Brexiters are the minority.
70% of the voting-age population did nothing to support leaving the EU.
Labour should seek to represent them too.

Dr. Monica Threlfall , London Metropolitan University

The Prime Minister repeatedly claims ‘the people’ or ‘the public’ backed Brexit – even with ‘emphatic clarity’ in her conference speech. Commentators insist ‘the British people’ have spoken. Even on the Remain side many MPs feel they must ‘honour’ the ‘majority’, and are now devoted to making an eventual Brexit less painful, as if it were bound to happen. We have become supplicants, hands outstretched for morsels of promises, praying the government will somehow mess things up and fail to come up with a plan that actually satisfies the Leavers. But 17m Leavers in a population of over 65m is no majority. The really significant figure is that around 70% of the adult population resident in the UK neither supported nor voted to Leave. They were either acquiescent with the status quo by default, or voted Remain. They are the great majority and they must be taken into account.

Referendum of 23 June: 70% of adult residents in the UK acquiescent with the status quo IN

UK Resident population (population est. mid-2015):[i] 65,110,034
UK adult 18+ residents (est. 2015):[ii] 51,339,127
UK electorate: adult population registered to vote (June 2006):[iii] 46,500,001
UK unregistered adults (by deduction): 4,839,126
EU nationality residents barred from voting in this referendum:[iv] 2,389,500
Ballots cast on 23 June: 33,578,037
Abstention from voting (by deduction): 12,921,964
‘Remain’ votes: 16,141,241
‘Leave’ votes: 17,410,742
Difference in Leave/Remain vote: 1,269,508
‘Rejected’ ballots:[v] 25,359
Leave votes as % proportion of total resident population: 26.7%
Leave votes as % proportion of adult resident population: 33.9%
Leave votes as % proportion of adult electorate: 37.4%
If EU residents had been allowed to vote,
Remain option would have received a majority up to: 16,141,241
+ 2,389,500
NO STEPS TAKEN TO LEAVE: Remainers + abstainers + EU nationality
residents + unregistered:  36,292,631
Acquiescent with the status quo among total resident population (est.): 55.7%
Acquiescent with the status quo among adult resident population (est.): 70.7%

Source: Calculations by Monica Threlfall. Note: latest UK total population estimates from the ONS are for 12 months before the 2016 electoral register (exact data) closed, so figures do not add up to 100%. In late 2017, the figures could be recalculated with all 2016 data. For sources, see the end notes below.

Nearly 5m unregistered adults and 13m abstainers should not be swept under the carpet. They were offered a chance to vote Leave and refrained from taking it. Whether confused or disinterested, by doing nothing they chose to carry on with the status quo – which is in the EU. Democracies may make decisions on the basis of the active voters, but in this case, the Referendum wording means that non-participants are in effect defaulting to remaining in the EU. The referendum asked people to come out and vote for something that was already there and had been for decades, hardly a motivating proposal. And only by gerrymandering the franchise – leaving out young 16 and 17 year olds, a chunk of Brits living abroad, and selectively barring the biggest stakeholders of all, nationals of 25 EU countries living in the UK – did the Leavers win. The estimated 2.4 million adult European residents alone would have made Remain win comfortably by over 1m.

Since the Referendum, the Government has publicly confirmed that there will be no change of status to EU free-movers, and that all can remain at least “until Article 50 negotiations have been concluded” [vi]. Plus, all those who have lived here for over 5 years have the right to remain “permanently and without any conditions” [vii] under British law regarding foreign nationals. Home Office officials recently found that the majority, 5 out of 6 EU free-movers, 83%, had already acquired residency rights after living here for over 5 years and could not be deported. Other officials have even indicated that in the event of Brexit, those with fewer years of residence (est.600,000) would be granted a so-called ‘amnesty’ [viii] –as if they were here illegally, showing extraordinary disrespect.

Three million non-British Europeans could stay with us for an indefinite future or to the end of their lives, engrossing the permanent Remain camp. Only new free movement could be reduced somewhat in the long term, though employers will seek to get them visas on account of their skills. The Leavers’s hope will clearly be dashed. Furthermore, given the long perspective of the negotiations, by the time the Brexiters get to the point of readiness, they will be confronted by many more Remainers in the form of contingents of young people who have turned 18. At the same time, the possibility of providing the famed £350m a week for the NHS has been flatly denied and the NHS remains in crisis.

Since the Leavers’ two chief demands have already been blocked, their best hopes shattered, why should Labour continue to ‘honour’ a referendum that now promises nothing but economic difficulties? As Keir Starmer rightly points out, governments are tasked with managing the economy to optimum results, not with engineering hardship in the name of a shameful goal. Staying in the EU would bring a welcome economic bounce. Labour needs urgently to push the government to address the Leavers’ grievances now, creating a plan for each community where they are festering.

But we already know that a large majority, 70% of the UK’s adult residents made no move towards demanding Leave. So Labour and Liberal Democrats should seek to represent this 70% majority. It must be taken into account particularly as it comprises many dissatisfied and disinterested groups with varied needs. But as residents, this 70% majority has a right to demand that the status quo IN be respected. Remainers will need to shout much louder about the benefits of EU membership.


[i] ONS mid-2015 estimate, Table MYE2: Population estimates by single year of age and sex for local authorities in the UK, mid-2015, 

[ii] Author calculations on basis of above, latest available data, 2015.

[iii] Electoral Commission (September 2016), Report: The 2016 EU Referendum, p.6.  Registration figures up to 7/8 June are one year later than the ONS population figures, the latest of which are from 2015.

[iv] Author estimate using ONS Table 1.1: Population in the United Kingdom, excluding some residents in communal establishments, by country of birth; minus estimated under-18 year olds, minus those born in an EU country but naturalised British.…/population…country-of-birth-and-nationality/

[v] Electoral Commission, . Note that the 3 figures for votes cast, according to the EC, add up to 33,577,342 votes, 695 votes short of their total of ballots cast, shown in the table.

[vi] Cabinet Office, Statement: the status of EU nationals in the UK.

[vii] Your Europe, Permanent Residence,

[viii] “Every EU migrant can stay in UK after Brexit: all 3.6 million to have residency rules or get amnesty”, Peter Dominiczak, The Telegraph, 7 October 2016.