What 'leavers' think about Brexit three years after the EU referendum

When you stripped voters of their labels, left, right, leave or remain, they agreed on what was wrong and how it can be fixed.
- Dr José Javier Olivas Osuna
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Brexit protesters, London, cc-by-2.0

Understanding Brexit impacts at a Local Level is a research project that listened to voters' views on the fallout from the 2016 European Union (EU) referendum. Dr José Javier Olivas Osuna, coordinator of the series of focus groups across the UK, explains how these voters reflected on their choice almost three years after the referendum.

“I don’t care, I just want to leave.” The brusque conclusion from a small-business owner, following his acknowledgement that leaving the European Union was likely to damage his business, was typical of how many leave voters felt about their choice.

The research team visited Barnet, Ceredigion, Mansfield, Pendle and Southampton to hold group interviews about Brexit with local people between May 2018 and January 2019. Encompassing the various concerns voters expressed in relation to their vote, the project offers a rich picture of why a slim majority of voters backed leave in 2016, and why opinions do not appear to have significantly changed since.

A surprise finding was that even though Brexit is likely to inflict significant economic damage on the UK in the short-term, many of the leave-supporting interviewees retained a strong emotional attachment to their vote. Leave voters also expressed frustration and anger about how 'London' ignored them, and wanted to see a form of Brexit delivered as a matter of pride and respect.

Dr Olivas-Osuna says: “Everyone agreed Brexit is bad for the economy. But leave voters in the groups often said they wanted to kick the table and see if something changes for them, and many still feel this way.”

The disillusionment felt by many groups was born out of a sense of long-term neglect. People felt that their regions had been ignored by Britain’s political classes for decades, with poorly funded infrastructure and stretched public services sources of grievance.

There was also a strong sense of nostalgia running through people’s feelings; how the living standards their parents enjoyed aren’t available any more. Dr Olivas-Osuna says: “Secure, well-paid jobs have been replaced with poorly-paid, precarious work. Whole areas feel this sense of decline.”

While there was a shared view that the negative economic consequences of Brexit were likely to make their lives more difficult, rational economic calculations were overwhelmed by strong, angry emotions about their plight. This linked to a widespread sense of disconnect from urban ‘elites’; many voters felt politicians didn’t listen to or care about their concerns.

Dr Olivas-Osuna says: “People felt patronised by experts and politicians, they don’t like being told that they’re wrong. As researchers, we sensed this as well, people said ‘you cannot come from London and tell me I’m wrong’, there was very strong reaction against this.”

Voting leave, and being listened to, is a matter of pride for many of the interviewees. They would rather be wrong but consistent, they care less about how bad the consequences of their choice are”.

While the voters often defined themselves as leavers or remainers, they were often united on the measures that would improve their towns. Handing back of powers to stronger, more responsive regional governments, funding for skills shortages, and improvements to transport to attract in business investment, were all popular ideas.

Dr Olivas-Osuna says: “When you stripped voters of their labels, left, right, leave or remain, they agreed on what was wrong and how it can be fixed.”

“If we can start to analyse the challenges in this way, we might be able to move on from the divisiveness of the Brexit debate. Even the most committed leavers admitted that leaving EU won’t address any of the problems which they identified.”