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Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU?

Info: 11525 words (46 pages) Dissertation
Published: 13th Dec 2019

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Tagged: PoliticsBrexit


On the 23rd June 2016, in a nationwide referendum, British voters were asked the question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

After a bitterly fought election campaign, the electorates of Great Britain chose to leave the European Union (EU).. The ballot was extremely close, with 51.9% of the electoral population voting to leave and 48.1% wanting to remain. At 72%, turnout was higher than for any UK-wide vote since the 1992 General Election.

The promise of a referendum was first announced by Prime Minister David Cameron on 23rd January 2013. He vowed that if the Conservative Party was elected to power in the General Election of 2015, they would hold a national referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. After the election was successfully won, the new Conservative Government introduced the European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16. This ensured that the referendum must be held before the end of 2017.In February 2016, regulations set the official date.

The referendum campaign was split into two groups. Firstly, there was Britain Stronger in Europe, aiming to persuade the nation that Britain will be stronger and far more successful as an active member of the European Union. On the other hand, there was Vote Leave, led by Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove. This campaign group successfully encouraged 51.9% of the British electorate to vote out, meaning Britain would withdraw its membership with the European Union.

The Chief Counting Officer, Jenny Watson, who is the Chair of the Electoral Commission, declared the national result from the national referendum count event held in Manchester on Friday 24 June at 07:51 (Uberoi, 2016, p4). This result triggered ‘Brexit’. This term became the famous tagline of the referendum result and is an abbreviation of ‘British exit’ out of the European Union.

Through researching the referendum’s result, there was limited analytic material on why 51.9% of the British electorate decided to vote to leave the EU. The majority of the literature focused on the consequences of Brexit and the immediate impact it had on Britain. Hence, this triggered interest regarding the question why did Britain decide to support Vote Leave.

The purpose of my study is to analyse why the referendum on the 23rd June 2016, resulted in a decision for Britain to leave the European Union. The analysis will be split into three fundamental chapters. Firstly, who voted for Brexit, examining the social and geographical aspects of voting to leave. Secondly, examining what the main reasons were for wanting the UK to withdraw from the European Union, including motives such as controlling immigration and regaining national identity. Lastly, exploring why Vote Leave won. This involves analysing the effects of electoral turnout and other factors such as, the support of the national press and the actions of the campaigns figurehead politicians.

The objective of this research is to come to an assertive conclusion on what the most important reasons were 51.9% of the electorate that voted on the 23rd June 2016 wanted to leave the European and factors that contributed to why Vote Leave won. Reliable research needs to be developed to analyse why 51.9% of voters wanted to leave the EU, and only then can it be understood what people want from the result.

Literature Review

Recognising why Britain decided to vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum is important because it is essential to understand what changes in politics the British electorate want. It is imperative to analyse who voted to leave the EU and reasons behind this choice. As soon as the referendum results were announced, masses of data was evaluated showing how the electorate voted, significantly regarding geographical areas and social class. This included polls from sources such as Lord Ashcroft, which was used by many of the national newspapers. Other sources such as YouGov, further support this data by getting similar results in polls they also ran. However, there is a gap in the theoretical data, as there is limited material questioning the empirical reasons why the British electorate voted leave and why the Vote Leave campaign won. Furthermore, the information being produced regarding the referendum quickly moved onto the consequences of voting to leave the European Union. Thus, why it is important research is developed regarding why the 2016 Referendum resulted in a vote for Britain leaving the European Union, as the current observations are limited. As it is an extremely current topic, thorough analysis is still being developed, therefore the limitations in the research are understood.   

Who voted for Brexit

In order to analyse the reasons why 51.9% of the British voting population wanted to leave the European Union, it is important to recognise who exactly voted this way in June 2016. Within hours of the result being confirmed, there was significant amounts of data being produced regarding how the public voted. Most this information was made public through newspaper articles. The Daily Mail and The Guardian, both produced articles showing the full results of analysis of the EU referendum results. This allowed the reader to see how each constituency voted and then further breaks down the data into significant topics such as age, education and annual income. The resemblances between the two newspapers analysis indicates that the examination of the data must be based on fact and the papers different political bias is not reflected within the analysis, therefore demonstrating the sources credible.

Most of the national press gained their EU referendum results data from YouGov or Lord Ashcroft’s Poll. YouGov is an internet-based market research firm and their methodology involves obtaining responses from an invited group of internet users, and then weighting these responses in line with demographic information. This organisation similarly splits its analysis of the EU results into socio-economic groups, however the go further by also including factors such as ‘political attention’. YouGov has claimed that its opinion polls are most precise when compared to its opponents and that its online approach is more accurate than traditional polling methods (YouGov, n.d.). However, not every member of the voting population has access to the internet and internet polls could be argued as mainly aimed at the younger generation. Therefore, it is claimed online samples cannot accurately reflect the views of the population. On the other hand, Lord Ashcroft Poll conducted a survey, online and by telephone, after voters can casted their vote (Ashcroft, 2016). The additional method of telephone surveying adds reliability to the results. This is because most people have access to a telephone, increasing representativeness. Furthermore, as the results were collected on the same day people had voted, their opinions and thoughts about the referendum were still fresh. Thus, concluding Lord Ashcroft’s poll as more credible.

