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Brexit – do we really know what swung the vote?

July 1, 2016

Leave Campaigners

Over the past few of days, there have been so many references to the Wars of the Roses, Game of Thrones and House of Cards that you could be forgiven for thinking that the plotting politicians engineered Brexit on their own. They didn’t. It was the voters. And even if the vote had gone the other way by a similar margin, we would still be talking about a divided Britain. So if we can somehow look beyond the flashing of knives, perhaps we should be focused on why these divisions built up in the first place. Or, to be more specific, why the electorate delivered such a slap in the face of our political elite. We think we know. But do we?

On Brexit day, a friend posted his reaction on Facebook:

Today’s events represent significant change. But from the excellent foundations of the original treaties rebuilding post war Europe, the current EU structures have become an unaccountable, bloated and very expensive bureaucratic machine, paying decreasing attention to the individual wishes of each sovereign nation population. The U.K. Population on our tiny islands has never shirked in the past from taking on the seemingly impossible and I personally think, that in time when current histrionics calm down and a revised EU structure is built, that once again Great Britain will have led the way.

Elegantly put, and certainly not the words of a disadvantaged Northerner, a neo-Nazi or a disgruntled pensioner pining for the days when the only foreigners settling in their country were bus drivers from Barbados, factory workers from Nigeria and Punjabis who opened corner shops and operated post offices.

I do, however, find it interesting that he referred to the EU as paying decreasing attention to the individual wishes of its member states. His statement reflects a common perception of the EU as a society of unelected bureaucrats busy interfering in citizens’ lives with unnecessary red tape on stuff like the shape of bananas.

The accusation about ignoring the individual wishes of individual populations is inevitable in a project that sees “one size fits all” as a virtue. I agree with him that there should be limits to integration and commonality. After all, “Europe” is a land mass, not a collection of entities with identical cultures, languages and heritage. Any fool can tell you that that a Romanian is unlikely to think and act like a German, nor a Finn like an Italian. What’s more, that diversity should be cherished, not suppressed.

The same applies to the United Kingdom, even if we British do speak the same language. As a nation, we are highly diverse, yet we have a common system of democracy that includes local and national elected bodies. We have media that reflect virtually all shades of political opinion. We have opinion pollsters coming out of our ears.

But despite the myriad ways for the thoughts of individual voters to percolate up to the political decision makers, the Leave vote came as a surprise, even to leading campaigners such as Michael Gove and Nigel Farage. How could our political classes have been so blind to the strength of popular concern over immigration and national identity? Was it the arrogance of those who had been in power too long, was it impotence in the face of events and conditions beyond their control, or did our leaders find themselves in a doctrinaire bubble in which they believed that their rhetoric about short-term pain and long-term gain was self-evident? Did they lose touch, or were they never in touch?

Whatever the answer – and it was almost certainly a combination of all three – going forward we must listen and act if the United Kingdom is not to be permanently divided in the near future.

I’m not sure even now that we truly know the mind of our population. Was immigration really the key issue? Or was it economic deprivation? Or disempowerment? A sense of alienation between North and South? Was it “I want my country back”?

If the primary reason was a sense of abandonment among communities devastated by the loss of their traditional sources of employment – mining, manufacturing, fishing, ship building – then why did Scotland vote Remain and the North of England vote Leave? Both regions have communities badly affected by globalisation. Did a higher level of immigration into the North of England tip the balance?

Either we don’t know, or we don’t trust the interpretation of the data we have by those whose who we believe are politically motivated. Not just by politicians, but by media outlets, their editors and owners.

Our national issues are generally known. Otherwise they wouldn’t be exploited by unscrupulous rabble-rousers like Nigel Farage. But what we clearly didn’t understand was the strength of feeling about them. And I suggest that no opinion polls using relatively tiny samples are likely to be able to tell us what people in one town think as opposed to voters in another.

Perhaps it’s time that we created an independent and impartial National Opinion Bureau that seeks to poll the entire population at regular intervals. We already have an Office for National Statistics. We carry out national censuses every decade or so. If the private opinion pollsters, the national politicians and the local authorities can’t provide a reliable guide to concerns of the electorate, is it such a daft idea to set up a mechanism that is capable of accurately reflecting our thinking as a nation on, say, an annual basis?

You might think that a National Opinion Bureau sounds rather Stalinist, open to manipulation and yet another expensive layer of bureaucracy. It needn’t be so. The data would be valuable not only to government but to business. It should be independently audited and publicly available. It could use existing delivery methods – local authorities, the electoral register and online polling.

If the government were to baulk at the cost of setting it up, it could subcontract the job to one or more of the opinion poll companies working to a common specification. The important feature would be that the data collected would be far more granular than is currently collected privately. It could reach out to towns and communities. It could provide a regular dashboard on quality of life and significant issues affecting local communities. It could register strength of feeling about a number of key indicators – crime, immigration, employment, public services and economic well-being. And the results would be available for everybody to see, unvarnished by political spin.

I’m not suggesting that we should govern by league tables and punish low-performing authorities and government departments. But I do think we could use a barometer of national opinion. It would not necessarily be a guide to action, but would certainly identify perception in an objective manner. It would not replace opinion polls, because it would not ask political questions. And besides, it would be impractical to carry out surveys that reach the majority of the population more often than once a year.

If Peterborough was highly concerned about immigration, and Derby less so, it would give local and national government the opportunity to find out why. And if satisfaction with local services was high in rural Wales, but less so in Cardiff and Swansea, then that could be the catalyst for creative solutions.

It’s possible that readers who work in government, as local councillors or in social services might say “we don’t need this. We know what the issues are. The problem is that national government isn’t listening.” In which case I would reply that perhaps such a system would force government to listen, because the data would attract plenty of media attention.

The key to the success of a National Opinion Bureau would be buy-in. To achieve that you would need follow-up based on results, action if needed, and at the very least improved communications. We may not be able to convince the elderly that they can have their country back, communities concerned about immigration that there is an instant fix, or areas of high unemployment that massive inward investment is just around the corner. But if we can convince them that they are at least being listened to, and that their feedback is reflected in national and local policy, then that would go a long way towards healing our current divisions.

The concept of Gross National Happiness has been bandied about in various countries and in the United Nations ever since the King of Bhutan first coined the phrase in 1972. Measurement models involving seven-hour interviews clearly wouldn’t work. But surely we in the still-United Kingdom have the imagination and expertise to come up with a simple method of taking the national temperature in a manner that would produce meaningful and useful results. And if we succeeded, we would become the first major nation to do so.

It could be a vehicle for short-term political opportunism, but if used properly it could also be a valuable aid to long-term social and economic planning.

Either way, you could argue that the Brexit surprise results from a failure to communicate. And communications means listening as well as broadcasting. We need to start listening now, even if we don’t like what we hear.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK

  1. Robert Lacey permalink

    Dear Steve,

    Don’t forget we have MPs’ surgeries that operate pretty effectively.

    Best wishes,


  2. Indeed we do, Robert. But in surgeries do not MPs primarily deal with people who bring acute problems to them? I’m not sure that on their own they provide an effective measure of the underlying emotions in a constituency, not that any other current means of taking the temperature seem much better. In any event, I don’t think any kind of institutionalised poll could have given an early warning of this referendum result. The outcome was heavily influenced by the debate during the campaign, and also, I think, by discussions at the grass roots between voters. That certainly happened in my family!

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