A referendum is not like an election. While the two sides of the campaign produced lots of literature supporting their view, there wasn’t anything like a manifesto as such. How could there be, given those leading the campaigns were not those who would end up actually implementing the decision? As far as the referendum was concerned, Brexit did indeed just mean Brexit – no more and no less. Nothing on the ballot paper said it was specifically this sort of Brexit or that sort of Brexit.

This has left a certain void, and one that politicians and others have sought to fill. Naturally, they have largely attempted to do so with their pre-existing prejudices rather than evidence. To listen to some it would appear that Brexit was driven by people who wanted {insert policy idea that I wanted to begin with}. A lot of this has been around how important an issue immigration was to Leave voters, and too what extent this was an anti-immigration vote. The alternative argument is often that the vote was mostly driven by concerns about sovereignty and freedom.

At the simplest level, if you want to know why people voted for something… ask them.

In YouGov’s final poll they asked people to pick which one factor was most important to people in deciding how to vote. Among Leave voters the most popular answer was allowing Britain to act independently (45%), followed by immigration (35%) and the economy (8%). Full tabs are here.

Lord Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum asked leave voters to rank four possible reasons for the vote – sovereignty, immigration, the economy or the risk of future EU integration. 49% of Leave voters picked sovereignty as their first reason (78% as either their first or second answer), 33% of Leave voters picked immigration as their first reason (64% as either their first or second reason). These two issues dominate, but the structure of the question suggests that people couldn’t say “I didn’t care about this issue at all”, so its somewhat limited (tabs are here, the relevant questions are on page 256!)

In both of these examples sovereignty came top, followed by immigration. However, it’s possible that this was down to the particular options the pollster offered or the particular wording used in the question. One way of getting round this issue is to ask it as an open-ended question and allow people to say in their own words why they voted as they did – two other polls did this.

In Ipsos-MORI’s final poll they asked what issues would be important to people in deciding how to vote in the referendum, letting people pick more than one option. The interviewer then picked which category or categories matched their answer most closely. In this case immigration came top among Leave voters, picked by 54% (18% also said the cost of immigration on welfare and 12% said the number of refugees coming to Britain – though given people could choose more than one option these cannot be added together). The next highest option among Leave voters was 32% who said the ability of Britain to pass our own laws, followed by 19% who said the economy and 9% who said jobs.

The pre-election wave of the British Election Study did a similar thing, asking respondents to type in what the most important factor driving their vote was and coding it up later. Taking a word cloud of the responses gives one extremely prominent answer…


…but this is actually a little misleading. Once the answers are coded up individually sovereignty comes very narrowly ahead of immigration. Just over 30% of verbatim responses from Leave voters mentioned sovereignty or control in some way, just under 30% mentioned immigration in some way (the word cloud appears as it does because most people who mentioned immigration used the specific word immigration, but people who mentioned sovereignty used a variety of different terms like sovereignty, control, making laws and so on). Suffice to say, immigration and sovereignty were, between them, the main two issues driving the Leave vote.

Referendums and elections are complicated things, and the human beings who vote in them are even more so. Anyone who tries to boil down the referendum to one factor and say “this explains it all” will almost always be wrong. While the order of the two issues differs between polls, all the polling evidence is clear that Leave voters were most concerned about the issues of sovereignty and immigration, and anyone claiming they were motivated by one but not the other is very likely projecting their own views onto the voters.

While they were clearly the dominant issues, there are undoubtedly others too – for example, as John Curtice explores here, there’s a very strong correlation with views on the impact of Brexit on the economy too, so while immigration and sovereignty were strong factors in favour of Leaving, another important factor seems to be that most leave voters did NOT think that Brexit would bring economic damage. I should also give my usual reminder that people are not necessarily very good judges of what makes them vote. We are not particularly rational creatures and the way people vote at referendums and elections is not a dry comparison of policy offers or facts, but often a mixture of vague feelings, bias and heuristics – so things like a lack of trust in the traditional media and “experts” and a perception that the remain campaign were speaking for an out-of-touch establishment rather than ordinary people were probably also factors in driving the Leave vote.

In short – the factors motivating Leave voters are many and varied and 52% of the voters will, by definition, contain people with many, many different views and priorities. However, every effort to ask Leave voters why they voted to leave found sovereignty AND immigration as the clear big issues.

117 Responses to “Was Brexit an anti-immigration vote?”

1 2 3
  1. Candy

    The Ipsos mori poll isn’t showing a Ukip collapse, they are the worse pollsters for Ukip. Unfortunately what it does show is further decline in labour support

  2. @Colin

    Before getting too excited let’s wait and see what tomorrow’s Witney by-election brings.

    They voted Remain in the referendum – the question is did they vote Remain out of loyalty to Cameron but with him gone their loyalty reverts to the Conservative party and the new leader. Or did they vote Remain because they are fervent Europhiles?

  3. Actually looking at previous polls by ipsos mori I’m sure wondering if their September poll was an outlier

  4. @Alan

    You jest, but to some extent – Yes.

    If someone said, “Do you want Silicon Valley to move to Devon. It will bring 2m jobs, but Dartmoor will have to become a tech park” my answer would be a resounding Foxtrot Oscar.

  5. @Colin

    I didn’t mean May when I said what was being suggested. It’s more the general mood music from the EU (including EU supporters in the UK).