Overall, the literature regarding who voted for Brexit, significantly shows a trend concerning which socio-economic groups are thought to be the most important to analyse. This includes age, levels of education and annual income. On the other hand, the literature didn’t indicate the significance of other social groups, for example different types of trade and ethnicity. Hence why my analysis will look further into these different issues. 

Reasons for Voting to Leave

It is important to understand why 51.9% of the British voting population voted to leave the European Union on the 23rd June 2016. Lord Ashcroft poll’s state that the three most important reasons for people choosing Vote Leave were; 

  • The principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.
  • Voting to the leave offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.
  • Remaining meant little or no choice about how the EU expanded its membership or powers.

These three reasons were also the top three reasons for Conservative and Labour voters, showing that the explanations are not completely politically swayed (Ashcroft, 2016). Consequentially, it is clear that Lord Ashcroft concludes the main argument for voting to leave was the want to regain control over choices that impacted Great Britain. This is also reflected in Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley’s research paper ‘Why Britain Voted for Brexit’. National identity and sovereignty is key in their research to find out why Britain voted to leave. However, their research is extremely strengthened by their used of models and equations to further prove the impact of factors such as ‘explanatory powers’ and ‘predictor variables’ (Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley, 2016, p16). The combined use of polling and mathematical models, reinforces the credibility of their results. 

National newspapers are argued to be the most significant source of information that influenced people’s vote. The Sun and the Daily Mail were dominant Vote Leave supporters, stating immigration and taking back control of the United Kingdom as their most important reasons for why Britain should leave the European Union. This could have significantly influenced certain socio-economic groups vote, considerably less academic people, who are the tabloid newspapers majority readers. However, the bias nature of national newspapers, decreases their credibility. The political opinions expressed by these newspapers regarding why Britain voted to leave the European Union are not totally reliable, due to their expressed support of the Leave Campaign. This is where a gap is research is demonstrated. It has proven difficult to find previous credible research to why specific groups, such as older people and low income households, decided to vote to leave the European Union. 

Why did Vote Leave Win?

Certain literature does recognise the importance of factors allowing Vote Leave to win, such as the impact of voter turnout. There has been substantial debate regarding the relationship between turnout and age. The House of Commons EU Referendum Briefing paper argues that ‘there was no significant relationship between higher turnout levels and higher levels of support for leave’ (Uberoi, 2016, p26). However, The Telegraph recognise that there was an important trend between age and voter turnout (Kirk and Dunford, 2016). Older voters had a high percentage turnout, compared to young voters. As strong Vote Leave supporters, the high turnout level for the over sixty-fives is argued to have given Brexit a greater chance to win. Furthermore, as a result of poor turnout levels from young people, who were strong Remain supports, this is argued to have reduced the Remain campaign’s chance at winning. Therefore, denouncing The House of Commons EU Referendum Briefing paper argument that the trend between age and turnout was weak.


Due to the lack of research, analysing which are the most important factors that resulted in a vote for Britain to leave the European Union, it is important further studies are developed. Furthermore, due to much of the accessible materials being newspaper articles, the credibility of the information available is weak. This is due to the significant political biasness of the national press. Substantial amounts of data about who voted for Brexit was released in under 24 hours of the result being confirmed. However, research regarding what reasons voters had for voting to leave and why the Leave campaign won, has been proven hard to find. Moreover, as the issue of ‘why the result of the 2016 referendum resulted in a vote for Britain to leave the European Union’ is still recent, it is important to recognise that data is still being analysed. 

Who voted for Brexit?

It is important to firstly outline who in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Throughout the campaign, it was clear that particular social groups would be strong Vote Leave supporters, such as older citizens and people who work in certain trades such as the fishing industry. However, as the results came in on the night of 23 June 2016, votes to leave had higher shares than expected. This chapter will give a focused quantitative analysis regarding who voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. The study will focus on core demographics such as age, gender and ethnicity. Furthermore, it is important to look at how education and party allegiance impacted on people’s decision to vote the leave the EU. A breakdown of how the regions within the United Kingdom will also be conducted, analysing if geographical differences presented a relationship with voters’ decisions.  A later chapter will build on the following considerations, examining why people voted in this manner.


The United Kingdom became a divided nation when the results began to come in on the night of 23 June 2016. The earliest returns, from Newcastle and Sunderland, showed higher shares for leave than had been anticipated. The trend persisted – Scotland, Northern Ireland and London were the only three regions in which a majority voted to remain – and by four o’clock in the morning the broadcasters were ready to announce that the country had voted for Brexit (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p166). The vote to Remain in Scotland was considerably higher than anywhere else, at 62% of the vote. However, in England and Wales the vote to Leave won, with England having the highest percentage of support for the Vote Leave campaign, but still very narrow at 53.2%. Nine out of the twelve regions of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The large Brexit votes in the North of England were the first signals of what was to come in the referendum. In the North East, 58% of voters supported leaving the EU. According to the Daily Telegraph, more than one in three people along the coast north of Hartlepool regard themselves in the DE social-class in the last census. This can be seen a sign of Leave’s Victory of successfully appealing to working-class voters (Coles, Kirk and Krol, 2016). The most Eurosceptic part of the United Kingdom was the West Midlands, totalling the highest percentage vote to leave, at 59.2%. UKIP did not gain a significant foothold in the General Election, so Vote Leave might have been surprised that the electorate of the West Midlands strongly voted out of the EU.

