Is the election making us more cautious about Europe?

Voters are saying they want to stay in the EU more and more as polling day approaches

April 10, 2015
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Tony Blair might not be the best person to deliver a pro-European message in the current election campaign, but his arguments do strike a chord. Three separate YouGov surveys in the past six weeks have detected a shift in public sentiment:

In our regular tracker surveys, the last two have found ten point leads for the UK staying in the EU: by 45-35 per cent in our late February survey, and by 46-36 per cent in our late March survey. As recently as October, voters opted by 44-35 per cent for leaving the EU.

In a separate survey, conducted this week, we asked people whether Britain would be better or worse off if it left the EU. Just 25 per cent said better off, while 43 per cent said worse off (16 per cent said it would make no difference; the rest said don’t know). That net score of minus 18 (25 better, minus 43 worse) is the biggest gulf we have found. Back in 2013, the figures tended to be level-pegging. Through this past winter, our polls averaged a net score of minus 8.

What is going on? It’s not as if there have been any major developments in either British or European politics to provoke a shift. The eurozone has neither descended into crisis nor staged an unexpected recovery.

My judgement is that we are in a period when some people answer questions in a different way from normal. In “peacetime”, when no national decision is imminent, many people answer a referendum question in terms of whether they broadly like the EU or not. But, now when an election looms and people think about Britain’s future direction, some people who generally dislike Brussels start thinking about the issue differently. They ponder whether Britain would flourish outside the EU. Some people who dislike Brussels nevertheless fear that Brexit would be too risky, and change their answer to the same question.

Put another way, some people who in peacetime take a “grass is greener” view of leaving the EU, switch to a “keep a hold of nurse” stance when faced with the need to take sides in an election or referendum.

It has happened before. Eight months before the 1975 referendum, Gallup found a majority wanted to leave the Common Market (as it was then called). As the referendum approached, Gallup tracked the change in attitudes that ended up with a two-to-one majority for remaining a member of the club in the referendum itself.

Likewise in the run-up to the 1983 general election, which Labour fought on a platform of leaving the Common Market. A year earlier, Labour’s policy seemed to chime with public opinion; but as polling day approached, many voters switched sides, and a majority told pollsters they did not want to leave after all. It was that election, and Labour’s catastrophic defeat, rather than the 1975 referendum, that really settled the issue for a political generation.

That said, most people say they want a referendum, and David Cameron’s platform of reform in the EU chimes with the public mood. But few voters regard it as a central issue. Cameron was right ten years ago, when he won the Conservative leadership, to warn his party not to “bang on” about Europe.

Indeed, when YouGov asks people how they would vote “if David Cameron renegotiated our relationship with Europe and said that Britain’s interests were now protected, and recommended that Britain remain a member of the EU on the new terms,” 57 per cent said they would vote to stay in, and just 22 per cent to leave.

In reality, I doubt whether the vote would be that overwhelming; but I would be surprised if we voted to leave the EU.

Of course, I could be wrong. If Britain as a whole does vote for withdrawal, but within that Scotland wanted to remain in the EU, our politics would become—how shall I put this?—really rather interesting.