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Understanding the Leave vote

Badges with Union Jack in focus
Researchers: Kirby Swales
Published: December 2016

A high-level overview of why we voted to leave the EU, drawing on analysis of the latest and highest quality data.


What were the ‘real’ reasons behind the Brexit vote?

You can download the report here and an accompanying table annex.

The purpose of this report is to provide a high-level overview of the main findings from
an analysis of the latest and highest quality data.


Identity politics played a role

The Leave victory was not about objective demographics alone. Matters of identity were equally, if not more strongly, associated with the Leave vote – particularly feelings of national identity and sense of change over time.

Voters not persuaded by arguments about economic risks

The Leave campaign resonated more strongly with the public. There was a greater sense of certainty about what impact leaving the EU would have on immigration and independence. People were less persuaded by the Remain campaign’s focus on the economic risks.

‘New voters’ leant towards Leave

The Referendum attracted a group of ‘new voters’ who did not participate in the 2015 General Election. A majority (60%) of this group voted Leave.

The vote split across traditional party lines

The Referendum was not decided along typical party political lines. It is clear that Conservative supporters rejected the position of their party leader, David Cameron.

However, the position of Conservative MPs was better understood by the public than that of their Labour counterparts. Conventional left-right politics do not help explain the Referendum vote. The public splits across party lines and people’s broader social values were more helpful at explaining the result.

Turnout favoured Leave

Turnout played a potentially decisive role. Those who said they leant towards Remain in the runup to the Referendum were more likely to not vote (19% vs. 11% of Leave supporters). If turnout among supporters of both sides had been equal the vote would have been closer still.

Leave brought together a broad coalition of voters 

The Leave campaign’s success was underpinned by a broad-based coalition of voters which is much more wide-ranging than the ‘left behind’. This included three main groups; affluent Eurosceptics, the older working class and a smaller group of economically disadvantaged, anti-Immigration voters.


This report is based on a synthesis of evidence from three of the highest quality sources of data available on the EU Referendum, British Social Attitudes, the NatCen Panel Pre- and Post-Referendum surveys and the British Election Study Internet Panel

Download the report

Download the table annex