The only region in England to vote Remain was London. The cosmopolitan city had polled as the most Europhilic part of England before the referendum. Furthermore, it is home to the financial City of London, whose businesses and banks had mainly backed the professed stability of voting to remain. Thus, the result of 59.9% of the London electorate voting to stay in the European Union was expected. However, this result left the Capital city surrounded by pro-Brexit regional neighbours (Coles, Kirk and Krol, 2016)

Percentage of Votes to Leave (Swales, 2016, p9)


A strong Vote Leave supporter from the beginning of the campaign was voters over the age of 65. According to statistics 60% of over 65 year olds voted to leave the European Union. This is closely followed by over 56% of 45 to 64 year olds also coming to the decision the United Kingdom is better out of the EU (Ashcroft, 2016). The Daily Telegraph provides further analysis showing that the East coast areas that scored the highest anti-EU votes were also the areas with the highest pensioner populace. Just two of the top 30 areas for over 65s voted to Remain – South Lakeland in the North West and South Hams in the South West (Boult, 2016). This is supported by Ashcroft and Culwick’s findings, showing that “more than half of those on a private pension voted to leave, as did two thirds of those retired with only a state pension” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p167).

By contrast, the younger generations of Britain have a contrasting view. Statistics show that 73% of 18 to 24 year olds voted to remain (Ashcroft, 2016). The Sun newspaper called this divide “The Generation Gap”, analysing how age significantly showed a trend in how different people voted in the referendum. The age divide is shown clearly by Ashcroft and Culwick’s discovery that “most of those with children aged ten or under voted to remain; most of those whose children were aged eleven or older voted to leave” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p167). This illustrates how there was a clear correlation between the age of voters and their decision to vote ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ in the 2016 Referendum. It is evident that the older the voter is, the more likely they would have voted to leave the European Union, even though some of them won’t live long enough to experience the consequences.


Recent findings show that people with fewer qualifications and lower standards of education, were more likely to have voted to leave the European Union. The tables in the European Union Referendum Briefing paper clearly show that there is obvious correlation between the number of non-graduates and the percentage of people who voted to leave. The opposite is reciprocated on the graph regarding graduates, showing strong correspondence between holding a degree and voting to remain (Uberoi, 2016, p21). This evidence is parallel with Lord Ashcroft’s findings, stating “a majority (57%) of those with a university degree voted to remain, as did 64% of those with a higher degree…Among those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, a large majority voted to leave” (Ashcroft, 2016). Therefore, it is evident that voters with fewer qualifications voted to enforce Brexit.

(Uberoi, 2016, p21)

Social Class

(Uberoi, 2016, p22).

The clear relationship between level of education and voting to leave the European Union is very closely linked to the similar correlation regarding social classes and level of income. “Professionals and managers (often described as the ‘ABs’) were the only social group among which a majority (57%) voted to remain”, stated Ashcroft and Culwick. However, “nearly two thirds of skilled manual workers (‘C2s’), and of unskilled manual workers and those dependent on state benefits, voted for Brexit” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p168). In contrast to this, the Commons Library Briefing Paper argues there is little correlation between socio-economic indicators and the proportion of people voting to leave. There is an arguably weaker relationship between the median weekly earning in local authorities and the amount of people voting to leave. Furthermore, there is no obvious correlation between the rank of a local authority in terms of deprivation and vote shares to leave. (Uberoi, 2016, p22).

Therefore, this suggests that votes for Leave and Remain are not as strongly related to social class as initially thought. However, considering various information, it is evident that there is a correlation between social class and people’s opinions regarding the EU referendum. Thus, voters in lower social classes were more likely to have voted to leave the European Union.


Certain trades, such as the fishing industry, were huge supporters of the Vote Leave campaign. When the United Kingdom joined what became the European Union, fishermen’s quotas and rights were cut dramatically, causing a steady decline of the industry’s previous success. Many of the current quotas give large shares of catches to other fishermen within the EU. Thus, when the opportunity came to have an impact on the UK’s decision on its EU membership, fishermen became a key touchstone for Brexit. It is argued that they voted Leave to give the industry a chance to regain control. However, there is some argument over whether it will be as beneficial for fishermen as the leave campaign promised. Because pursuing Article 50 could take years, the UK is still a member of the EU. Furthermore, if new arrangements are negotiated after Brexit, they may not be necessarily more generous as the fishing industry will still be tied to international agreements. However, due to the attractive opportunity arising to regain control, the fishing industry was a strong supporter of leaving the EU.

Furthermore, many post industrial areas of the UK, that receive a lot of EU funding, had a greater support for Brexit than initially expected. For example, the Valleys in South Wales are historically industrial and strong Labour supporters, so it was assumed they were secure remain enthusiasts. Thus, it came as a shock when these strongholds voted in favour of Brexit, with areas such as Neath Port Talbot and Caerphilly voting to leave by over 56%. Therefore, it is evident that industrial areas weren’t as supportive of the EU as originally thought.


