We are the 48% — what passionate Remainers think and do

On 23 June 2016, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union. The reasons were manifold. Dissatisfaction with the status quo. Longing for an idealized past when Britain was great. Fear of immigrants. As Zadie Smith wrote "a referendum turns out to be a very ineffective hammer for a thousand crooked nails". In the many attempts to understand the Leave vote, we sometimes forget that nearly half of voters (48.1%) voted to remain. The country is deeply divided. Some among those 48% are not ready to go down without a fight. They want the UK to remain in the EU. But they lack a unified voice.

We don't know what drives these passionate remainers. Why do they think the UK should remain in the EU? In an attempt to understand and give voice to these remain voters, I launched a survey in the closed 48% FB group (its current name is 48 and beyond). This group was started on 24 June, when the result of the referendum became apparent. When the survey was closed, the group had 52,708 members (as of 14 December 2016), making it the largest post-referendum pro-EU FB group.

Who are the respondents?

My survey had a total of 1355 respondents. The slight majority of these were (59%) were female, which is higher than the 51% female FaceBook users average in the UK.

In spite of the Leave voters being an older demographic, this group has a substantial percentage of older users. 35% of respondents are over 55 years old, compared to only 9% who are under 34 years old.

Percentage of participants in each age category (rounded)

As expected, the majority of respondents to this survey (90%) voted Remain in the EU referendum and say they would do so again if another referendum were held. 8% of respondents were ineligible to vote, because they had left the country more than 15 years ago, were under 18 years old, or because of their citizenship (e.g., EU-27 citizens). 2% did not vote before, but would now vote Remain if another referendum were held. Other options (e.g., voted Leave before, now would vote Remain, at 0.1%) were far below 1% and have not been included.

Why should the UK stay in the EU?

Participants were presented with a list of 10 reasons that are commonly cited (in the group and outside) for the UK not to leave the EU and asked to rank these from 1 to 10. Many participants found this exercise difficult, e.g., “I don’t like the ranking answers to question above as they are all important”. However, by forced ranking we do get a sense of relative importance. I hereby rank the options from most important (1) to least important (10), with the caveat that many participants found all the options very important. This ranking is calculated using the average rank that options received. I also place the % of people who gave these options as their first choice.

  1. Absence of wars in Europe (30%)
  2. The ability to work, study, and retire in the EU (18%)
  3. Being part of the single market (12%)
  4. EU protections for workers and consumers (4%)
  5. Collaborations in the EU (e.g., scientific research) (5%)
  6. Security and protection of being in a large union (9%)
  7. EU environmental protections (4%)
  8. Dangers of lasting economic damage as a result of Brexit (10%)
  9. Guaranteeing the rights of EU non-UK citizens living in the UK now (2.4%)
  10. The UK government has no (coherent) plan for leaving the EU (7%)

The top-2 stood out both in terms of average rank and in terms of the % of people who picked them as their top choices. Interestingly, these were also the top priority for EU citizens living in the UK (however, these participants rated Guaranteeing the rights of EU non-UK citizens on place #3). Among people of age 75 and older (note, this is a relatively small group of 16), 64% of participants chose absence of wars as their first choice (compared to 30% in the general sample), presumably because several respondents have personal memories of World War II. These oldest participants ranked EU environmental protections on place #2. By contrast, among the youngest respondents (up to age 24), the top reason was “The ability to work, study, and retire in the EU”.

The lack of Brexit plan was only on #10. This suggests that although the lack of a coherent plan of the government is a large concern for the media, it is not an important reason for 48-percenters to remain in the EU. Rather, the reasons are perceived positives of the EU, such as peace, being able to work, study and retire anywhere in the EU, and the single market.

Participants could list additional reasons for why they believed the UK should remain in the EU. Here are some examples:

“I am a European, so I want to stay in an organisation with fellow Europeans, which works on so many levels, although nobody is saying it is perfect. I am jewish so this is very important to me personally to prevent another generation being wiped out — I have already (my father actually ) lost so much.”
“It is far better for us to picture ourselves as a nation as part of a diverse but cohesive block than in isolation, culturally, economically and for security.”
“Celebration of Diversity (both EU and non EU), because this also leads to celebrating and accepting other differences other than ethnic. Resisting ethnic diversity is the first step towards rejection of people with disabilities, sexual orientation, etc.”
“I have always lived in the EU and feel as European as I do British. Leaving against my wishes feels like having a large part of my own identity forcibly stripped from me.”
“Because there are so many global problems to solve — Teamwork is the only way to fix this.”
“Despite being 77 years old I feel passionately about the decision to leave and despair of what the future holds for my grandchildren who will live in a very different world from the one I have lived in.”
“Emotion and belonging — I have grown up as a citizen of Europe”

This is just a small sample of the responses which suggest that passionate remainers feel a deep connection with the EU, have a sense that the EU can be a way to tackle global problems, and see being European as a strong part of their identity which would be stripped away if the UK were to leave the EU.

Indeed, when asked about whether their geographic self-identity has changed after the referendum, 51% said they now feel more European, 40% said there was no difference in how European they feel, and 8% said they felt less European following the referendum.

Westminster voting intentions and political affiliations

89% of the participants to the survey voted in the last general election. The remainder either did not have voting rights (8.7%), or did not vote, or spoiled their ballot paper, by writing things such as “Without PR [proportional representation], voting against the incumbent in a safe seat is pointless” (I live in a Conservative safe constituency)”. About the same percentage would vote again if a general election were held now. To make the data cleaner, I took out the about 10% of people ineligible or unwilling to vote.

