a really old chestnut, but: if you ask people a question that they do not really understand and cannot give a reasoned argument to – they will answer another question that they do understand.

Finally, did the bookies call it wrong but get it right?  As Matthew Shaddick, Ladbrokes’ head of political betting, said: “The truth is that bookies do not offer markets on political events to help people forecast the results. We do it to turn a profit (or at least not lose too much) and in that respect, this vote worked out very well for us.”

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