Lord Ashcroft’s poll conducted on the day of the referendum found significant correlation between a vote to Leave the European Union and a voter’s ethnicity and religion. It is argued that 53% of White voters supported the decision to withdraw the United Kingdom’s membership with the EU. This was the only ethnicity group to have a majority backing for the Vote Leave campaign. Other ethnicities such as, Mixed, Asian or Black, their amount of votes to Leave did not go higher than 33% (Ashcroft, 2016). This shows that people with White ethnicity were more likely to have voted for Brexit, but only by a narrow majority. Furthermore, it can be argued that there is a relationship between ethnicity and national identity. People from ethnic minorities are more likely to identify as ‘British only’, while white respondents are more likely to identify as ‘English only’ according to the 2011 Census. The tables from the Electoral Commission show that English local authorities with higher proportions of people who gave their national identity as ‘British only’ in the 2011 Census were more likely to record lower vote shares for Leave.

(Uberoi, 2016)

English local authorities with higher proportions of people who classified their national identity as ‘English only’ were more likely to record higher vote shares for Leave (Uberoi, 2016). This tells us that white voters were more likely to have voted for Brexit, and it could be explained due to their views regarding national identity.

Regarding religion, support for Brexit is more mixed. Christians were found to have the highest percentage vote to leave the European Union, with the greatest majority at 58%. This is followed by 54% of the Jewish electorate and 52% of Sikh’s also voting for the decision to leave. This was in stark contrast to other religions, such as Muslim or Hindu, whose support to leave did not go above 30% (Ashcroft, 2016).

Party Allegiance

It is important to analyse who voted for Brexit through the perspective of party allegiance. Many political parties were divided over the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, with UKIP being one of the only significant parties providing a united front on the issue. For example, 58% of those who voted Conservative in the 2015 General Election voted to leave the EU. While 63% of the Opposition Party Labour supporters voted to remain in the EU, as did seven out of ten Liberal Democrats and 75% of Green voters. Conservative voters constituted just over three out of every ten Remain supporters, and four in ten leavers. Labour voters made up four in every ten Remain supporters, and two in ten leavers. Scottish National Party voters backed the Remain campaign by nearly two to one, with 64% voting for the United Kingdom to remain within the EU (Ashcroft, 2016). Ashcroft and Culwick analyse this result further stating, “since Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would use Scotland’s support for EU membership as the basis to seek a second referendum on Scottish independence, nearly half (44%) of Scottish support for Brexit came from her own SNP supporters” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p169).  UKIP was the only party with a significant majority, with 96% of people who voted for them in the 2015 General Election voting to leave the European Union. Therefore, regarding party allegiance, the picture was quite mixed. However, Conservative supporters were more likely to vote to leave and without a need for explanation, UKIP enthusiasts were solid supporters of Brexit.

Was there a Vote Leave Stereotype?

Throughout the referendum campaign, it could be argued that there was a stereotype created regarding the type of person that would have voted to leave the European Union. Whilst there was no gender gap, the issue divides the population according to age, political learnings and education as the key deciding issues. A significant event that portrayed the use of stereotypes during the referendum was the publication of the Operation Black Vote poster. The poster was created to encourage black people to vote, however many condemned the Saatchi and Saatchi devised image of an Asian woman balanced on a see-saw with a shaven-headed white man, which was portrayed as a ‘thug’. It creates an implication that all Brexit voters are of white ethnicity, who do not welcome ethnic minorities, thus some would argue encouraging sectarian politics. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, expressed his concern over the image due to it reinforcing stereotypes (Proto, 2016). This is significant because he was a Britain Stronger in Europe campaign supporter, who is also from an ethnic minority in Britain. Therefore, there is strong evidence to support the argument that there was a stereotype created around who voted for Brexit. From the research conducted, the most significant perceptions can be concluded as white ethnicity, older and of lower education.

What are the reasons for voting to leave the EU?

Building from the previous considerations regarding who voted for Brexit, it is important is understand what reasons voters had for wanting to leave the European Union. A focal point for the Vote Leave campaign was the amount of money the United Kingdom contributed to the EU. They claimed the UK pays £350 million a week into the EU budget and implied it could be spent on the NHS instead. This shocked many voters and it could be argued the claim helped swing the vote towards Brexit. Other key arguments supporting the decision to vote to leave the European Union are that decisions about the UK should be made in the UK, control over immigration and the fear that remaining in the EU meant little choice about how the EU can expand its powers. These reasons were the top three most important reasons for people who voted to leave the EU according to Lord Ashcroft’s Poll (Ashcroft, 2016). This chapter will analyse the reasons why 51.9% of the electorate who voted in the 2016 referendum wanted to leave the European Union.

National Identity and Sovereignty

National identity was a key issue causing many voters to choose to support Brexit and the freedom for Britain to run its own affairs was at the centre of the leave campaign. This was established in its slogan, ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’. A pre-referendum survey found that 51% of people indicated that they thought EU membership eroded British sovereignty (Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, 2016, p12). This relates to Lord Ashcroft’s findings that the most important reasons for voting Leave was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK (Ashcroft, 2016). Britain has a particular notion of sovereignty enshrined in one intuition, rather than shared among several.

