Raphael Malek: The white noise of Brexit drowned out other voices in 2018

Written by Raphael Malek on 17 December 2018 in Opinion

The year in public opinion: everything changes, everything stays the same

2018 was another tumultuous year in UK politics. A deal was struck with the EU which would make deep changes to our relationship with our closest trading partner. There were mass high-profile cabinet resignations. A vote of no confidence in the PM was held. Labour declared itself a “government-in-waiting”. Donald Trump declared Britain “in turmoil”. Danny Dyer declared David Cameron “a tw*t”.

Looking at the headline polling, however, you would be forgiven for thinking that not much had happened. Labour and the Conservatives remain neck-and-neck in the polls at around 40%, while no other party has consistently broken into double digits. There has not been a great swing to Remain, nor has Jeremy Corbyn established himself as voters’ preferred PM. Our analysis suggests that this is because Brexit has dominated the public agenda and crowded out other concerns – but without voters actually paying much attention to the political machinations or showing much inclination to change their minds on the issue.

Brexit has certainly been at the forefront of public consciousness in 2018 – especially from September onwards. Ipsos MORI’s Issues Index puts Brexit as most frequently-cited important issue facing the UK by some distance at 62%. Indeed, no other issue has scored so highly since the economy in the aftermath of the recession (reaching 70% in January 2009) and again at the start of the Coalition’s austerity programme (64% in February 2012). According to Populus’ weekly Top Ten Most Noticed tracker, Brexit was one of the three most noticed news topics in 36 weeks this year. Only a small handful of other domestic news stories were able to cut through the Brexit noise, including the Salisbury poisoning, the weather (first the Beast from the East in March and then the summer heatwave), and England’s performance in the World Cup.

Yet despite Brexit looming large, BritainThinks’ qualitative research found that many voters stopped paying attention to the detailed developments as the year wore on. They formed an overall impression that the government is bungling the negotiations but have otherwise largely tuned out, noticing only those stories that confirm their pre-existing point of view. “You get the same old faces in. I’ve kind of lost interest in the content of what they’re saying”, admitted a Remain voter in one of our focus groups. “I know I should concentrate on all this and should take it all in but it just doesn’t really bother me at the minute,” was another typical comment.

This is reflected in the quantitative polling on Brexit, too. According to YouGov, the proportion of the public thinking the government is handling Brexit badly has increased from 59% to 75% (providing a rare instance of public unity at a time of general discord). But, while Remain appears to have established a small, consistent lead over Leave in most polls, this hasn’t changed much over the course of the year. BritainThinks’ Brexit Diaries research divides voters into four segments, from Devastated Pessimists to Die-Hards; while there have been some minor fluctuations over the course of the year, the size of each of the segments is largely the same in December as it was in January. Similarly, there are some signs that support for a ‘People’s Vote’ has increased slightly – but not consistently across all surveys and overall support depends on the question asked of voters.

Other concerns have bubbled just below the surface. The NHS has been the second most frequently-cited issue in Ipsos MORI’s Issues Index over the course of the year – and that is before the inevitable ‘winter crisis’ news stories appear around Christmas. Concern about crime is at the highest level since the 2011 London Riots, with 26% citing it as one of the most important issues facing the country (rising to 35% in London). Homelessness, too, is now regularly raised as an urgent priority in our focus groups, particularly in cities like London and Manchester. Most voters are now impatient to get Brexit resolved so that attention can return to day-to-day domestic issues. After all, only 6% of voters cited the EU/Europe as an important issue facing the country in before the referendum was promised in January 2013. “It’s just going on and on and on. Get on with it!”, implored a voter in one of our focus groups in Slough – and that was only in June.

Parties in Westminster also struggled to get their domestic policy agendas heard over the white noise of Brexit. Instead of any policy announcements, the only party-specific news stories that the public noticed according to Populus were party conferences, Boris Johnson’s resignation and Labour’s anti-Semitism row (although focus group conversation revealed few knew what anti-Semitism actually was). The lack of breakthrough party news was reflected in the stasis seen in most voting intention polling, with neither party able to break the deadlock and take a significant lead – despite how badly the Government has been seen to handle the most important issue of the day.

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn remained unpopular party leaders throughout 2018: “Don’t Know” ended the year as the public’s preferred Prime Minister in most trackers, while May ended the year with a net satisfaction score of -22 and Corbyn with a score of -32 according to Ipsos MORI. As one voter in a focus group in Thurrock told us, “May doesn’t know the way forward but Corbyn doesn’t know where to start.” There are some signs that support for Corbyn among young people decreased over the course of the year: in January, 51% of 18-24-year-olds told YouGov he would make a better PM than May but only 35% still said the same in November. This could be a result of young Remain voters becoming disenchanted by his ambiguous stance on Brexit – but it may also be due simply to having a lower profile since the General Election campaign (as suggested by the number of Google searches for “Jeremy Corbyn” being around twenty times lower in December 2018 than they were in June 2017).

So, despite the extraordinary political year that has rocked Westminster, public opinion on the key political issues has changed little. BritainThinks will be launching a new ‘Mood of the Nation’ measure in January 2019, tracking how the public is feeling and how optimistic they are about the prospects of the UK, their local area and their personal lives. Voters begun 2018 telling us in focus groups that they felt uncertain, pessimistic and worried. It would not come as much of a surprise if they started 2019 feeling much the same.

About the author

Raphael Malek is associate director at BritainThinks

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