Much has been said of – and by – the fifty-two per cent of the British electorate who voted to leave the EU. Even more, it seems, has been said of – and by – the forty-eight per cent who voted to remain. Hardly anything, however, has been said about (or by) those who didn’t turn up to the ballot box. Considering that this group consists of nearly a third of the electorate, this is an oversight that may lead to a skewed picture of the UK’s political landscape.
The frequent repetition of the 48% and the 52% leads most of us intuitively to adopt the notion that the UK is divided down the middle between leavers and remainers. This may be true. But we can’t be certain, because we don’t know the preferences of those who didn’t vote. And although some anecdotal evidence suggests that many had a preference, there is also evidence to suggest that many had none. Hence, it may be that the country is divided in three groups; leavers, remainers and those with no preference, incidentally a division seen in much historical polling data on support for EU membership.
Consider, once again, the numbers released by the Electoral Commission on 24th June 2016: Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%) Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%) Total Electorate: 46,500,001 Turnout: 72.2%.
So, who are they, these 27.8%? Is there anything we can say about them without jumping into speculation-quicksand? Well, we know two of them. Readers of The Times will be aware that one is the singer Rick Ashley. And fans of Channel 4 will know the other is Rachel from Gogglebox. Still, that leaves 12,948,016 of whom we know very little. There are numerous reasons for this:
1) Brits are used to low turnouts in elections and as more people voted in the EU referendum than is normally the case in general elections, the turnout isn’t perceived as low.
2) Conducting research into people who don’t express preferences is expensive and time consuming, not to mention laden with potential fallibilities.
3) This complexity means that the research, which is carried out, tends to be paid for by well-funded organisations or individuals with a strong, if not always expressed, preference. Hence, such research tends to ask how the non-voters would have voted rather than who they are and why they didn’t’ vote and – predictably – conclude that with a gun to their heads, the non-voters would have voted x (x being equal to the preference of the funding organization).
With the above in mind, and asking only a modest research question (who are the non-voters?), we can look at the limited research available and at least get some pointers. On September 5th, Ipsos MORI published new data on the referendum, including figures on turnout. The main findings are summarised below:
27.8% of registered voters didn’t vote. If we include unregistered voters that figure rises to 34%.
Age: Those least likely to vote were the 18-24 year olds. In this category 64% of registered voters claimed to have voted. This number drops to 60% if adjusted against over-claim. Of the actual population, the number was 53%.
Region: The lowest turnouts amongst registered voters were in Scotland, London, the North East and the North West.
Gender: Women were less likely to vote than men. 71% of registered females voted, compared with 74% of men. Of the total population, 64% of women voted, compared with 67% of men.
Housing situation: Home owners were significantly more likely to turn out than renters. Furthermore, the higher the equity in their home, the more likely people were to vote. Amongst registered voters, social renters were the least likely to vote.
Party Political Allegiance based on the votes cast in the 2015 general election: It should come as no surprise that people who voted for UKIP in 2015 were the most likely to turn out and vote in the EU referendum (88%). For the other parties the numbers are: Conservatives = 85%, Liberal Democrats = 81% and Labour voters = 77%. The least likely to vote in the referendum were those who cast no vote in the 2015 general election (45%).
On this basis, we can make the tentative conclusion that the groups less likely to have voted in the EU referendum are females, the young, those living in rented accommodation, those living in London, Scotland or the North, and those who didn’t cast a vote in the 2015 general election.
It is often claimed that those who voted in favour of Brexit are disengaged from politics or feel that politics ‘doesn’t work for them’. But anybody who voted must have had a sense that their vote would count and that they deserved to be heard. That’s as much as one can expect from the input side of democracy (although judging from the debate that ensued, many citizens seem to believe that what one can expect from democracy is to get one’s way). The truly disenfranchised are not those who voted leave or remain, but those who did not take part in the formal democratic process. It is worth looking into, from an inquisitive rather than a normative point of departure, who these people are and why they are not engaging. They may be happy either way, in which case their absence at the ballot box is probably not a problem, but that, surely, is an optimistic assumption.
You can read more about different parameters on the Ipsos MORI website, which also has details on how different groups tended to vote.