When what was then known as the European Economic Community was created in 1957, its aim was to avoid another destructive war in Europe by making its countries economically interdependent. However, what began as a purely monetary union has now expanded and become accountable for many different areas of policy, from agriculture to transport. When arranging the deal regarding the UK’s membership with the EEC, then Prime Minister, Edward Heath promised that “there is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty”. However, The Economist argues this is only true in the sense that Parliament can repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, ignoring the reality that EU membership meant that European Law undermines national law (The Economist, 2016). This could explain why the older generation were strong Vote Leave supporters, as they remember the times before the UK became a member of the EU. It is argued that before the UK joined the EU they were considered a significant global power, and since then their impact has declined. On the other hand, Britain is signed up to over 700 international treaties that encroach on sovereignty. Although the EU has the greatest impact, others are also significant, such as NATO. However, as Lord Ashcroft found, Brexit was successful because of people’s fear that remaining in the EU meant little choice about how it expanded its powers and encroached upon British sovereignty (Ashcroft, 2016).

The British Election Study Team argue that Vote Leave’s slogan, ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’, had a more significant impact on some people’s lives than originally thought, due to it affecting their ‘locus of control’ (Election Study Team, 2016). It represents the extent that people think they are in control over what happens to them. ‘People with an internal locus of control think they are themselves largely responsible for the things that happen to them, whilst those with an external locus of control tend to believe things are controlled by outside forces they cannot influence, such as other people, fate, or chance’, (Election Study Team, 2016). Their research helps explain people’s attitudes regarding losing their national identity and sovereignty. Those with an external locus of control are more likely to blame others, such as immigrants, for any hardship they may come by. They found that those with an external locus of control were much more likely to vote Leave (and take control) than those with an internal locus of control, as shown in the graph (Election Study Team, 2016). Thus concluding national identity had a significant impact on deciding to vote Leave.

(Election Study Team, 2016)


It is argued that national identity is further threatened by the issue of immigration. This was made a defining issue by the Vote Leave campaign that fuelled a lot of voter’s passions. Additionally, Lord Ashcroft’s poll declared ‘voting to Leave offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’ the second most important reason to leave the European Union (Ashcroft, 2016). The issue of immigration became more important when Poland and Romania joined the EU, in 2004 and 2007 respectively. The EU’s principle of the ‘free movement of labour’ made immigration a concern for Britain, fuelled by tabloid reports of migrants taking jobs and driving down wages. EU migrants were often blamed for exacerbating public services, such as NHS waiting lists. These claims were increased significantly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis; the subsequent austerity, involving cuts in public spending and thus cuts in public services, led to even more blame and hostility towards EU migrant workers. This was significantly felt amongst older people and those living in poorer areas.

(Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, 2016, p31)

Further events helped the leave campaign in their efforts to gain support. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory reported that the Eurozone crisis of 2015 was encouraging more southern European migrants to travel to the UK than ever before, joining those from Eastern Europe (University of Oxford, 2016). Furthermore, the Office of National Statistics published figures stating that 1.2 million more EU migrants have been given National Insurance numbers in the last five years than had shown up in the immigration figures. Vote Leave used these examples to show how the UK had lost control of its immigration system, allowing for immigration to become one of the most significant explanatory powers in the likelihood of voting Leave. Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely calculated that as benefit-cost calculations regarding immigration moved from negative to positive, the likelihood of voting Leave increased by 0.75 points (on a 0-1 scale) (Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, 2016, p17). Immigration had the second strongest effect on the electorate’s vote in the referendum. This aligns with Lord Ashcroft’s poll, where immigration was also said to be the second most important reason for voting Leave (Ashcroft, 2016).

Ashcroft and Culwick found that immigration was a constant concern amongst the undecided voters in the focus groups they conducted. They found that the worry for many concentrated around competition for school places and public services. A member of the group stated “Yesterday, my boss, when her child didn’t get into the school she wanted, she said, ‘That’s it, I’m out.’” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p125). Due to increased UK population, it is argued that it is becoming increasingly competitive to get children into schools and difficult to use public services, such as booking appointments to see your GP. The increased pressure on public services is suggested to be decreasing its quality, which many would blame on immigration and more specifically the open door policy of the EU. This is important to the argument to why people no longer wanted to be a member of the European Union.

Other events that helped the leave campaign make immigration a successful focus point of encouraging people to vote for Brexit, was the suggestion that Turkey was about to join the EU. Thus, increasing the European Union’s population and therefore the number eligible to come into the U.K. In focus groups, Ashcroft and Culwick found that some had the impression that Turkish membership was impending and were concerned, stating “The immigration thing will explode. If we stay in and Turkey joins the EU, there are millions of Turks who want to come to the UK. It really worries me. Will they have jobs? Will they have their own money? Will they have private health care?” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p127). This worry links to the previous point about added strain to public services, showing that is a significant concern for people. Due to its importance, it is possible it may have swayed the undecided voters in the focus group to vote to Leave.

In a survey I conducted in March 2017, I found that 64% of people believed that immigration had become a bigger issue in the UK since 2015, when David Cameron announced the EU referendum. Furthermore, 40% of respondents felt that immigration had had a negative/extremely negative impact on terrorism, which could have been higher if the survey was conducted a few days later, when the Westminster attack took place. Finally, 66% of respondents did not want immigration to increase, proving that most people want more control over immigration. (Questionnaire information available in appendix).

