Stop invoking “the 48%,” it’s not a thing

‘Insistent remainers’ may continue to obsess with the result of the EU Referendum, but the actualities of public opinion vary deeply to the ideals of the most committed “British Europeans.”

By Sam W. Shenton | 19th February 2017

The results of the EU Referendum delivered a narrow Leave victory, with 52% opting for Leave and 48% opting for remain. Since that vote, the new Prime Minister Theresa May has attempted to move on the debate from the results of the referendum, to implementing the path of the victorious. Also since that result, there have been numerous Remain politicians who have invoked the result of the referendum to target Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, which many have said “leaves the voices of the 48% out of the debate.” In doing so, they claim to be the voice of the losers of the referendum, who in a democracy, still exist and deserve to have their voices heard.

In invoking the 48%, remain politicians are adding two elements to their argument. The first is that only they, in that moment; stand up and speak for 16 million people. The second, is that there is a legitimacy in their arguments in having the backing of those 16 million people. The issues with this, therefore, are also two-fold. The first is that “the 48%” isn’t a thing. The 16 million people who voted Remain are not ideologically and politically cohesive in a way that allows them to be invoked in the defence of arguments. The second is that legitimacy doesn’t come from just having the presumed support of these people – who aren’t a cohesive group in the first place, – but from credible arguments that can be framed within the context of the political situation we find ourselves in.

Firstly, let’s analyse the group themselves. The 48.1% – 16,141,241 – of people that backed Britain remaining in the European Union have but one thing in common: that single electoral vote. Normally, you can track political movement of different voter groups between parties, but this isn’t an act that is worthwhile for this referendum, where people were much more likely to vote down educational lines. This one electoral event brought together 16 million people into a single category where they wouldn’t usually find themselves. Tories voted with Labourites, Lib Dems with Greens – and even 3% of UKIP voters voted Remain. It’s obvious that the group of 16 million people is anything but cohesive in its ideological outlook, and so when politicians invoke “the 48,” it is highly unlikely that they are covering the political outlook of every single Remain voter.

There are many different types of both Remain voters and Leave voters that different groups have analysed. Below is a Political Compass chart comprising the various ideological positions of all voters. A, B and C Categories (dots) indicate remain positions:

Remain voters were divided between:
A. Those enthusiastically embracing the EU’s economics (neoliberal/free trade) but unhappy with the Social Charter – especially on migration.
B. Those happy with both the economic and social provisions, which includes many people on the centre/right of the Labour Party, almost all Lib Dems and some wet Tories.
C. Those enthused by at least most of the EU’s social provisions, but rejecting corporate values and neoliberal economics (left-of-centre social liberals).

This division among Remain voters themselves highlights how a single-issue political movement cannot be invoked to legitimise a line of argument that runs “the 48% deserve a say on X and they say Y because Z.” Because, in reality, the 16 million people may well split down a great number of ideological paths on a particular issue, and confining all of them to the binary of one electoral event which presented just two options is both unhelpful when it comes to broader political debate, and disingenuous when it comes to enhancing your own political beliefs. Obviously, on the opposite side of the coin, Leave voters had many different intentions of and reasons for voting Leave, and any politicians invoking “the 52%” should be questioned in a similar way to how we must critique those invoking “the 48%.”

What’s increasingly clear, also, is that “the 48%” isn’t a political reality in terms of their original definition anymore, either. YouGov polling has shown how 62% of EU Referendum Voters now want Brexit to go ahead, with many more changing their minds from “Remain” to “Leave” than who are doing so in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, polling has also shown that as many as 54% of voters now backing some form of detachment from the European Single Market and a new trade relationship with Europe, and even a majority of remain voters — 54% — backing the priority of regaining British control over immigration from European Member States. YouGov also showed that 55% of voters back Theresa May’s current Brexit ambitions — ambitions that remain politicians have declared “hard Brexit” and invoked “the 48%” to counter.

When even the majority of remain voters now sympathise with increased migration control and the measures needed to achieve this, the invoking of “the 48%” doesn’t add to the legitimacy of any argument concerning the retention of European single market freedoms, including the free movement of peoples. People that voted to remain still recognise the central role that immigration played, and with the support now as a whole electorate now in favour of establishing a new trading relationship between Britain and Europe, their original vote can change towards the acceptance of the victorious. While Tony Blair said that people have the “right to change their mind about Brexit,” the people who are changing their mind are those who voted remain, and are moving towards the acceptance of Brexit. Invoking “the 48%” on these terms is a move that shows an obsession not with good argument, but one with false binaries that the referendum created, and a divisive rhetoric that remain campaigners are supposed to reject.

The continuous breakdown of the cohesion of the 16 million voters that opted for remain last June is one that will eventually see public opinion warm to Theresa May and to her vision of Brexit even further than they currently have. When Article 50 is triggered, the invoking of “the 48%” is unlikely to resonate either with the European Commission or with those that originally voted remain as the details of Britain’s exit from the European Union gather clarity. Remain-supporting politicians may continue to invoke this figure, but the support that their parties receive — such as Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats — is to remain much, much lower, and they are unlikely to replicate the SNP’s domination of Scotland after the rejection of independence.

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