  6. Ipsos Mori changes from September:

    Cons +7
    Lab -5
    LDems +1
    UKIP -3

  7. Has anyone seen the transcript of yesterday’s A50 case?
    If so, please post a link.

    In the meantime, Business Insider have a pretty good summary of what happed with this afternoon’s: The legal case against enacting Brexit without parliament’s permission is much stronger than we thought.


    Yes, there is a genuine possibility that the judges will rule against the government, which would be a great result for democracy. Of course, the government will appeal if necessary, but at least it does mean that there is a valid case.


    “Take back control” was the moronic, meaningless buzz phrase invented by the Brexit camp. Of course 90% of people are pretty ignorant as to exactly what we control and we don’t, so they chose to believe Leadsom et al. Sad, very sad.

    Of course, the government will appeal if necessary, but at least it does mean that there is a valid case.

    Spot on. I did like the article’s closing:
    Ironically, if the Supreme Court is unable to reach a decision, it will be obliged to refer the case to the European Court of Justice, meaning the EU’s highest could end up deciding how Britain must execute its departure.

    New thread on the MORI poll, BTW

  11. “Back to topic – in terms of the motivations of the remain voters I think ‘sovereignty’ and ‘immigration’ were for many integrally linked, but for many of them ‘sovereignty’ was perceived as the means by which the issue of immigration could be resolved.”


    Yep, polling treating Sovereignty and Immigration as inevitably two distinct things can muddy the waters rather than shedding light, when Sovereignty can be a means of acting on immigration.

    Unless they are happy giving the impression that it’s about Sovereignty RATHER than immigration, Polling ought really to be teasing apart these things…

    This is before getting to the problem that like there might be shy Tories, there might be shy anti-immigration peeps, who put summat else rather than immigration…

  12. pete B,
    “”“They [Brexit voters] believed that there would be no damage to the economy if they left or stayed,””
    My figures came from a yougov poll 11/12 oct, page 5. https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/vohvzlss3c/TimesResults_161012_VI_Trackers_W.pdf

    80% of remain voters think Britain will be worse off economically if we leave, 7 % no change 3% better off. 56% of leave voters think Britain will be better off outside the EU, 29% no difference, 7% worse off. So 3% of remainers think we will be better of out, 7% of leavers think we will be worse off out. Thats is a vert very stark difference between the groups.

    Today was listening to R4 ‘listening project’ where they had two leave voters talking. One said he was convinced leave would work out OK, because he was sure the government would grant visas to the EU people he currently works with/employs in the catering industry. Noises from the government today on new regulations only allowing in skilled professionals did not sound quite in accord with this.

    The second said that he was thankful all the stories about ill effects to the economy had proved untrue, and everything seems to be going fine now after the vote. This seemed to be what had worried him about voting leave.

    I dont know if the second guy will eventually come to the conclusion there is a problem with the economy, indeed maybe there will not be. I dont know what will eventually happen about immigration. But it sounded as though both their Leave votes had been conditional on bad things not happening, which well might.

    The first seemed to be a leave voter who did not want to restrict immigration.

  13. other Howard,
    please see yougov’s poll just mentioned, which I think is the one the last thread here was based on. For sure I only visit here from time to time. After the referendum it was too crazy to keep up.

    My analysis simply says that if a fundamental assumption of one side or the other shifts, then something which they never mentioned as important to them may suddenly become the most important thing. The difference in attitude between the two groups about the economy is so vast that it is hard not to conclude that this was the one deciding issue which made one remain or leave. As I said, my inference is that sovereignty, immigration and everything else was secondary to the economy. For these to matter it was a prerequisite that the economy will be fine.

    It is perfectly possible similar logic could apply in reverse. If an event occurs which demonstrates the importance of sovereignty, for example, then that might shift more people towards Leave. But the uncertainty seems to lie with what happens if we leave, not if we remain. We have all experienced remain. Even if the mn in the street thinks the economy is doing well, I think people here know bad economic news will be hitting his supermarket very soon.

    Neil A,
    just so. Brexit still remains a future event, allegedly years off. ther will be some very choppy electoral water if the economy goes bad between now and then and leave voters conclude they have been sold a pup.

  14. Neil A,
    “The fact that the EU seems unable to negotiate free trade deals with anyone points both ways. It is a bad omen for us in negotiating one with them, but a good indicator that in the long run our trading position with non-EU countries may benefit from us doing deals the EU could/would not.”

    The EU is a protectionist club, which has rules to protect its members from outside. Thats why people cannot get deals unless they follow all the rules. If the EU makes an exception for us it defeats its own purpose existing. I am incredibly sceptical there is any economic case for special treatment for the UK. Leave have spun the argument a deal is possble when it isnt. Leave fear the economic argument.

  15. Is the EU suggesting that any trade deal with Britain will come down to whether Wallonia Town Council agree?As an existing member of the EU and its 2nd largest benefactor we ought to propose-a new stream lined negotiating team for the EU namely one that can actually negotiate and come to a deal. GB ,otherwise ought to go straight to wallonia town council and negotiate with them

  16. why do remain voters persist in trying to analyse what motivated leave voters. has any poll canvassed remain voters as to why they voted remain?
    Interested to see how many thought EU was good thing a sopposed to being frightened to leave due to scare stories.

1 2 3