Campaign frames in the Brexit referendum – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Campaign frames in the Brexit referendum

Following a historic Referendum on 23 June 2016, British voters decided to exit the European Union by a 3.8 per cent margin. What made the Vote Leave campaign swing the voters to its side?

So does this mean that the Brexit referendum is a case where identity trumps economics? Brexiteers did vote –at least partly– with their wallets in mind, but the economic solution to their problems was not to be found in market stability but in ‘taking back control’ of immigration policy.

Through an analysis of YouGov data, Figure 1 (opposite) shows that the questions of sovereignty and immigration were much more important in the hearts and minds of those who opted to leave the European Union compared to those who opted to remain. In contrast, economic considerations were at the heart of the Remain vote. The difference is staggering: whereas 40 per cent of Remainers opted to stay having jobs, investments and growth in mind, the economy influenced the decision of only 5 per cent of the Brexiteers. Similarly, just over a quarter of those who opted to leave did so in order to address the issue of immigration versus only one percent who identified with Remain. And just over twice as many Brexiteers reported sovereignty and the UK’s right to act independently as the most important reason in deciding how to vote.

From a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis perspective, this choice is seemingly irrational. How is it that Brexiteers did not vote with their wallets in mind, and instead put sovereignty and immigration at the core of their decision?

The question of immigration is multidimensional, and as such it can become a very powerful frame especially at times of widespread insecurity and change as a result of the European crisis. Immigration taps into a variety of cross-cutting concerns. The first issue that arises is whether immigrants contribute to the national economy more than what they take out. Related to this is competition with non-natives for jobs and welfare provision. The second concern relates to security, i.e. whether the country has adequate border control and whether the free movement of EU nationals into the UK is associated with higher levels of crime. Lastly there is an obvious cultural component in immigration policy, as the entry of people from other cultures makes the social fabric of the country more vulnerable to change.

Both the official Vote Leave campaign and UKIP employed the immigration frame in their strategies. Although their campaigns primarily focused on immigration, they did so in a way that appeared also addressing other apparently related concerns. Multiple links were made: immigration and economy; immigration and security; and immigration and social change. This allowed them to successfully shift the debate to the question of immigration and portray sovereignty as the main solution to these concerns. This was only way the British people could ‘take back control’ of their country.

The Remain camp, on the other hand, put forward a one-dimensional campaign focusing on the economy. For those individuals who feel that the economy is not a stand-alone issue unrelated to immigration, this frame was not convincing. For others, this gave a signal that the Remain camp did not accept this was a legitimate concern among sections of the population. By not addressing the question of immigration, the Remain camp essentially left a vacuum in its campaign strategy, which ultimately did not work in its favour.

So does this mean that the Brexit referendum is a case where identity trumps economics? Brexiteers did vote –at least partly– with their wallets in mind, but the economic solution to their problems was not to be found in market stability but in ‘taking back control’ of immigration policy.

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