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Why the Brexit divisions are here to stay

January 12th, 2019

When you stop and think about it, voting is a very low information form of communication. We get nothing about the certainty of the voter’s view, nothing about the enthusiasm of the voter, nothing about the considerations that led the voter to that view. All we get is a single recorded choice.

As a result, every so often a political truth is so stark staring obvious, so central to British politics, that it is almost entirely missed. We are at such a moment. On this occasion it matters because a lot of politicians may be fatally miscalculating as a consequence.

What is this important truth? Simply this: people are invested in their Brexit position to a degree that we are completely unaccustomed to, and far more than they are in other political positions.

We have a lot of evidence of this. 44% of the public self-identify as very strong Remainers or Leavers. If you include fairly strong supporters, this rises to 77% of voters. By way of comparison, just 9% of the public are very strong party supporters and even if you include fairly strong supporters this rises to just 37%. Brexit has become a facet of people’s personalities.

You don’t buy it?  OK, here are a few other findings to consider. 62% of the public unprompted name Brexit as one of the three most important issues facing Britain. 52% name it as the most important issue.

Nor are they in a compromising mood. In 2017, YouGov recorded that 61% of Leave voters thought that significant damage to the British economy would be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU. A plurality thought that Brexit causing you or members of your family to lose their job to be a price worth paying for bringing Britain out of the EU. Last summer we had a poll showing that 58% of Leave voters rated Britain leaving the EU as more important than maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. 

This last week we found out that more than half of Leave supporters would see a 30% drop in house prices as a price worth paying for Brexit.  A third of Leave supporters would accept an 8% fall in GDP. So to be clear, roughly 1 in 6 voters are prepared for a crash more severe than any in living memory for Brexit.

YouGov did not poll on the prospect of deaths caused by lack of medicines but I expect that we would see a similar picture there. These would no doubt be seen by a sizeable chunk of the population as casualties of war, to be mourned and regretted, rather than require a change of strategy.

In case you’re wondering, Remainers are actually more likely to identify as very strong supporters than Leavers are. So don’t go looking for reasonableness there either.

Very strong supporters of either side were more likely to vote in the last general election than average. So the electorate is disproportionately comprised of zealots.

Politicians are used to dealing with a public that is now not emotionally attached to their party. They deal with it by triangulating between the hardline positions and giving retail offers at elections, looking to buy their votes. That is unlikely to work in relation to voters who see politicians acting in a manner hostile to their identity.

This poses real risks for many politicians who are doing the opposite.  Jeremy Corbyn is the most obvious example. A lifelong hardliner on many subjects, oddly he is triangulating on the one subject where a large chunk of the public is brooking no compromise. More than three quarters of Labour’s current voting support are Remain supporters. 9 out of 10 Labour party members would vote to stay in the EU in a second referendum. If he is seen as not having fought hard enough to end Brexit, he will be in real trouble.  

There are plenty of signs that many of his former supporters are losing faith and much of his online media outriders’ efforts at present are devoted to attacking the anti-Brexit crowd, under an internal party pressure that is unfamiliar to them. This is a coming battle and one he should think about very carefully before fighting.

He’s not the only one in danger of making a mistake. Conservative MPs considering how to vote on the meaningful vote would be blundering if they thought that their decision could be finessed with their electorates. It won’t. They should make their decisions in the knowledge that whatever they do will not be forgotten by their voters.

That might not mean what those MPs think it means. Many of them are confusing their own intensity of feeling about the form of Brexit with the public’s intensity of feeling about the fact of Brexit. Much of the Leave-supporting part of the public see done as better than perfect. Brexit, as our Prime Minister so wisely said, means Brexit. While there is little palpable enthusiasm for the deal, it seems more capable of attracting a broader base of support than leaving without a deal, and if MPs imperil Brexit by pursuing the best at the expense of the good, they might find that their decision boomerangs with the voters that they were chasing.  

More generally, MPs are going to need to get used to the idea that Brexit is embedded in voters’ personalities for a long time to come and instead of triangulating and bribing voters, politicians will need to explain to voters how their choices can be reconciled with their beliefs. That will mean that for the while politics is going to be very different from what they have been used to for the last couple of generations. So far, few politicians have yet caught up.

Alastair Meeks