The EU referendum may prove to be a generation game

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Bognor Regis beach during a heatwave in 1933Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bognor Regis beach during a heatwave in 1933

One curiosity of this referendum, which makes it quite unlike other major votes, is how it feels more polarising and vicious than a general election.

This is not only because people disagree with the other side and the stakes are high, it's also because of the distance between the two camps of voters - in particular when it comes to age.

As I have been travelling around the country over the past few weeks, I keep hearing the same refrains: "Everyone I know is voting Remain" or "I can't find anyone not voting Leave". Some of this will, of course, be shy Leavers and shy Remainers keeping their mouths shut. But lots of people's friends are of roughly the same ages, qualifications and incomes and live in the same area as them.

And these things look like stronger predictors of how you will vote than they are for other votes. On the basis of my pottering around the UK, I suspect that more friendship circles are all voting one way than they would normally - and more people know nobody voting differently to them.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
These children can't vote of course - but young people are more likely to be in favour of Remain than the rest of the population

A new piece of evidence on this has been released by Populus, a pollster that is doing a lot of work for the Remain camp. Their data suggests:

  • People aged 65 and over are 23% more likely to vote Leave than the average voter. Voters aged 18-24 are 37% more likely to back Remain. Those aged 25-34 are 19% more likely to back Remain than the average voter, the poll suggests
  • Students are 54% more likely to back Remain than the average person. Graduates are 21% more likely. Meanwhile, people with no formal qualifications are 48% more likely to back Leave
  • People in higher status occupations, on the scales used by sociologists, are also more likely to vote Remain. People in lower status jobs tilt towards Leave
  • Living in eastern England is associated with being 15% more likely to vote for Leave, while living in London makes you 15% more likely to vote for Remain

Lots of these things run together - young people are more likely to have spent time at a university than older people, for example. Graduates are more likely to move to London and tend to earn more and have higher-status jobs than non-graduates. So you can see how it is that lots of people feel they do not really know people from the other side.

Sussex by the Sea

I spent some of last week in Bognor Regis to look at divisions by age.

Bognor Regis is a town where 30% of the population is aged over 60 (the Great Britain average is 22%). This sunny corner of Sussex has long attracted retirees, but the holiday trade is thinner than it was. Its slow decline has made it a very clear example of how vote clustering happens.

Bognor does not just have an older population, but is also a low-wage town with lots of lower status jobs. The average full-time salary is £475 per week - that's £50 per week less than the British average and £100 a week less than the south-east England average. It is low-skilled, too - only 28% of the workforce has a higher qualification, as against 37% for the whole of Britain at large.

I expect Bognor to vote heavily for Leave - as the many Vote Leave posters we saw in the area attested. I saw no posters for Remain whatsoever. Even here, however, the age pattern held. The young people we met were overwhelmingly leaning to Remain - as were their friends and the older people we met were firm on Leave - as were their social circles.

More from Newsnight on the EU referendum:

This marked difference between the young and old seems to come down to a few points. Younger people told us they felt European, which the older people did not. The young people also struck much more pro-immigration notes, seeing it as neutral or a positive strength. Young people who were still in the labour market - or about to enter it - were also more concerned about the economy.

Some of the pensioners we met believed younger people were likely to vote for Remain because they did not understand the reality of life before we joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Young people, meanwhile, resented the idea that older voters might vote to make it more difficult for them to move elsewhere in the EU.

Cynicism and age

I quizzed older voters a little on why they were not worried by the Remain campaign's economic messages and the answer was clear. It is not that they are indifferent to economic issues - the issue is that they did not trust any experts at all on the economy and could not name any person they would believe. They also questioned the motivation of any politicians who wanted to remain inside the EU.

I asked them why pro-Remain politicians want membership. To "line their own pockets with EU money", they said. Even the prime minister, they thought, was thinking of his own future earnings. When I asked about the expertise of Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, one answered, "Does he know what it's like to go around Sainsbury's shopping?"

I was quite struck, however, that there was one source that our Leave-voting pensioners took seriously on the economy - a local businessman had told us that he thought jobs might move to another plant, elsewhere in the EU, in the event of Brexit. They are still voting Leave, but a real-life local businessman was more persuasive to them than any national figure.

While younger voters were also sceptical about claims from the Remain campaign, and stressed their concern about exaggeration, they took the economic analysis more seriously.

This temperature-taking exercise finds the same fault lines discovered by other pollsters - right down to the world-weariness of the average Leave voter who trusts very few sources of information or analysis.

But the really big thing I took away from Bognor - and indeed, my other trips around the country - was that we should worry about how we will all get along with one another, whoever wins on Thursday.

The wounds are deep, real and go way beyond the question of our membership of the EU.

Chris Cook is Policy Editor for BBC Newsnight. You can read more from him here, and follow him on Twitter