Judging by how they voted in the last general election in 2015, the 48% are politically diverse, but more politically left-leaning or centrist than the general UK population. There is only person who voted UKIP in 2015 in the sample. As a result of the EU Referendum, their voting intentions have markedly changed, and they have expressed an intention to vote tactically.

I show three bar charts: how the 48% FB group members intend to vote if a general election were to be called right now (top), how they voted in 2015 (middle) and the results of the general election in 2015 (bottom), for comparison.

Voting intention of 48% FB group members, how they voted in 2015, and the 2015 GE result

A few interesting things to note: both Labour and the Conservative Party would lose substantially many votes of passionate remainers. In particular, the Conservative Party would see its vote share in this group plunge from 12% to 1%. But Labour too stands to lose significantly, from 45% to 16%. Even the Greens, who have a pro-remain stance will lose. These losses would be the Liberal Democrats’ gains, which would receive 72% from this demographic.

As some respondents commented “Although a member of the Labour Party I am disgusted by their weak stance over the referendum and would vote Liberal as the only party opposing Brexit.”, “Tactical voting. Normally Labour but utterly disillusioned by the 'leadership'”, “If labour changed view on brexit would be labour, but if they don’t Lib Dem”.

Actions to keep the UK in the EU

Next to the intent to vote tactically, the 48 percenters also engage in actions to keep the UK in the EU. I presented them with a total list of 18 items (based on actions frequently mentioned in the group), and asked them to tick which ones they had personally engaged in. Out of 18, the median number of actions engaged in was 7 (mean: 7.2, standard deviation: 3.3). The top 10 actions were (with % of respondents engaging in them).

  1. Signed petitions for pro-remain or anti-racism causes, 93%
  2. Supported campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate, 72%
  3. Talked to friends/family who voted Leave in an attempt to change their thinking, 68%
  4. Supported good journalism (e.g., buying The New European), 58%
  5. Written to my MP, 57%
  6. Donated to crowdfunding campaigns (e.g., BrexitJustice), 43%
  7. Joined a local pr0-EU group, 42%
  8. Made complaints about racism/hate speech in the press, 41%
  9. Donated to pro-remain candidates in by-elections, 39%
  10. Visible wear/display pro-EU objects (e.g., tote bag with EU flag), 33%

Other actions offered by participants as an open response included “Embarked on learning yet another European language”, “I wear a safety pin in order to signal to immigrants that I’m “safe” to talk to”, “Tried to educate people about the EU (worked as a faceless eurocrat for 35 years!)”

The 48 percent also engaged in guerrilla tactics such as hiding copies of the Sun, Daily Express, and the Daily Mail by covering them up with copies of, e.g., The Guardian and The Times (32% of respondents said they had done this). They have long suspected that the tabloid press played a negative role in the referendum outcome, a belief that was recently vindicated by a study that showed 70% of Sun and Daily Express readers, and 66% of Daily Mail readers voted leave.

A referendum on exit terms?

Some politicians (e.g., Tim Farron) have hinted at the possibility of a referendum on exit terms, including an option to remain in the EU. What do the 48% FB group members think about this? Most respondents are in favour, with 77% responding with “yes”, or “probably yes”, and only 3% definitely not in favour.

I wanted to just put in one doughnut or pie chart, and this one seemed like a good occasion

Participants to the survey wanted an option to remain to be one of the options, e.g., “If this is the only choice rather than Parliament refusing to trigger Article 50. Staying in the EU should be one of the choices on that referendum if held.” Others were more hesitant, e.g., “Not sure if it’s wise to give the public a say on complex negotiations like this. Look at where we’ve ended up.” or

“I would be very uneasy about asking the British people to vote on something as politically evil as ‘free movement’ as I really think most would see it as a vote on immigration, and this, I feel, was one of the biggest reasons that people voted to leave in June. They don’t understand free movement and are intrinsically opposed to any of those ‘others’ in the UK.”
“I am not sure referendums are the best way to decide these things.”

Plans to leave the UK

Do the 48% consider voting with their feet? I asked participants “Have your plans regarding where you live changed as a result of the EU Referendum?”

Interestingly, many respondents wanted to move to more pro-Remain areas in the UK, for instance, “Yes, looking to relocate within UK and will seek a “remain” area as overwhelmingly “leave” areas are likely to be unpleasant places to be located”, similarly, “I was planning to move to the country but now will only go to a strongly Remain area. Probably Bristol.” Scotland was a popular destination, e.g., “I’d like to gain Scottish citizenship as soon as they leave the UK, potentially.”

Many respondents expressed a desire to leave but were prevented through health, age or circumstance, e.g., “I would leave the UK if I could but am too old to be wanted by the EU or anywhere else unfortunately”, or “I would like to leave but family and health prevent me.”

And some respondents were concretely impacted by Brexit, e.g., “It will depend on whether by job (working on EU-funded projects) stays in the UK or moves to elsewhere in Europe.”

On the whole, given that most people are either not considering moving, or only considering it (no concrete plans), it seems 48 percenters are adopting a wait-and-see approach, e.g., “I MAY leave the UK in the next few years. Probably will but still keeping all options open”, and “If the country becomes even more fascist I will consider leaving”

Cosmopolitan people without a political voice

The Referendum has exposed deep divisions in the UK population in attitudes to Europe, migration, and the world. 44% of the respondents to this survey identified primarily as a European/EU citizen, and 17% as a citizen of the world, although 15% saw themselves primarily as a UK citizen, 7% as English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, etc., and 10% as an inhabitant of a city (e.g., Londoner). Many respondents had a complex geographic identity, e.g., “A Yorkshire lass in London”, or “A lot of these at once”.

This survey has shown that a positive identity of the UK as having a part in the world, and particularly in Europe, is crucial for these FB group members. As the UK is set to become more inward looking, what will become of them?