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26 October 2017

Have Welsh voters changed their minds about Brexit?

Researchers decided to find out. 

By roger Awan-Scully

In the latest joint statement on Brexit from the Scottish and Welsh governments, respective ministers Mike Russell and Mark Drakeford made their dissatisfaction with  how Brexit is being managed clear. It was the latest in a series of statements by the devolved governments expressing unhappiness with how their concerns – notably over consultations via the Joint Ministerial Committee, and the draft EU Withdrawal Bill – are being dealt with.

The co-operation between the SNP Scottish government and the Labour Welsh government over Brexit is remarkable. Indeed, given the toxic relationship between the two parties, it is perhaps the ultimate measure of how poorly the internal politics of Brexit have been handled. Not everyone is happy with the SNP-Welsh Labour axis: some Welsh Labour MPs are clearly less than wholly comfortable with working so closely with a party dedicated to breaking up the UK.

The Scottish government, of course, has a mandate from the 62 per cent Scottish Remain vote in last year’s referendum to oppose or at least seek to ameliorate Brexit. Wales, however, voted for Brexit. That vote ran against much of the political self-understanding cultivated for years across the centre-left in Wales; but Leave it was.

To what extent, then, is the approach of the Welsh government actually reflecting the views of the people of Wales? New research, published today by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, has explored in more detail than ever before what the Welsh think and understand about Brexit.

The first clear point to emerge from the data is that few people are yet changing their minds. As with the GB-wide polling, an overwhelming majority of Remain and Leave voters would still vote the same way if the referendum was repeated now. Wales, no more than the rest of the country, is not coming together as Theresa May hoped that we would.

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But divisions persist far beyond how we would vote in any re-run of last year’s referendum, or even what – if any – sort of Brexit the UK should seek to negotiate. The research found that Remainers and Leavers also differ greatly in what they think will happen. Leavers are much more likely to take an optimistic view of the implications of Brexit for themselves, their communities, and for Wales as a whole; Remainers are overwhelmingly pessimistic. Remainers do not believe that post-Brexit the UK’s global influence will rise, or that more money will be available for the NHS; Leavers are much more sanguine.

We even see substantial differences about the political process: most Remainers either think that any deal negotiated should require ratification by the UK parliament and the devolved chambers, or think that there should have to be a second referendum. Leavers think that it should be implemented immediately or require approval by Westminster alone.

One of the most striking features of last year’s referendum result was that all the south Wales valleys voted for Leave, most by substantial margins. These communities are in many ways very similar to the “left behind” places that voted Leave in England. But the valleys have long been politically loyal to Labour, and Welsh Labour was almost unanimous behind Remain; they have also received substantial amounts of EU structural fund aid in recent times.

So why did they do it? And are they experiencing any “Bregret”? The Cardiff University research included focus groups conducted with working-class Leave voters in the valleys. There were no signs of regret about their vote. There also continued to be strong concerns over immigration, with several group participants articulating a clear working-class case against immigration: that it made the labour market more competitive, drove down wages for locals, and thus benefited employers rather than ordinary people.

Our valleys voters viewed the impact of EU aid to their communities with great scepticism. When told of research that shows Wales to be a net beneficiary of the EU budget, many participants simply didn’t believe it. Or, if they did, they saw it as a beneficiary in accounting terms only, with the real gains not feeding through to local people. Aid projects were seen as having been done more to, rather than with, local people. And EU money was believed to have too often resulted in wasteful spending and vanity projects, rather than producing genuine benefits for their communities.

One last finding from the focus groups was that, for many of these Leave voters at least, some of the problems of Brexit were already “priced in”. Participants generally expected there to be a short-term economic cost. But they tended to think that, in the long-term, Brexit would be worth it – particularly for producing the gain of protecting Britain’s independence and sovereignty.

So Remainers thinking that bad news about the Brexit negotiations will finally change the minds of those who voted Leave – I wouldn’t count on it.