INSIGHT DIRECTOR, PATRICK YOUNG EXPLORES THE FALLOUT FROM THE RECENT UK REFERENDUM.
The votes are in: the UK is splitting from the EU. And yet from much of the news, commentary and social media over in the UK, it seems to be something nobody actually wants. It’s here that perhaps we, as researchers, can pick apart why that is the case. It’s not for this author to decide whether the decision was right or wrong, but the immediate backlash suggests that the UK population didn’t get the result they wanted.
Right up until voting began the majority of polls suggested that the Remain camp had an advantage. Whether this influenced Remain voters to stay at home, assuming the majority of their countrymen had their backs covered, or if the reported bad weather and tube delays in London – one of the biggest Remain strongholds – really did impact the results, is hard to determine and impossible to confirm.
Irrespective of what influence these polls caused, though, there’s a question over whether the polls were accurate. Polling in the UK hasn’t had the best reputation recently, failing to predict the UK general election in 2015 – a result that gave the Conservatives the majority needed to call the Brexit referendum in the first place – and then misdiagnosed a Remain win. But there’s another, deeper question over whether the polls accurately understood the mindset of the British population. The raw, dry numbers of a poll give you the what of how people might vote, but they don’t tell us the why. And because of that, did they in fact lie? A point demonstrated – like all things political – beautifully and clearly in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing.
As the fall out of the Brexit continues, a closer look at social media is helping us unpick the reason for people’s votes. It wasn’t an EU vote at all, it was an outcry against David Cameron; against fears over immigration; against an entrenched Europhobia on the part of the British. The UK didn’t want to leave the EU it seems, but rather they wanted their fears and concerns over their role in, and relationship with, the EU to be heard. And the referendum was the perfect vehicle for that – if I’m confident Remain will win because the polling tells me so, then I’ll make a protest vote of Leave – not because I want to, but because I want to make a point.
The Leave campaign focused on emotion. Farage on the fear of immigration, Johnson exploiting the controversial figure of £350m sent abroad (a figure the Leave campaign is already distancing themselves from post results). The Remain campaign, on the other hand, focused on reason, and the rational support of leading economic forums, European heads ofstate, and used global figureheads to chide the British public into forgetting silly notions of leaving the EU. Could this strategy have alienated more voters than it persuaded? People are looking for an emotional pull towards Remain, not to be chastised into doing ‘the right thing’.
It is here that the polls let us down. They do not tell us why someone is considering to vote. We need this understanding: a qualitative insight of the voters; the context and history and story behind their vote, so that we can begin to allay their fears and influence their decisions. Polls should not be done in isolation; rather they should ask questions about their choice and give us an insight into their thinking beyond just presenting a cold number. Reason without emotion is impotent, and that’s what the polls were.: a failed exercise in predicting the outcome, rather than an exploratory diagnosis of the state of the nation.
In the weeks and months ahead as the UK Government debates the referendum result andleaving the EU, it will become more and more important to not only count the numbers, but understand the opinions. Only then there can truly be an informed debate on the future of the UK.