The debate of Britain leaving the EU has raged incessantly over the last few weeks and looks to continue right up until the referendum on June 23rd. Claim and counterclaim, argument and rebuttal, insult and accusation have flown from one camp to other leaving some commentators and followers perplexed and confused with information overload. Whatever the merits of either side, whoever is right, the referendum will be decided not by logic or reasoning, but by the will of the people. Thus, it becomes worthwhile to examine the polls in detail as it offers the best indicator as to what way the majority will fall.
After the 2015 General Election, the polling industry was chastised for being inaccurate, as ever we were told: “you should never trust polls.” However, the CEO of YouGov has reassured that the polling industry has “learnt its lesson” and has now refined it processes. He was speaking ahead of a talk in Parliament about the constitutional implications of Brexit, which I was lucky enough to attend.
The talk saw EU heavyweights such as Tristram Hunt and Peter Hitchen’s articulate their views on the EU superbly, however, I doubt that anyone in that room changed their minds as a result of the arguments that they heard in the chamber. The real battle then is over those who do not attend the events or rallies; both camps are fighting over the 20% of the population who are “undecided,” those that will tip the scales towards one side or the other. In such a simple “tug of war” style popularity, contest polling offers a fascinating insight into which way the scales are tipping.
The “polls of polls” for the EU currently stand at 53% “In” and 47% “Out.” At this Parliamentary event, it was explained to me that these polls, although accurate, were mostly likely to tend towards “In” as people more likely to poll, the young and highly media connected people, just happened to be more likely to poll and be less likely to convert their views into a vote at the ballot. The key drivers between the two camps were also impressive, those voting to leave cited fear of increases in migration as their main concern if we stayed. Those voting to remain cited economic and trade factors as the main reason they were voting to stay. Interestingly both sides of the debate thought that there would be little consequences to Scottish Independence or wider EU changes should we vote to leave.
Perhaps one of the most valuable insights from the polling was that those who did not feel strongly or did not know for sure what they thought the consequences of staying or remaining were, would vote to remain. This suggests that there is inertia to the status quo amongst the British public. This is hardly surprising; on a microeconomic level, people feel the bereavement of a loss much more than they feel the happiness of a gain. So the warnings of a loss of wealth coming from the “project fear” in the “remain” camp are likely to resonate more with the public than the leave camp’s vague promise of increased wealth through trade.
The consequences of Brexit are fundamental as they are profound to the UK’s economy and social fabric. The trade deals that would have to be renegotiated, the legislation that would have to be replaced, and the uncertainty that it would bring would deeply affect the UK and the EU, potentially triggering a wave of referendums across Europe. Because of this, it is certainly important to look at the polls ahead of the vote to try and at least have some prior indication of which way the vote is going. Despite all this froth and speculation, it is worth remembering that this referendum does not come with a Parliamentary obligation to uphold the result. When previous referendums voted to leave in other EU countries such as Ireland, they were made to vote against until they came to the “right” result and stayed. There will be a lot more political slander, academic debate and general turbulence in the UK until June 23rd, just remember that the referendum result does not equate to a legal commitment.