Britain, Europe and the fear factor

Britain, Europe and the fear factor

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, analyses Britain's opinion on the EU referendum

Public opinion is on the move on Europe. YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times confirms that if David Cameron called a straight in-out referendum some time in the future, Britain would vote to remain a member of the European Union, probably by a large margin.

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As recently as last May, a majority of almost two-to-one wanted Britain out of the EU. 51% said they would vote to leave, while just 28% want to stay in. Immediately after the new year, the margin was narrower but still large: 46% said leave while 31% said stay. Now the gap has narrowed to just six points: 42% leave, 36% stay.

That is what people say when asked how they would vote in a referendum held today. However, if a referendum is held, it is likely to be in some years’ time, with David Cameron claiming to have protected Britain’s interests. When we asked people last July how they would vote in these circumstances, we found that 42% would vote to remain in the EU while 34% would vote to leave. Today, the results are far more emphatic. The margin for staying in the EU is exactly two-to-one: 50-25%. The proportion of Tory voters who would vote to remain in the EU almost doubles, from 33% when asked the standard referendum-today question, to 64% when asked the conditional future-referendum question.

These results bear an uncanny resemblance to what happened at the previous referendum on Europe, in 1975. Eight months beforehand, most voters said they wanted Britain to withdraw from the Common Market (as it then was). Then Harold Wilson, Labour’s Prime Minister, did a deal that he claimed (with not a little exaggeration) amounted to a substantial improvement in Britain’s relations with Brussels. On this basis, he recommended staying ‘in Europe’, and secured a two-to-one majority in the referendum.

Now, as then, the shift in opinion seems to flow in large measure from a change in the way the issue is framed. Until recently, discussion of Europe has been dominated by complaints that the EU strips Britain of its independence and generally messes things up. Far less attention has been paid to the consequences of withdrawal. But in recent days, business leaders and, now, President Obama’s administration, have warned that British jobs and influence would diminish were we outside the EU.

What our latest figures suggest is that the fear factor has begun to kick in. We asked respondents to imagine that Britain left the EU. Would things be better or worse? We tested five different aspects of this issue:

Outside the EU, things would be...

Better

%

Worse

No

difference %

Don't

know %

Britain's economy 29 34 19 18
Jobs and employment 27 30 24 19
You personally 18 20 40 22
Britain's relationship with the US 10 24 50 16
British influence in the world 9 40 38 14

Two things stand out from those figures. The first is that each time, more people say things would get worse rather than better. The second is the large number of people who don’t take sides, especially the 62% who either don’t know what effect leaving the EU would have on them personally (22%) or say it would make no difference (40%).

There are two ways to view those figures: that few people see the upside of withdrawal – or that only minorities are scared of life outside the EU. I reckon that these results should give more comfort to those who favour remaining in the EU. The history of referendums round the world, including Britain, is that the status quo becomes steadily more attractive as decision day draws closer. In order to overcome the mentality of safety-first, the appeal of radical change must be deep as well as wide: a majority must not just favour a change of course, they must want it sufficiently strongly to overcome mounting worries of turbulence that change might provoke. Just now, the EU is unquestionably unpopular, but the appeal of life on the outside is neither wide nor deep.

That said, a majority still wants a referendum. 59% support the idea while just 21% oppose it. But even here, opponents of British membership should take care. Last July, 67% backed a referendum, so here, too, there has been movement. And generally speaking, when people are asked if they would like a referendum on almost any subject, most say they would. 59% is not a particularly high number.

Indeed, great care should be taken by politicians contemplating the merits of holding a referendum. For Cameron it might look at first like a no-brainer. The Conservatives have been losing votes to UKIP. He must win them back if he is to secure a majority at the next election. By promising a referendum, he would hope to do just that.

Perhaps he will. I am pretty sure that if the Prime Minister makes a firm and unambiguous commitment to a referendum when he delivers his long-awaited speech on Britain and the EU, the Tories will secure an immediate improvement in their poll rating. What is not so clear is whether it will last.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that – as Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative Treasurer, has shown in polling he has commissioned on this matter – Tory voters have been switching to UKIP for a variety of reasons that add up to a general sense of dissatisfaction with the government and, in some cases, with conventional politicians generally. Europe is not their only, or even the most important, concern. For this reason, any post-speech bounce for the Conservatives may well be short-lived.

Secondly, there is a danger that the commitment to a referendum could actually be counter-productive. Only a minority of voters care that much about Europe. In our most recent survey of issue saliency, just before Christmas, only 18% said it was one of the three most important issues facing Britain. With the proportion saying it was one of the issues that mattered most to them and their family, the number fell to a mere 7%. It came eleventh out of 12 issues on our list.

Here’s why this matters. Many people dislike the EU and rather like the idea of leaving the club. But for most people it’s not central to their lives. They are far more concerned about jobs and prices and crime and schools and hospitals. The risk that Cameron would run by conceding a referendum is that he might look (a) weak, for giving in to UKIP and his party’s right-wing, and (b) out of touch, for devoting so much energy to an issue that most people regard as peripheral to their lives.

If Cameron doubts this, he should ask his Foreign Secretary. William Hague led the Tories into the 2001 general election with populist policies on Europe and asylum seekers. His strategy did him more harm than good. He may have shored up the Tories’ right-wing base, but he alienated many in the middle ground who, without actually liking either the EU or the asylum seekers crossing the Channel, regarded the prominence of these promises in Hague’s campaign as a sign that he was veering too far to the Right.

The temptation for Cameron to offer a referendum is undoubtedly huge. He badly needs to undermine UKIP’s appeal. But he may find that the best way to do this is not to compete with UKIPs Nigel Farage on who hates Brussels more. That is a contest Cameron can never win. Rather, he must tackle the underlying causes of discontent among centre and moderately right-of-centre voters. That means improving his government’s reputation for running the economy, taxing people fairly and providing decent public services – and reassuring people that he can provide good jobs, good schools and good hospitals into the future.

In my judgement (though, admittedly, others will draw different conclusions from the same polling data), he cannot afford to appear obsessed by any subject that distracts him from addressing the issues that really matter to voters. He needs to close down the question of Britain’s future in Europe, or at least prevent it from dominating our politics for the next few years. Were he to commit to a referendum he would unleash years of uncertainty about Britain’s future place in the world. And that could undermine the very reassurance, and reputation for moderation, that will be central to the Tories’ prospects of victory in 2015.

See the full Sunday Times survey results here

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Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner is a journalist, political commentator, and President of YouGov. See Peter's full bio