There are now less than 80 days to go until Britain decides whether or not to remain in the European Union. A conventional wisdom has developed around the vote that Remain is ahead, will benefit from a further and late upsurge of support and will prosper amid a dysfunctional Leave campaign. But according to some of the latest evidence these ideas may be false.
According to the latest opinion polls, which admittedly have far from a perfect record, in recent weeks the race actually appears to have narrowed. Even before the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels both online and telephone polls were increasingly suggesting that the race had tightened. According to the regular Ipsos−MORI phone tracker poll the lead for Remain has gradually eroded, from 44 points in June 2015 to 26 points in December 2015, 19 points in January 2016 and now just 8 points. Meanwhile, at the time of writing the authoritative ‘poll of polls’, which in recent weeks had Remain ten points ahead, suggests that the vote is now a dead heat with both Remain and Leave on 50 Per cent. Remain might have once enjoyed a comfortable lead but that is no longer the case.
Eurosceptics can also credibly claim that they hold another advantage that flows from the wider issue agenda in British politics. Immigration is the top concern for voters and has been for nine consecutive months. In short, culture trumps economics. These concerns about immigration, borders and national identity are mobilizing Leave voters who now readily view their Brexit vote as an attempt to regain control over migration and national borders. For these older, white and typically more economically disadvantaged voters who identify more with Englishness than Britishness, this is more a referendum about immigration than it is one on Britain’s relationship with the EU or the intricacies of EU policy. This distinguishes Leave voters from their Remain rivals who are driven more strongly by a desire to protect Britain’s economic position and to register their more progressive values.
There is also some evidence to suggest that these immigration-related motives may be a more powerful influence on Brexit voters who appear more committed to turning out. In a recent poll, for instance, Leave was ahead by two points but once intention to vote had been taken into account this lead extended to seven points. Another example is a recent survey by BMG Research and the Electoral Reform Society, which suggests that whereas only 21 per cent of 18−24 year olds, who tend to support remaining in the EU, are ‘very interested’ in the vote the equivalent figure among pensioners, who tend to back Brexit, is 47 per cent. Meanwhile, while 44 per cent of those younger Britons say they are certain to vote this figure is dwarfed by the equivalent figure of 76 per cent among pensioners. Turnout could work in favour of Eurosceptics.
It is also important to note that there is not much evidence to support the widespread belief that there will be a late and substantial swing toward Remain. A recent analysis of voting patterns at past referenda suggests that while support for the ‘change’ option (in this case Brexit) often did decline as polling day approached, when it came to referenda on EU issues this decline was either weaker or non-existent. It is worth noting examples where the anti-EU option started behind but went on to finish ahead of the pro-EU option, as happened at the Danish and French referenda on the EU constitution and the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
A final point concerns the campaign. Eurosceptics are certainly divided but it could be argued that within this disunity lies a hidden strength. To deliver Brexit the Eurosceptics need to mobilize two groups: the firmly committed ‘hard’ Leavers who are predominantly worried over immigration and the more wavering ‘soft’ Leavers who appear a bit more worried about the perceived economic repercussions of a Brexit. Eurosceptics contend that their campaign is underrated – that they are employing sophisticated telephone canvassing techniques and using the same teams as Ted Cruz to scrape social media data. They are also now beginning to talk of a ‘dual strategy’, whereby UKIP-backed organizations might concentrate on turning out those hard Leave voters while more moderate platforms might focus more on soft Leave voters. The designated ‘Out’ movement will be decided by mid-April but there is no reason, argue Eurosceptics, why this informal alliance cannot continue until polling day.
Whatever happens between now and then it is clear that for the Remain camp to win, it will need to think seriously about how to counter the appeal of anti-immigration populism, mobilize its younger voters to turn out and build a sophisticated grassroots operation that can increase the appeal of the status quo.
Matthew Goodwin, Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme (Chatham House).