Sunday, 15 May 2016

EU Referendum: Neither Side in this Scrappy Debate is Cutting Through

The intensity of the Scottish referendum debate was celebrated for reinvigorating Scottish politics - and we're beginning to see some of the lasting effects.

According to this weekend's ComRes for the Independent/Sunday Mirror, Scottish voters are far more certain to vote than those from any other region.

Respondents were asked how likely they were to vote in a general election on a scale from 0 - 10. Those who answered 10 (absolutely certain to vote) were as follows: England 64%, Scotland 76%, England & Wales 64%, North 66%, Midlands 62%, South 66%. 

Data from late April's Opinium/Observer poll showed similar results, but the question was in reference to the referendum: England 65%, Scotland 70%, Wales 65%.

The EU referendum debate, on the other hand, has so far been a mess - one that has culminated in both sides invoking hyperbolic wartime sentiments; David Cameron by suggesting a Leave vote would lead to World War III, and Boris Johnson by suggesting the European Union is carrying out the aims and objectives of Adolf Hitler, albeit in a less genocidal fashion.

This desperation may be explained by polling data which shows neither side is cutting through, despite the fact this campaign has been running officially for four weeks, unofficially for 12 weeks, and on Question Time for three years.

While polling is neck-and-neck (Remain holds a small lead), a large swathe of the electorate is yet undecided.


This is the share of undecided voters over time, based the FT's polling tracker:

The average share of undecided voters from all polls over this period is 14.7%, and the median is 17%. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be any major sign of voters breaking either way.

Although polling from the Scottish referendum reflected similar levels of undecided voters at this late stage of the campaign, the share of don't knows expands when respondents are asked specific questions on the EU's role in our lives; i.e. what both sides' arguments are based on.

The following questions were asked by the ComRes poll I cited earlier.

I would be personally better off if Britain:
Left the EU - 29%
Remained in the EU - 33%
Don't know - 38%

The British government could control Britain's borders if it:
Left the EU - 57%
Remained in the EU - 27%
Don't know - 16%

Britain's national security would be stronger if Britain:
Left the EU - 42%
Remained in the EU - 38%
Don't know - 19%


As each week goes by, voters face a fresh bombardment of expert opinions, economic analyses, financial projections, migration studies, security warnings, scare stories and conspiracy theories. This isn't to mention the in-fighting within both camps, and the temporary truces forged between unlikely allies.

In the midst of this haze they may, in the end, ignore the arguments and go with whomever they trust the most. This is what YouGov had in mind when it asked voters for their opinion on the key players in this debate (and for some reason Bill Clinton).

That the politician British voters trust the most on the EU isn't even British speaks volumes. Overall, Leave figurehead Boris Johnson (- 19) is the most trusted, followed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (- 25). David Cameron, who has inserted himself into the heart of the Remain campaign, is the least trusted (- 47). With few exceptions, leading figures from both campaigns have a major trust issue.

Now back again to that ComRes poll, on the question of trust.

Which campaign is "more likely to tell the truth"?
Leave: 39%
Remain: 24%
Don't know: 38%

How these facts plays out over the next few weeks is anyone's guess, although betting markets have consistently given Remain a 60 - 70% chance of winning. Meanwhile, YouGov's 'Lessons from the Scottish Referendum' noted Project Fear only started to hit home in the final two weeks of the campaign, as undecided voters broke towards the status quo.

As things stand, voters don't fully understand the message, and they don't fully trust the messengers. This may not swing voting intention, but I think it may have a dangerous effect on turnout, which in turn could swing the result.

In 2014, 84.6% of the electorate took part in the Scottish referendum to cap off months of enriching debate centred on sovereignty and national identity. But, when it comes to the EU, something in our discourse has gone seriously wrong.


Also in the news: Gordon Brown blustered into the Remain campaign last week, hoping for a repeat of his momentous impact in the Scottish referendum. Nobody really paid attention to what he had to say this time, though he did raise a few eyebrows when he challenged Boris Johnson to a one-on-one debate. Normally, that would have been that. But Boris, when quizzed by journalists with Exeter University's XTV, confirmed he'd be game. Surely it would eclipse the dizzying heights of Cameron vs Gove. Could the broadcasters get these teams together to arrange a date?

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