Costs of EU Membership

A key focal point of the Vote Leave campaign was their calculation that the UK sent £350 million a week to the European Union and the country did not receive an equal amount back, thus they argued the costs of being a member outweighed the benefits. If the UK left the EU, it is believed that billions of pounds would become available for other priorities, causing many people to support Brexit. Furthermore, leaving the EU would give the UK government the power to decide where to spend the money. The Vote Leave campaign websites states, ‘We can spend our money on our priorities like the NHS, schools and housing’.  Relating back to sovereignty, those who believe strongly in their national identity want to be able to spend their money on home grounds, thus causing them to vote Leave.

However, the Vote Leave campaign were criticised for their statement that the UK sent the EU £350 million a week. It is argued this calculation is not true. It ignores the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher, agricultural subsidies and developmental subsidies for poorer areas. This leaves the net contribution of £161 million a week. Ashcroft and Culwick found in their focus groups that probably because of the controversy, the £350 million number stuck in voters’ minds and even if they could not remember the specific number, they knew it was still huge. One participant stated, “It’s the amount it costs that worries me. It is something like ten billion a day? Or is it ten million? Or seven million. Anyway, I was shocked when I heard.” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p133). Thus, the cost of EU membership became an important issue for many voters and Vote Leave were successful in making their point clear and believable, therefore causing many people to vote Leave.


National identity, immigration and the costs of EU membership are the most significant reasons for why 52% of voters wanted to leave the EU. National identity is an issue that is deep rooted for most and important for older voters due to them understanding how the UK worked before becoming a member of the European Union. Anti-immigration attitudes were fuelled by events such as Romania and Poland joining the EU, followed by the 2008 economic recession. This was especially felt amongst older voters and those living in impoverished towns. Immigration and the costs of EU membership were extremely current issues, that gained a lot of importance during the referendum campaign. They pushed a lot of undecided voters to support Vote Leave. Since the campaigns have ended these issues have had a lot less media attention, thus reducing their significance on public opinion. However, regaining control and national identity will always be significant when processing Brexit.

Why did Vote Leave Win?

In addition to understanding what reasons voters had for wanting to leave the European Union, it is important to consider other factors as to why Vote Leave was successful.

This analysis will broadly discuss issues such as voter turnout and party divisions which were significant to the Leave campaign’s triumph. It will examine why the Vote Leave campaign is considered to have been more effective than the Stronger in Europe campaign, due to the factors of having a clear message and gaining the support of the mainstream press.


A decisive element to why Brexit won was the issue of turnout. The Electoral Commission confirmed that 72.2% of registered voters casted their ballots on the 24th June 2016. This verified a total of 33,568,184 ballot papers counted, narrowly missing the record mark of participation in recent elections, where in the 1992 General Election 33,614,074 people went to the ballot box, accounting for 72.3% of the electorate. According to the NatCen Panel, 54% of those who did not vote in the 2015 General Election voted in the EU referendum. This helps explain why turnout was higher than the most recent General Election, 72.2% compared to 66.1%, due to a surge of ‘new voters’ (Swales, 2016, p19). The British voting population turned out in huge numbers. However, the levels of turnout from specific groups is argued to have had a significant impact on the referendum result.

Before the referendum, campaigners for Remain were concerned that the younger generation would cost Britain its future within the EU, due to them not turning out to vote on the day. They were classed as Remains’ most secure voters and these concerns became reality on voting day. Moreover, the impact of the secure Leave campaign supporters, the older generation, assured to turn out in high numbers, significantly effecting why it resulted in a vote for Brexit. The Guardian states, ‘the median age in an area was the strongest predictor of turnout and showed a familiar pattern – the older the median age in an area, the more likely it was to have had a high turnout’ (Elgot, 2016). For example, Eastbourne, which has a median age of 71.5 years old, had a turnout of 74.7%. Conversely, Newham had one of the lowest turnouts and its medium age is much lower at 29. There were early cries after the referendum result was announced that the older voters had betrayed the younger generation, however this was countered by the argument that they did not vote in sufficient numbers. It is a constant trend in UK elections that under 25 year olds have the lowest turnout compared to other age groups. This could be due to low political engagement and a decreasing sense of duty to vote.

Recent evidence suggests that more young voters turned out to vote than initially estimated. The new findings based on detailed surveying after the referendum by Opinium and analysed by London School of Economics suggests that turnout levels for 18-24 year olds was significantly higher than the initial figures, as shown in the table below. (Helm, 2016). This contradicts the argument that Brexit was mainly attained through the unconcern of young voters. Therefore, the low turnout of young voters may not be as significant as first thought, however this turnout level is still low in comparison to their findings of turnout levels of over 65s.

The Campaigns

It is argued that the Vote Leave campaign, further promoted by alternative campaigns such as Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, was much more effective than the Remain campaign. Firstly, they had a very well-defined and stronger message of ‘Take Back Control’. However, Remain failed to create a message to compete with this populist slogan. Their key message was the warnings of economic risks of leaving the EU, but this lacked simplicity and were often dismissed as scare-mongering, therefore failing to move enough voters. The messages that the pubic seemed to most remember were those of the Leave campaign, such as the claim that the UK contributed £350 million a week to the EU, which could be spent on the NHS and the claim that Turkey was close to joining the EU. Subsequently, establishing that Vote Leave were more successful at portraying their message to the public, hence gaining more votes.

