This piece was originally written for the AudienceNet blog based on research we carried out from 1-5 April 2016.
The UK teeters on the edge of a cliff, pushed from behind by false assumptions and the over-45s who have the least to lose on the way out.
It would be a gross mistake to talk about a “UK position” when it comes to Brexit and negotiators in other EU member states would do well to remember this. UK-wide research conducted by AudienceNet from 1-5 April shows a society divided on its place in Europe. Given the plethora of previous polls on the issue, it will not come as a surprise that millennials are, by far, the most Europhile. A large majority of 18-24 year olds hope to stay in the European Union, while the Remain position is also well ahead among 25-34 year olds. 35-44 year olds are evenly divided, while every age group over 45 has adopted a position that clearly favours Brexit, with outright majorities. Given that these cohorts tend to have much higher voter turnout, there appears to be considerable trouble ahead for the pro-EU British citizens. In gender terms, both men and women are edging towards Brexit.
Men are quite evenly divided while a substantial proportion of women remain undecided at 27%. The voting intention figures represented here come with a trigger warning that respondents were asked a series of issue-based questions to begin with, to ascertain whether there were specific correlations between various negative assumptions and one’s disposition towards the EU and Brexit.
The survey asked participants to indicate the top three issues that most affect their decision on which way to vote. An astounding 61% cited immigration as one of their top three issues, far ahead of any other option. Indeed, 32% saw it as the number one basis for their decision in the referendum. This underlines the increasingly nationalistic tone of certain elements of the Leave campaign and much of the commentary in the tabloid press. This issue was much more potent among those voting to Leave than the Remain camp, although it still seems to hold some resonance among the undecided.
Brexit voters were also significantly more likely to focus on the cost of EU membership as a basis for their voting intention. Across the whole population, there are widespread misconceptions about how much EU membership costs, and the media have played a significant role in beating this particular drum. When our respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of UK taxes that go into the EU central budget, even pro-EU voters overstated the amount over tenfold. The median figure estimated by Remain voters was 10%. Their Leave counterparts thought it was double this at 20%. 9.5% of respondents thought that over 50% of UK taxation went to the central EU coffers. The actual figure is not even close at 0.6%.
While only 12% referred to over-extensive EU bureaucracy as a basis for their voting intention (17% for Leavers), this also emerged as a basis for wildly mistaken assumptions. A slight majority of participants thought that over 20% of the EU budget was spent on administration. The median figure among Leavers was 25%. Again, this is way off the mark, and 6% (£7.2 billion) is the genuine figure. As a point of reference, the current rate of expenditure on government administration within the UK alone is £15.2 billion.
Comparing each side of the referendum debate, it is apparent that those voting to leave the EU tend to focus more on issues such as immigration, cost of EU membership, and sovereignty, while those hoping to stay in the EU are more mobilised by peace and security, employment, trade and the UK’s international influence. 43% of Remain voters are worried about employment, should Britain exit the EU, while only 19% of Brexit voters consider this an important motivating factor. Correlated with the age profile of either side of the debate, it appears that the Remain camp has a greater stake in remaining in the EU due to the wider opportunities it offers in terms of career development and economic growth.
The two most striking take-outs from this survey have been the extent of the age cleavage in terms of voting intention as well as the extent to which the mix of misinformation and generationally specific predilections have given the Leave campaign the initiative. As beneficiaries of Erasmus, free movement and cheap travel, young Britons are looking outward to the European Union while their older counterparts focus on outdated conceptions of national sovereignty and an isolationist vision of security. Added to this, a diet of hysterical media coverage, reactionary nationalism, misplaced nostalgia and fear mix with mistaken assumptions about the workings of the EU and the UK’s contribution to it. It will be left to younger generations to deal with the full extent of the aftermath.