The EU referendum and opinion polls: “It’s the economy, stupid”

To add to the uncertainty, it seems that 30% of people haven’t yet made up their mind which way to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. Given that polling has shown that the result is on a knife-edge, it still leaves both sides with everything to play for.

It is worth bearing in mind that research has shown that 80% of referendums tend to favour the status quo. People tend to vote against change. The two UK-wide referendums that we have had, in 1975 on whether to stay in the EU (sic), or in 2011 on the Alternative Vote attempt on electoral reform, both vote against change. In Scotland the status quo prevailed over the SNP campaign for independence by a 10% margin. Northern Ireland voted against union with the South in 1973. Similar patterns have been observed in other European countries.

Despite the seeming lead possessed by the Leave campaign, actual polling has in general shown a small Remain lead, of around 2% – within the margin of error of course which can take it either way. However if you look at the method of polling you get significant differences. Online polling which uses a panel of “voters”, tends to produce a very close result, whereas phone polls show a much larger Remain lead. So the polling industry are unsure which is most plausible, suggesting, as one major guru has, that it’s probably somewhere in between! Not very reassuring! But then they had their noses put out of joint by the result of the last General Election which, like this blog, expected a Hung Parliament when in fact the Tories gained a majority of 12 seats on 25% of those entitled to vote. Readers of psephologist blogs will know that they have since been going all over the place to find out, it seems unsuccessfully, what went wrong.

However, when it gets close to the actual vote, people are faced with the existential choice, to be or not to be. In 2014 the Scottish Nationalists were dumbfounded that they lost, being so convinced in the righteousness of their cause. Let us not forget however that they have since wiped out Labour in Scotland! Voters in 2014 were perhaps unconvinced of the SNP economic arguments and, as voters tend to do, voted with their wallets in mind. You could say they were proved right, since the oil price has dropped radically, taking the bottom out of Salmond’s arguments in favour of Scotland’s bright new future out of the union. As Bill Clinton’s team were well aware that in campaigning for his election, the key decider was, as they said, “the economy, stupid” (by James Carville in 1992).

So, what’s going to happen? Will history repeat itself? Will people vote for the Great Unknown? The Leave campaign has major problems presenting an alternative to the status quo in that major area that determines how people vote, the economy. It cannot give a clear vision of the relationship with the EU after Brexit: is it to be the Norway version, access to the Single Market but I’m afraid you’ll still get all those immigrants and you have no say over the rules any more?! This is estimated (by the LSE and Oxford economists) to be the least costly offering. Or you get a free trade agreement, which still has strings attached, or, the most costly option, abide by World Trade Organisation rules. Whichever way you go, independent consensus is that it will cost us a lot. Moreover there’s no settled option as to how to limit immigration, which all major economies are experiencing, or to have effective sovereignty when so much is decided by international agreement. It’s all very scary.

So, it is tempting to speculate that Remain will have it in the end. But last time, as you can read, this blog got the result wrong.

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