An additional factor that allowed the Vote Leave campaign to gain more support was the significant backing of the press, especially the two most read newspapers, The Daily Mail and The Sun. Data from the British Election Study found that some 70% of Sun readers voted Leave in the referendum, followed by 66% of Daily Mail readers. Despite the issues of declining readership and lack of trust in the press, it is argued the press still sets the agenda, ‘Where the newspapers lead on issues, far more trusted broadcasters follow’ (Martinson, 2016). Loughborough University’s centre for research in communication and culture found that subjects that dominated the press often led television news. Thus, explaining why numerous stories about immigration, a key Vote Leave issue, continued unrelenting during the last few weeks of the campaign, whilst those about the economy, a key Remain issue, declined (Martinson, 2016). Furthermore, a report by NatCen interestingly found that regarding the EU referendum vote, people were more likely to follow the position of the newspaper they read, rather than the political party they identified with (Swales, 2016, p27). Due to the support of the most widely read national newspapers, it is argued that this was a significant reason why the Leave campaign gained more votes.

The Politicians

Throughout the campaign certain figurehead politicians arose, whilst others fell. Vote Leave campaign leaders, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, created enthusiasm amongst supporters. However, even though the Remain campaign had the support of the Prime Minister and most of Parliament, they failed to connect with voters, especially the Labour Party. The passion amongst the Leave campaign and the lack of within Remain, motivated many voters to go to the polls and vote to leave the EU.

A key issue was that the public stopped listening to then Prime Minister, David Cameron. Promising the referendum is argued to have been vital to his success in the 2015 General Election and by putting himself at the front of the Remain campaign, he put his political future at stake. He assured the public of his ability to secure fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU through reforms; thus when he came back after nine months of negotiations with only modest change, it was inevitable his concessions would not persuade many floating voters to give him the benefit of the doubt and vote remain (BBC News, 2016). Furthermore, the populist aspect of the Leave campaign appealed to voters who felt most politicians, including the Prime Minister, where out of touch with the ordinary people. Brexit could be described as a backlash against ‘the establishment’ and those cocooned in their ‘Westminster bubble’.

(Swales, 2016, p21)

Labour was more united on the issue of UK membership in comparison to the Conservative Party, with only a minority of MPs such as Gisela Stuart supporting Brexit. However, another failure of the Remain campaign was Labour’s inability to connect with its voters. They misjudged the mood of their voters, this was shown by their stronghold constituencies voting to Leave. For example, North East areas such as Sunderland, resulted in a 61% to 39% who voted to Leave. It is argued that Labour was sending mixed messages to the voters, and it is blamed on unpopular leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘lukewarm endorsement of continued EU membership’ (Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, 2016, p10). NatCen have evidence to support the claim that Labour were sending mixed message and thus people did not know where the party stood regarding EU membership. ‘Just over half of the people thought that Labour MPs mainly backed remain, with a quarter saying they were fairly evenly divided, and nearly two-fifths answering, ‘don’t know’’ (Swales, 2016, p21). Only just over half of Labour supporters knew the actual position of Labour MPs, proving that Labour failed to connect with their voters and thus did not enthuse supporters to vote Remain with them. 

The enthusiasm for Vote Leave created by figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage influenced a lot of people to follow and support their campaign. The Leave campaign was described as more passionate than its Remain opponents, as people such as Nigel Farage had been fighting their whole political career for this outcome. Furthermore, the BBC states ‘the justice secretary brought intellectual heft and strategic nous to the table while the former mayor of London, after a bout of soul-searching, brought star appeal and ability to appeal across the party divide’, regarding Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (BBC News, 2016). This further emphasises the appeal towards the ‘populist’ aspect of the Leave campaign, who were argued to be on the side of ordinary people. Recent models found that the leader image cues provided by Farage and Johnson were influential on emotions about EU membership. ‘Feelings about these two figures moved from negative to positive along the 0-10 ‘likeability’ scale, the probability of voting Leave increased by 0.44 points’ (Clarke, Goodwin and Whitely, 2016, p18). Therefore, likeability of the Leave campaigns figureheads was significant to their success.

Changes since 1975

In 1975, the UK electorate was asked ‘Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community?’ and ‘Yes’ won by 67.2%. In comparison, regarding modern day politics, there are lower levels of deference to mainstream, centrist politicians. As stated above, people are less willing to listen to the political elites, such as the Prime Minister. Explaining why populist figureheads like Boris Johnson were so successful in the campaign, as they appealed to the everyday working class, which were Vote Leave’s strongest supporters. In 1975, new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got the Conservative Party enthused about European membership, however the fact that Cameron was unable to find a common binding chord within his own party, remains the single largest difference to the 1975 referendum (Acharya, 2016). Previously, the main parties of England were united that we should not leave the Community, further strengthened by the support of the press. Presently, it is argued the coherence and the ability to drive a nation is missing drastically among politicians (Acharya, 2016). This allowed Vote Leave to take advantage, thus allowing them to effectively gain more support than the Stronger in Europe campaign, using their enthusiasm and significant support of the press to motivate more people to go to the polls and vote to leave the European Union.


