Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The word on the street

The word on the street
Published 20 Jun 2016 

As an Australian living in the UK, I have been asked by friends from home what's the word on the street about Brexit.

The idea of reporting public opinion as 'the word on the street' brings to mind the infamous George Negus–Margaret Thatcher interview in which the Iron Lady calls out the journalist's hearsay and demands to know, 'who has said it to you, when and where?'

And yet, there is something to be said for taking the temperature of public sentiment through every day exchanges. This is not to say I have intentionally been surveying locals, but that it is an inescapable conversation in the UK right now; a hot topic spurred by daily front page news and the physical presence of 'Brexiteers' and 'Bremainers' handing out pamphlets in the streets.  

First I want to be upfront that I will be voting for the UK to remain in the EU, but here I set aside my personal views to represent as best I can local sentiments about Brexit. 

Almost every leave voter I have spoken with has expressed concerns about levels of migration to Britain. The available migration statistics and labour data suggests there are around three million EU migrants living in the UK compared with significantly less British migrants living in other EU countries (around 1.2 million according to the last census). In other words, there are almost three times as many EU migrants in the UK as there are Brits living elsewhere in the EU. For leave voters this is considered to be an unfair exchange with the added concern that EU migrants are taking UK jobs from locals. [fold]

Between December 1997 and December 2015 the proportion of non-UK nationals in the workforce increased from 3.8% to 10.2% which the Office for National Statistics suggests is a reflection of the admission of new member states to the EU. Overall, the foreign-born population in the UK has almost doubled in the past 20 years or so with the biggest growth coming after the enlargement of the EU in 2004. This coincides with a flow of migration from eastern Europe, including Poland which has the highest proportion of foreign citizens living in the UK.

These figures may explain why migration and labour issues are resonating in Brexit debates. A lady I met at Manchester train station said her son is long-term unemployed despite his job hunting efforts. He's had factory work in the past and labouring jobs but he's been unemployed for 18 months and she blames EU migration. A tradie in a pub in Peckham in south London told me that most of the workers on his construction site are from eastern Europe. His view is that people coming from poorer countries get jobs because they are more motivated to change their circumstances and are willing to wake early and work hard. This is anecdotal, keep in mind, and not empirical evidence, and yet it is a reflection of local perspectives about how migration is impacting labour.  

Others express fears about terrorism enabled by refugee mass migration to Europe. The thought is that EU rules about free movement may prevent Britain from stopping potential terrorists from entering the UK. And there are further worries about security. A retired war veteran I met at a conference in Oxford said he's anxious that EU membership is diminishing Britain's ability to make autonomous defence policies because of commitments to the Common Security and Defence Policy

Remain voters talk about how long it will take to reconstruct policies and renegotiate international agreements if Britain votes to leave. An economist told me he's concerned the UK will lose bargaining power in international dialogues without the weight of the EU behind it. He said he'd rather see the UK be a leader within the EU than to break away. For others, it is the permanency of the decision which is key. Unlike general election outcomes which can swing between parties every few years, a vote to leave the EU is seen as having lasting consequences. 

Students I've spoken with tend to support the remain campaign. This is partly because some benefit from EU mobility but it is also a reflection of generational differences. Younger people tend to want to remain in the EU and older people, generally speaking, are more inclined to leave. Senior citizens reflect on how British culture was better before the EU and younger people talk about how remaining in the EU will affect their individual futures. Again, this is anecdotal and based on conversations I've been having over the past eight months or so but it is also supported by Ipsos MORI research which suggests people aged 18–34 are more likely to vote remain and those aged 55- are more likely to vote to leave. 

The killing of remain campaigner, Labour MP Jo Cox, a week before the referendum has been shocking. Even in a climate of bitter divisions over Brexit, nobody anticipated a violent fatal attack. Speculation about the alleged gunman's right-wing links and sympathy for the victim and her family superseded political and technical 'remain' and 'leave' arguments for a few days, but with the referendum imminent, campaigns are resuming.  

It's unclear what the outcome will be after the referendum on 23 June. Polling indicates a leave trend although there are individual polls which have remain ahead  so it is too close to call. I've yet to encounter a single person sitting on the fence about this issue. The word on the street is that this is the most important UK vote in living memory.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Number 10.


Related Content

The mendacity of Milosevic (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

You may also be interested in