Attitudes towards the EU are changing—fast

And this time, all floating voters matter

February 24, 2016
Boris Johnson's response to the leak has been disappointing. Photo: PA
Boris Johnson's response to the leak has been disappointing. Photo: PA
Read more: Cameron's compromise 

Like the Scottish referendum 18 months ago, the campaigns for and against British membership of the European Union will be a contest between economy and identity.

The top concern for those who want Britain to remain in the EU is what is better “for jobs, investment, and the economy generally.” For those who favour Brexit, what matters most is the “balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries.”

On both sides, immigration is a secondary concern. Overall, just one voter in six says it matters most in deciding their vote—and most of them are firmly committed to leaving the EU. Despite all the agonising over free movement, child benefit and Britain’s welfare rules, this is unlikely to be the issue that sways the nine million people who have yet finally to make up their mind, and whose verdict will decide the outcome.

Overall the contest is finely balanced. YouGov’s latest survey for The Times, conducted this week, finds that we divide 51-49 per cent for Brexit (after excluding don’t knows). This compares with a 56-44 per cent preference for Brexit in early February. Much of the five point swing back to remaining in the EU is explained by the views of those who voted Conservative last year. In early February they divided 68-32 per cent for Brexit. Now they divide 60-40. Past YouGov polls indicated that the Prime Minister could sway a fair number of Tory voters with a strong appeal for retaining our links with Europe. It has started to happen.

However, at this stage the more important fact is that 29 per cent are either undecided or takes sides but don’t have a strong preference. If around 30 million people vote in the referendum, as in last year’s general election, that 29 per cent equates to nine million people.

Moreover, all of them matter. In a general election, floating voters interest the parties only if they live in marginal seats. Close elections turn on which party is able to target most effectively no more than half a million voters—around 5,000 in each of 100 constituencies. Winning a referendum, in which nine million voters throughout the country have to be identified, reached and persuaded is a very different challenge. In practice, the campaigns must appeal to the generality of public opinion: everyone except those who are strongly committed to either side.

One clear message from our survey is that the rival campaigns should be sparing in their use of politicians. YouGov asked people how much they trusted David Cameron and five other Conservatives, plus three leaders of other parties, on what they say about Europe. Every one of them has a strongly negative rating. Boris Johnson has the least bad score, minus 13 (34 per cent say they trust him, while 47 per cent do not). All four party leaders do significantly worse: David Cameron (minus 25), Jeremy Corbyn (minus 28), Nigel Farage (minus 38) and George Galloway (minus 58).

What’s more, voters suspect the motives of all the leading Tory politicians, including Boris. Just 21 per cent think the Mayor has decided his stance on the basis of what is best for Britain; twice as many, 40 per cent, believe he has joined the Brexit camp in order to advance his career. Cameron’s figures are also poor, but not quite as bad: for country 27 per cent, for career 36 per cent.

The arguments for remaining in the EU that have the greatest traction with voters are that it is safer than Brexit, and make us more prosperous. Just 23 per cent say the economy would be stronger outside the EU, while 55 per cent say either that we would be worse off (31 per cent) or aren’t sure (24 per cent). On this occasion, uncertainty is bad news for the Brexit camps. It implies some risk. A fear that leaving the EU MIGHT be bad for jobs and investment should worry them: they must do all they can to remove that sense of risk.

This is underlined by our question, which is safer for Britain? Forty-three per cent say staying in the EU, while just 31 per cent say leaving. If the pro-EU camp can frame the choice in terms of risk versus safety, these figures imply a clear majority in June for remaining in the EU.

Meanwhile, however, the answer to a question that differs by just one word—“which would be BETTER for Britain”—there is a narrow 38-36 per cent preference for life outside the EU. In practical terms, wavering voters worry about what will happen to public services such as the NHS; but, taking into account the various questions we asked, this represents the tip of a bigger iceberg labelled independence. At the moment, some voters are willing to sacrifice a little safety, and a little prosperity, in order for Britain to have more control over its affairs.

This may change. The pro-EU campaign needs to emphasise the economic risks of Brexit, and also neutralise the argument about whether Britain outside the EU would have more real control over its destiny. Those advocating Brexit need effective answers to the charge that they are putting prosperity at risk; they also need to underpin the emotional-cum-constitutional case for reclaiming sovereignty with practical examples of how this would enhance voters’ daily lives.

How the rival campaigns rise to those challenges, and how voters respond to their arguments, will determine the result of the referendum. If past referendums are anything to go by—from Scotland to Quebec, and Spain to Australia—the status quo is likely to have the advantage in the final days when push comes to shove. But all kinds of things could happen to thwart that outcome—a new refugee crisis, a terrorist attack, turmoil in the Eurozone, a fresh scandal in Brussels—for anyone to be sure. We could be in for a bumpy ride.

Now read: Have Brexiteers not heard of the "trilemma"?