Leave to Remain: Public opinion and the EU referendum

  • By Lord Ashcroft
  • 16 December 2015
  • Europe

Within two years, the UK will have decided whether or not it wishes to remain a member of the European Union. Indeed, two years is the outer limit: the issue could be settled within a matter of months. Yet it is only in the chronological sense that the nation is any closer to making up its mind.

Recent polls suggest the country is closely divided on the referendum question. In this research we have tried to understand the spread of opinion – from Leave to Remain, and the many shades of indecision in between. We have explored what people think is at stake in the referendum, whether and why those things matter, and what could end up shifting opinion in one direction or another.

Rather than replicate the referendum question itself we asked people to place themselves on a scale between zero, meaning they would definitely vote for the UK to remain in the EU, to 100, meaning they would definitely vote to leave. Just under four in ten (38 per cent) put themselves between zero and 49, showing they were inclined to remain, and nearly half (47 per cent) gave themselves a score between 51 and 100; 14 per cent placed themselves at 50, meaning they were completely undecided.

Many of those opinions were held only lightly. Around two fifths of the population put themselves firmly at one end of the spectrum or another, between zero and nine or between 91 and 100. On both halves of the scale, a quarter of voters said they did not have a strong view and could easily be persuaded to change their minds.

My research for Europe On Trial, conducted in early 2014, found that people were divided or uncertain about various aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU, such as whether our membership helps or hinders our trade with the rest of the world, whether a decision to leave would affect our trade with other EU countries, or how decisions are made at a European level and who makes them.

This latest research shows that many people are no less unsure what they think, but the looming referendum makes them feel their confusion all the more keenly. There are two main reasons. First, even (or perhaps especially) those who are completely undecided feel a weight of responsibility for making a decision whose consequences will last a generation or more, and which therefore seems to many a much more serious business than a mere general election. Second, they do not believe they know enough about the issues in question, and thus feel ill-equipped to make the choice.

In our focus groups, then, the constant refrain was a demand for “facts”. Why, people asked, was there not an independent commission which would provide the public with solid, unimpeachable information to help make the decision? But the discussions quickly confirmed, even to the participants, that facts were not really what they wanted – or at least, not all they wanted.

One fact that was mentioned spontaneously in nearly every group was that the UK pays £55 million a day to be a member of the EU. But this simply raised more questions. What do we get in return – doesn’t our trade with the EU amount to much more than that? Well yes, but they would want to do just as much trade with us if we left. Isn’t that a big risk to take – and by being a member, don’t we at least get to help set the rules? In theory, but only as one of 28, so we hardly ever get our own way – if we left we could do our own trade deals with the rest of the world and have more control over immigration and our borders. But with the world as it is, isn’t it safer to be part of a bigger group working together?

And so on. What people want, they quickly realise, is not facts so much as answers to questions which will always be disputed because they are not only unknown but unknowable. Undecided voters want to know what the future holds if we stay and if we leave, but nobody is going to be able to tell them.

For many people, then, the question will come down to the balance of risk. The risks of leaving are obvious: however confident we are about our qualities as a nation, we cannot be certain what the consequences of exit would be for trade, for security, for the economy, or for our international relationships in Europe and the wider world.

But people see risk on the other side too: the EU is still evolving, and not necessarily for the better. Given what has changed since we signed up to the Common Market, where is the EU heading? Would further expansion mean further dilution of our influence, not to mention more unrestricted immigration? Would we compelled to help bail out failing economies? Would we face pressure to join the euro?

Our poll found the country closely divided on this question: voters thought leaving carried a bigger risk than remaining by just 53 per cent to 47 per cent.


Balance of risk

How people assess the relative risks, and the whole question of EU membership, will not come down to a dispassionate evaluation of facts but to their own priorities and their outlook on politics. In our research we tried to understand this better by asking people what issues they thought could be at stake in the referendum, why these were important, and how they mattered to them both personally and more broadly. Thus we started from a list of more than forty disparate points suggested by our focus group participants – ranging from trade, sovereignty and human rights to migration, national security, our contribution to the EU budget, and that European health insurance card you take on holiday but nobody can remember the name of – and identified five overarching principles and priorities that ultimately lay behind their concerns. These were Security, Freedom, Independence, Belonging, and wanting to get things right For Future Generations.

