On 15 April, a campaign to hold a referendum on the final terms of the Brexit deal was launched in the UK. But do the public want another vote? And have attitudes toward holding a second referendum really changed in recent months, as some pro-EU campaigners suggest? John Curtice (Strathclyde University) says that there is little reason to think support for a second referendum has reached a turning point, though those arguing for a second referendum may have made some progress in the court of public opinion.
Credit: Welsh photographs (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There has recently been increased talk about the possibility of holding another referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU once the Brexit negotiations have come to some kind of conclusion. A few weeks ago, two former Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Sir John Major, voiced their support for the idea. More recently, much of the speculation was sparked by a poll conducted by YouGov for the pro-EU campaign, Best for Britain.
This was reported by the (also pro-EU) web-based newspaper, The Independent, as showing that ‘support is growing for a fresh referendum on the final Brexit deal’, while Eloise Todd, the Chief Executive of Best for Britain, was quoted as saying, ‘This poll is a turning-point moment’. Meanwhile, on 15 April, a campaign in favour of holding a second referendum, called ‘‘The People’s Vote’’, was launched at a rally in London addressed by a number of well-known critics of Brexit.
But is there any reason to believe that there has been a decisive shift in public attitudes towards holding a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal? When I last wrote about this subject at the end of January it was suggested that there was little consistent evidence that attitudes had changed. Is there any reason now to revise that judgement? Let us start by looking a little more closely at the poll undertaken by Best for Britain. The report of this poll in The Independent focused on the responses to a question that read:
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?
While 36% replied that there ‘should not’ be such a ballot, rather more, 44%, thought that there should. The remaining 19% said that they were ‘not sure’. This was the first time that this particular question had been asked in a poll. So, by definition, it cannot be regarded as capable of providing a robust basis for claiming that support for a fresh referendum has risen or fallen since some previous point in time.
But even if we were to be generous and suggest that the finding might be compared with the results of other, differently worded polls on the subject, the poll still failed to provide any basis to suggest that its finding represented some kind of ‘turning point’. For, as was noted in January, there have been a number of previous polls, most notably from ICM and Survation, that have reported a majority in favour of holding another ballot.
In December, Survation said that 50% were in favour of a second referendum and 34% against, while in a much publicised poll for The Guardian in January, 47% backed the idea while, again, 34% were opposed. In short, rather than representing a ‘turning point’ the level of support for another ballot in the Best for Britain poll was lower than in some previous polls.
Meanwhile the question that was the subject of The Independent’s coverage was, in fact, not the only one about a second referendum that was included on the Best for Britain poll. That question was asked of just a random half of the YouGov sample. The other half was asked a different question, which, curiously, was omitted from the details of the poll that was provided in Best for Britain’s press release on the poll, but which came to light when YouGov posted full details of the poll as it was required to do by the British Polling Council’s rules on transparency. This question read as follows:
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?
What, in truth, was really of interest in the Best for Britain poll was that it provided the best evidence we have had yet that voters’ attitudes towards a second ballot depend on how the issue is addressed. It obtained a somewhat different result. While in response to this question 39% said that there ‘should’ be a public vote, 45% replied that there ‘should not’. (Seventeen per cent said they were not sure.) In short, while one question in the poll found a plurality in favour of a second ballot, another reported that a plurality were opposed.
Giving the public ‘a final say’ sounds more attractive to some voters than does ‘a public vote’ – and (as the details of the Best for Britain poll show) especially to those who voted Leave. This finding reflects the attempt 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.
Those campaigning for a second referendum have evidently taken this lesson on board in calling their proposed ballot, ‘The People’s Vote’. But that still leaves us with the question as to whether attitudes towards a second referendum, however described, have actually changed in recent weeks. Fortunately, last week YouGov also ran once again the question they have periodically asked about the subject during the course of the last twelve months.
This latest reading showed that 38% felt that there should be a second referendum to accept or reject the terms of the Brexit deal, while 45% were opposed. The seven-point lead for ‘should not’ was almost exactly in line with the results of the three previous readings this year, all of which recorded either a six- or seven-point opposition lead. There is, in short, no sign here of any recent change in the balance of opinion on holding a second referendum.
That said, there is one reason for a measure of optimism in the pro-second referendum camp. Taken collectively, the four readings that YouGov have published this year have all showed somewhat lower levels of opposition to the idea than before. In the company’s four previous readings, taken between September and December last year, there was on average as much as a 12-point lead for ‘should not’, almost twice the lead recorded in this year’s four readings.
It would be good to see some updated evidence from other polling companies on this issue, but those arguing for a second referendum may have made some progress in the court of public opinion, even if there is no sign, as yet at least, that attitudes have reached a ‘turning point’.
Sir John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and a Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe.