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Leave or Remain: Perceptions of Legitimacy in the Political Process
The 2016 UK European Union Membership Referendum has proven socially and politically divisive, not least because of the 52%-48% split in the popular vote. However, the closeness of the result also obscures a number of nuanced underlying reasons regarding why people may have voted the ways they did. An analysis of Ipsos Mori survey data helps illuminate the grounds for voting either Leave or Remain. Qualitative and quantitative analysis of the data in the context of perceptions of legitimacy in the political process might reveal whether voters feel that they have input on political decisions being made, and whether the government should have more or less power in decision-making. The research reveals clear patterns of voter behaviour in the EU referendum based on two factors:
1. Their view of the legitimacy (or otherwise) of different political institutions in political decision-making; and
2. Their perception of whether citizen influence makes any difference to the political decisions made on their behalf.
The Legitimacy of Institutions in Decision-Making
First, there were differences expressed between the two camps when looking at responses to specific issues and how they should be addressed politically. In general terms, Leave and Remain voters expressed differences based on whether issues directly affected them or whether issues were considered to have wider impact on the community and environment. For example, whether voters supported the use of public funds to pay for the repair and restoration of the Palace of Westminster. It was found that Remain voters were more likely to support this than Leave voters. Further analysis found that 54.3% of Remain voters supported the repair compared with 26% opposed. By contrast, 47.4% of Leave voters supported the proposals, and 36.5% were opposed. The data indicates differences in views on public spending on domestic political institutions, with Leave voters less interested in spending general taxation revenues on issues and projects with low perceptions of direct impact on people’s lives.
In isolation, single issue data falls short of the benchmark for definitive generalisations. However, it can help to indicate some of the differences in people’s views of other political processes. For instance, views on fracking also revealed some variances in how Leavers and Remainers view political decision-making and powers of local government. Of those who expressed a preference towards Remain, 33.1% believed that decisions about fracking for their own areas should be made by local government. 29.7% had the view that there should be a vote in parliament, while 24.2% thought there should be a public referendum. Leave voters held divergent views; 41.8% thought that a referendum was the best option to address the fracking issue, 24.1% believed that local government should decide and 18.3% thought that there should be a vote in parliament. The results show that Leave voters would prefer to be included in the decision-making process via a referendum, rather than by the parliament making the decision without direct consultation. This appears to support Curry, Jiga-Boy and Gottfried’s (2019, forthcoming) research that suggest Leave voters are more likely to focus on the legitimacy of inputs, and their intention of ‘taking back control’. That being said, a majority of both Remain and Leave voters believe that important political questions should be determined by referendums, which makes a strong case for the public increasingly valuing input legitimation of political decisions. This holds true even for Remainers, who lost the EU referendum but nevertheless continue to support the use of direct democracy in future decisions. Curry, Jiga-Boy and Gottfried’s research contends that even if Remain voters did not like the outcome of the EU referendum, they nevertheless respected the process by which that outcome was obtained. This raises questions about whether, post Brexit referendum, people are more or less willing to see referendums as a legitimate way of making political decisions.
Perceived Political Influence
Even larger differences between Leave and Remain voters were evident on their perceptions of how much influence they have at both a local and national levels. Both show very little support for the belief that they have ‘a great deal of influence’ at the local level. However, these feelings were stronger amongst Leave voters, with 45.6% believing they have ‘no influence at all’ compared to 41.8% of Remain voters. When asked this same question on a national level, both factions indicated scepticism as to whether they had any influence, with 52.4% of Leave voters and 46.7% of Remain voters feeling they had no influence at all. This outlines the extent to which voters think they do not have control over decision making in the United Kingdom. This is particularly interesting when considering the timing of the polling, taken after the referendum. This appears to indicate that Leave voters’ beliefs that they have no influence continues to persist in the post-referendum period.
However, there were also significant differences in whether voters wanted to be involved in the process at all. When asked a follow up question regarding how much input they would like to have in both local and national decision making, 53.2% of Remain voters wanted to be either ‘very involved’ or ‘fairly involved’ in the local area. This compares to only 37% of Leave voters with a similar desire. The data is surprising because, although 75.2% of Leave voters thought that at a local level they had either ‘not much influence’ or ‘no influence at all’, they also did not necessarily want more influence. This apparent political disconnection is similarly evident in other areas of the political process; Leave voters were less likely to discuss politics with others. Specifically, 28.4% indicated that they never talk about politics, while 43.5% talked about it less than once a month. These figures stand in stark contrast to Remain voters, of whom only 16.1% never discussed politics. This suggests a marked disengagement of Leave voters with the political process, who engage less in terms of influence they have, influence they feel they should have, and in levels of discussion and debate about politics.
There is also a clear separation seen between the two factions on the question of how much power the UK government should have. For instance, when asked if the government would be more effective if there were fewer restrictions on its power, 35.1% of Remain voters agreed compared with 48.5% of Leave voters with similar views. Indeed, the majority of Remain voters - 59% - held the view that it would be too risky to give the government more power in order to deal with the country’s problems, whereas a minority - 44.7% - of Leave voters felt the same way. Concordantly, Leave voters therefore trust government to just get things done and appear happier to have less oversight if that is what is necessary. By contrast, Remain voters did not trust the UK government to be given more power; instead placing more trust in institutions such as the EU, highlighting the low levels of trust in domestic political institutions juxtaposed with Leavers’ apparent lack of critical appraisal of the UK government or its powers.
The data demonstrates the divisions between both Remain and Leave voters in how they respond to issues and how they perceive their own influence in the political process. Firstly, Leave voters showed significant support for the use of public referenda as a valid political decision making tool. While Remainers were also in support of the use of referenda as a legitimate tool over governance, it is somewhat unclear what impact a different Brexit referendum result might have on this position, or indeed whether Leave voters would still be keen on using referendums if they had lost the vote. Both factions do agree that they have very little influence on the decisions being made on a national level. This might indicate why both groups appear willing to use political tools such as referendums. However, this feeling of lack of influence is even more marked among Leave voters, especially at a local level. Moreover, the majority of Leavers suggest that they are not actually interested in having an influence at all. Furthermore, Leave voters rarely discuss politics, a significant difference to Remain voters, which displays a worrying trend for political engagement. It shows how voters of all persuasion feel generally disenfranchised, but also that there is a significant contingent of voters, even stronger among Leave, who do not even want to become better engaged. Finally, when it came to the powers that the UK Government have, the Leave voters, unlike Remain, wanted the UK Government to be less restricted in power and thought that this was the best way in which they can deal with the nation’s problems. Ultimately, they trust UK politicians to deliver positive outcomes, supporting the ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ narratives over significant policy debate about the implications of Brexit. These findings raise many issues that need to be taken seriously by politicians, about the role voters can, should and want to play in political decision-making. The nature of people’s engagement in politics seems to embrace both more direct democracy, but also more latitude (at least among Leavers) for politicians to act with impunity. This has worrying implications for what civic trust in politics can even mean post-Brexit, and the way people want (or don’t want) to engage in political discourse and addressing serious societal issues moving forward.
The findings in this post are derived from data prepared by Ipsos Mori for the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement 16 (2019).
Their full report is available here: https://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/publications/reports/audit-of-political-engagement-16
 Harvey Tebay is an Undergraduate Student at the Department of Politics and Cultural Studies, Swansea University