Vote Leave won the referendum due to having a more efficient and appealing campaign. They had an engaging slogan, compared to Britain Stronger in Europe and most significantly had the support of the mainstream press. Their campaign leaders became very popular, whilst Remain struggled to get people to listen and remember what they were saying. The Remain campaign was further weakened by the disunity of the Labour party, and thus failed to understand the mood of many Labour voters. This allowed the Leave campaign to gain the support of the ‘ordinary man’, and increased the ‘populist’ aspect of their campaign.  

An important factor contributing to their success was turnout. Due to older people turning out in high numbers and younger people not going to the polls, it gave Leave an advantage. As the result was so close, 48% to 52%, if more younger people voted, Vote Leave may not have been successful. However, due to recent polls, such as Opinium, turnout may not have been as a significant factor as first thought.


Why did the 2016 Referendum result in a vote for Britain leaving the EU?

The objective of this research was to come to an assertive conclusion on what the most important reasons were 51.9% of the electorate that voted on the 23rd June 2016 wanted to leave the European and understand factors that contributed to why Vote Leave won. This was done through examining who voted for Brexit, what are the reasons for voting to leave the EU and why did Vote Leave win? By answering these key questions, I have come to the following conclusions.

According to the research, England was the most Eurosceptic country of the United Kingdom, where the only region who voted to remain in the European Union was London. The more deprived areas of the country were more likely to support Brexit, contributing to the fact that those with fewer qualifications and “nearly two thirds of skilled manual workers (‘C2s’), and of unskilled manual workers and those dependent on state benefits, voted for Brexit” (Ashcroft and Culwick, 2016, p168). A voter’s age, ethnicity and party allegiance significantly showed a trend in Vote Leave support. Over 65s were a constant supporter of Leave throughout the campaign. Furthermore, people with White ethnicity and Conservative supporters were more likely to have voted for Brexit. As a consequence, there was a stereotype created around who voted for Brexit. From the research conducted, the most significant perceptions can be concluded as White ethnicity, older and of lower education.

National identity, immigration and the costs of EU membership are the most significant reasons for why 51.9% of voters wanted to leave the EU. Each issue had constant media attention throughout the campaign, causing them to become salient issues. However, since the campaigns have ended, the attention dedicated to immigration and the costs of EU membership has declined. National identity and sovereignty however have stayed at the forefront of the Brexit process. The importance of a nation’s power will never decline, hence why national identity and taking back control will always be significant when processing Brexit.

Vote Leave won due to running a more efficient campaign. Significantly, their simple slogan, ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ was memorable to voters, alongside their key issues such as immigration and the £350 million weekly EU fee. The passions of their campaign figureheads got voters listening, compared to the failed attempts by the Prime Minister. Turnout was also important and as the final result was so close, if more younger people voted, Vote Leave may not have been successful, but recent polls, such as Opinium, have suggested turnout may not have been as significant as originally thought.

This research is important as it gives a clear quantitative and qualitative analysis of why the 2016 referendum resulted in a vote for Britain leaving the European Union. There was limited credible research on the topic, due to the main publishing being newspapers articles, where political bias is high. Furthermore, other papers such as The House of Commons EU Referendum Briefing paper discredited certain significant trends, such as the correlation between age and turnout, additionally socio-economic indicators and voting to leave. Therefore, reliable research needed to be developed to analyse why 51.9% of voters wanted to leave the EU, and only then can it be understood what people want from the result.


Immigration Questionnaire

  1. What is your age?
  2. What is your gender?
  3. What race/ethnicity best describes you?
  4. Current UK residency?
  5. What is your greatest source of information regarding news and current affairs?
  6. Which one of these is the biggest issue facing the UK right now?
  7. Economy
  8. Healthcare
  9. Immigration
  10. Terrorism
  11. Education
  12. Other
  13. Do you think immigration has become a bigger issue in the UK in the past 2 years?
  14. On a scale from 1-5 how concerned are you about EU immigration? (1= no concern, 5= concerned)
  15. On a scale from 1-5 how concerned are you about EU immigration? (1= no concern, 5= concerned)
  16. On a scale from 1-5 (1=negative, 5=positive), do you think immigration has an effect on
  17. British culture
  18. Crime
  19. Job shortages
  20. Economy
  21. Terrorism
  22. What is your preference regarding current levels of immigration into the UK?
  23. Increase a lot
  24. Increase a little
  25. Remain the same
  26. Decrease a little
  27. Decrease a lot
  28. Don’t know

Sample size – 126 online, 36 face to face

Due to the use of online surveying, the survey was not totally representative of the British Adult population. The online survey attracted younger respondents, making the results significantly skewed towards 18-24 year olds. An attempt to overcome this problem was made by conducting face-to-face surveys, as it was easier to target the audience. This was a success, however it was difficult to get as many respondents, as few people wanted to take the time to complete the survey.


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Brexit refers to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU on 31st January 2020 following a UK wide vote in 2016 in a referendum held by David Cameron’s pro-Europe government. 51.9% of voters voted in favour of leaving.

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