This exercise, explained at length in this report, demonstrates that the voters are not a blank slate. Their decision will be determined less by what they take from the campaign than what they bring to it. The “facts”, of which there will not be a drought but a blizzard, will be filtered through people’s existing attitudes, not the other way round. As they choose the facts that fit, we will see in practice Paul Simon’s dictum: a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

That is not to say the campaigns don’t matter. Quite the reverse. Voters’ views about what ultimately matters are firmer and more enduring than their opinion on whether or not the UK should be a member of the EU. The task for the Leave and Remain camps is to show that their side represents the best means to those ends. Is our physical and economic security better served through independence from Europe or as part of a wider union? Do we want freedom from interference in the making of our laws, or the freedom to work and travel throughout the EU with rights that are guaranteed whichever party rules in Westminster? Do we wish to belong to an exceptional (and, come on, superior) island nation, or to a broader civilisation of diverse cultures but shared values? Were we to leave, would the future generations for whom we want to do the right thing find themselves isolated or liberated?

The electorate will look at these questions in a variety of ways. Our 20,000-sample poll enabled us to identify seven “segments” of voters. Two groups – I have called them Nothing To Lose and Global Britain – are currently committed to leaving, though from different motives; three smaller groups – If It Ain’t Broke, I’m Alright Jacques and Global Citizens – are drawn to remain, again for different if overlapping reasons.

In between are two very distinct groups. One segment, Hard-Pressed Undecideds, is disproportionately likely to work in the public sector, thinks life in Britain is worse than it was thirty years ago and that the country is on the wrong track, that immigration has on balance been a bad thing and that remaining in the EU represents a bigger risk than leaving. The other, Listen To DC, is made up of younger people and particularly women, is more optimistic, thinks life is better than it was thirty years ago and that the country is heading in the right direction, that immigration has been a positive thing overall and that leaving the EU seems to present a bigger risk than staying. Crucially, this latter group say they could be swayed if David Cameron is able to persuade them that he has successfully negotiated better membership terms for Britain. Both groups put themselves close to the centre of our zero to 100 scale, and both are up for grabs, but will not respond in the same way to the same arguments.

Immigration will clearly be central to the debate, since it touches many of the broader themes behind the debate, including prosperity, security and identity. But the argument that only Brexit allows Britain to take full control of its borders may not be the clincher that many Outers hope: while nearly four in ten in our poll thought “we’ll never be able to bring immigration under control unless we leave the EU”, almost as many thought “we won’t be able to bring immigration under control even if we leave the EU”. For one thing, immigration from the rest of the world would be unaffected – and for another thing, a much stricter limit on the numbers coming to live in Britain sounds to many people like the kind of political promise that never quite gets delivered.

Immigration Q

With so many complicated issues at stake, and so many competing claims about each of them, much will come down to questions of trust. David Cameron is the central figure here. Though people have gathered that the PM is trying to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms, the details of what he is and is not asking for have barely registered. Most say they have little confidence that he will be able to win a significantly better deal for Britain. But more than a third of the population, including two thirds of the more optimistic undecided group, said they would be more likely to vote to remain in the EU if Cameron announced that he had secured better terms.

Related to the question of trust is the question of association. People note that only one party and one prominent politician seem to be in favour of leaving the EU, and this weighs with many undecided voters. By no means every non-UKIP voter is worried about finding themselves on the same side as Nigel Farage, but some undoubtedly are. The way people see the respective campaigns is also instructive: in our poll, people thought the words “moderate”, “normal”, “reasonable”, “sensible” and “trustworthy” applied more to those campaigning to remain in the EU than to their opponents. Only two descriptions applied more to the Leavers, and by bigger margins: “patriotic” and “fanatical”.

Those who put Cameron back in Downing Street in May hold the key to the referendum’s outcome. More than half of 2015 Conservative voters put themselves on the “leave” side of our 100-point spectrum, and they currently see staying in the EU as a bigger risk than remaining. But even though they are pessimistic about Cameron’s chances of achieving much in the renegotiation, they are by far the most likely to respond if he is able to claim victory convincingly. Much will depend on whether the PM is able to persuade his own supporters that continued membership is an asset, rather than a threat, to the security, freedom and independence they prize.

In the political world, these arguments have been going on for generations, or feel as though they have. For many voters, they are only just beginning.

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