Elections Etc

What is going on in the EU referendum? Some comments based on opinion poll evidence

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by Stephen Fisher.

The prominent Leave campaigners are at pains to point out how much they love Europe. Boris Johnston says he is a proud European. Leavers claim to love Europe but hate the EU.

Meanwhile leading figures in the Remain camp dare not admit to any fondness for either Europe or the EU. Their eurosceptic tone emphasises UK membership as a marriage of convenience, to be justified by considerations of UK interests alone. This makes plenty of sense as a pitch to a population that overwhelmingly dislikes the institutions of the EU and who identify with Britain or one of the home nations much more than they think of themselves as European.

For the large majority of people in the UK pretty much the only substantial reason for voting Remain is economic. “Project Fear” is not only the obvious strategy for the Remain campaign, it is pretty much the only possible one that could secure them victory. The main reason why the polls are suggesting the outcome of this referendum will be close is that the public are not yet convinced the economy will suffer, and in particular that they personally would be worse off, if we left.

The percentage of YouGov respondents believing that Britain would be worse-off economically if we left the EU has been consistently in the mid 30s. Figures are much lower for questions about personal circumstances, with fewer than 25% saying they would be worse off in all but the most recent poll. True the most recent figure is 33% up from 23% early in June, but the question came fairly low down a long poll, and an Opinium poll with a similar question at a similar time found just 18% saying they thought that their personal financial situation would be worse. Clearly the public are far from convinced of the veracity of the consistently dire macro-economic estimates of the consequences of leaving.

Why they are unconvinced is not clear but my impression is that the main question is not whether Remain would have done better to have presented a more positive vision of EU membership but why they have not spelt out more plainly how severe the estimated costs of departure are, defended them more robustly and explained more clearly the macro-economic analysis behind them.

Although only a minority of people think Britain or they themselves will be worse off, around half think either Britain would be worse off or they don’t know. The proportion reaches three-quarters if we add in those who think leaving would make “no difference”. Maybe those who Don’t Know and or who expect no difference on average might see leaving as more risky.

Leaving the EU is indeed perceived as the bigger risk (by 52% to 29%). This is a perception reinforced by Martin Lewis who scorned those who claim to know what will happen but confidently asserts that there is a greater financial risk associated with leaving than with remaining. This risk is also visible in the behaviour of the financial markets.

However, there is little evidence that the Don’t Knows and No Difference respondents intend to vote Remain because of concerns about risk. Cross-tabulations between questions about economic consequences of leaving and referendum vote intention (e.g. here and here) show that those who Don’t Know what to expect economically typically also Don’t Know which way they will vote or say that they will not vote. Those who expect little or no economic change from leaving are much more likely to say they will vote Leave than Remain. Really the Remain campaign need to persuade more people that they would be worse off if Britain votes to leave.

Without such a change it is hard to see from the polling evidence how Remain could win a majority based on economic considerations. Maybe they will but if so it currently looks as though it will depend on the degree of risk aversion among those who say are unconvinced by the dire economic warnings but may ultimately heed them.

During the Scottish independence referendum campaign consistently over 40% of people thought Scotland would be worse off if independent (also see here). While not a majority, this was a far stronger basis for an economic No vote, especially in a context in which there were other factors that bolstered support for the union. There is far more fondness for the UK in Scotland than there is for the EU in the UK.

When the No side outperformed all of the opinion polls from the final month of the Scottish Independence referendum people were generally happy to accept that this was because of a little late swing due to risk aversion. That still seems to be the prevailing view, with some evidence from YouGov’s on the day recontact survey. But still, to my knowledge, there is no research that fully explains the discrepancy between the final polls and the actual outcome in the independence referendum and shows that it was due primarily to risk-aversion considerations.

Although such a late swing towards the status quo is again expected this week, and there is some foundation for such an expectation, really it is on average modest and cannot be relied on. If Remain do beat the polls, it will take detailed analysis of re-contact and other surveys to figure out why.

Of course the arguments I have made here are rather broad brush and they depend somewhat on how much you believe the opinion polls. It is intriguing to note that the one of the concerns about the polls in the run up to last year’s general election was an apparent mismatch between vote intention questions showing Labour and the Conservatives tied but clear leads for the Tories on questions about leadership and economic management. The vote-intention figures were off primarily because of sampling problems, but it is still true that leader and economic evaluations are important for understanding why the Conservatives won.

There is a not dissimilar puzzle with the polls this time. Whilst the polling results on various questions about the economy make it hard to Remain winning, those on immigration would make it easy to explain the outcome if Leave win. The idea of limiting immigration from the EU is overwhelmingly popular, people believe that if we leave then immigration will go down, and concern about immigration is the key driver of support for leaving. The polls clearly show that EU immigration in perceived as problematically high, that people recognise that the free movement of labour that comes with EU membership is part of the cause, and that leaving the EU and ending free movement constitutes a solution to the perceived problem. (See here for background and here for the results of numerous polling questions.)

If people were forced to chose between accepting free movement as a price of free trade in the EU, or abandoning both, the contest would be close. But many do not think they face such a trade off. One poll shows 57% of Leave supporters believe that if Britain left, “it would probably be possible for Britain to negotiate free trade with the rest of the EU, without having to allow EU citizens to live and work in Britain.”

However much prominent Leave campaigners claim to love Europe, if Leave win the referendum it will be primarily because UK citizens do not love Europeans enough to let as many as want to live in the UK.

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