What do the EU election results tell us about public support for leave and remain?

31 May 2019
What was claimed

58% of votes cast in the recent EU parliamentary elections were votes to leave, and 41.5% were votes to remain.

Our verdict

This assumes that all Labour voters supported leave, which is far from clear. It’s also not the case that all people voted for a party based on their Brexit policy.

A post on Facebook claims that in the recent EU parliamentary election the “total leave vote” was 57.8% and the “total remain vote” was 41.5%. It has been shared almost 2,000 times.

But the EU election results are a far from perfect measure for whether people would vote to leave or remain, and some of the method behind this post’s calculations are suspect.

The claim is based on working out the Brexit position of each party that stood in the elections, and then establishing the collective number of votes cast for parties that support leave and remain respectively.

The post counts Labour votes—14% of the total—as “leave votes”, whatever that means, but this may not be fair given that Labour’s policy on Brexit is widely considered to be unclear.

You could argue that it stood on a pro-Brexit platform because it supported an “alternative plan” for Brexit (“a new comprehensive customs union with a UK say”). But, at the same time, the Labour manifesto said it “backs the option of a public vote” if it failed to get an “agreement along the lines of our alternative plan, or a general election”. Labour has also said it would “continue to oppose” no deal Brexit and Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

Only 13% of respondents told a YouGov survey that Labour’s Brexit position was “very clear” or “fairly clear”. 17% said the same for the Conservatives, and 59% said the same for the Brexit Party. We can’t say with confidence what Labour party voters might have thought they were voting for in terms of Brexit.

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People might vote for a party for reasons other than Brexit

The post also assumes that every vote cast in the EU parliamentary elections in the UK was cast on the basis of a party’s Brexit position, which isn’t a certainty.  

Some of the parties’ manifestos, for example, covered wider domestic and European issues, beyond Brexit.

Polling from Lord Ashcroft shows that Brexit wasn’t the main reason why people voted for many of the major parties.

Of the six best-supported parties, only among Liberal Democrat voters was the number one reason for voting for them because “they had the best policy on Brexit”. For Labour and the Conservatives, the number one reason was “I always vote for that party”, and for the Greens it was “they had the best policies on issues other than Brexit”. For the Brexit Party, the top reason was “I wanted to show my dissatisfaction with the UK government’s current negotiating position on Brexit”.

There are other reasons why you might want to be cautious about reading too much into the results as well.

For example, turnout was relatively low compared to other types of public vote—so the results don’t necessarily reflect attitudes of the electorate as a whole—and people don’t necessarily vote in the same way in an EU parliamentary election as they would in a referendum or general election. We covered those issues in more detail here.

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