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EU referendum: assessing the odds

2013-08-23 16:15:14

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Upon the news delivered by the Express and others today, Europhiles will lie comfortable in their beds tonight, certain in the knowledge that the EU debate is stagnating and that the anti-EU movement would not be capable of delivering a majority in any "in-out" referendum.

That may not be the conclusion of the few newspapers that report a survey of 11,211 over-50s by Populus on behalf of Saga but it is the logical conclusion from the finding that 73 percent want an "in-out" referendum on the EU and 65 percent wanted it before the general election, while 45 percent would be prepared to vote for leaving the EU in such a referendum.

One can discount the calls for the referendum before the election such are the usual meaningless fluff on which pollsters rely for their headlines. ComRes poll in January recorded 63 percent of its sample in favour of holding a referendum, down from the last poll fifteen months previously when 68 percent favoured a poll.

Despite the one-time belief of Mathew Elliott and others, a referendum ain't going to happen before the general, and never was. It is not even on the political horizon, so it is pointless measuring sentiment, much less endorsing the idea, as Farage insists on doing.

What is more important is the anti-EU sentiment which is generally supposed to be higher amongst the over-50s than in some other sectors particularly the "middle-aged". Here, from the strongest opponents we get 45 percent in support of leaving, compared with the 46 percent reported in an ICM poll in the Telegraph in May of this year.

It was then that we were noting a "disturbing stability" in the polls which have barely changed for over a year, despite a "surge" in support for UKIP, the supposedly anti-EU party. But the polls here have long been telling us that immigration is more important to UKIP voters than Britain's relations with the EU. The BNP agenda is overshadowing the EU.

As to "Europe", while one can play tunes with poll figures depending on whether renegotiation is offered, the crucial figure is the differential between "inners" and "outers". In the current poll, with 45 percent wanting to leave, those who are content to remain in the EU stand at 33 percent, a mere 12 percent difference.

In previous polls, we've seen 16-17 percent margins, themselves insufficient to overcome the status quo effect, so 12 percent is nothing to write home about at all. In the Mail, Saga group strategy director, Tim Pethick, offers a flash of candour by saying: "all is still to play for".

For the Labour party, though, the game is more immediate, resting on a decision as to whether to match David Cameron's ploy and commit his party to a referendum, should it get into office.

Ed Miliband, according to the Financial Times, faces growing pressure from shadow cabinet colleagues to resolve the issue, with next month's party conference slated as the venue to announce a policy change.

Nevertheless, the calculus is not at all straightforward. As long as UKIP is taking a disproportionately high number of votes from the Tories, there is some electoral advantage in standing aloof from the EU debate, allowing the Tories and UKIP to thrash it out.

Given the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in UKIP, however, the balance of advantage on the EU could start sliding towards the Tories, in which case Labour would need to "wrest the political initiative back from David Cameron", as the FT says.

In this, there seems to be a considerable degree of speculation as to possible options, with suggestions that Mr Cameron should be pushed to hold a vote in 2014 or on election day in 2015 to "lance the boil" on the EU question. And just because it isn't going to happen doesn't mean Labour can't demand it, if there is political advantage to be gained from so doing.

There have thus been discussions about whether Mr Miliband should call for a referendum in his keynote conference speech in Brighton on 24 September: "The idea was that it would be a truly eye-catching announcement", says one Labour frontbencher.

The New Statesman, however, has stormed into the breach, telling Miliband that he would be would be "foolish" to waste the opportunity to gain publicity for other causes by making a referendum pledge the centrepiece of his address.

While the EU is an issue that obsesses press proprietors and Tory backbenchers, the Statesman says, it is not one that animates voters. 

Citing the most recent Ipsos MORI issues index, it claims that just one percent regard it as "the most important issue" facing the country. Just seven percent think it to be one of "the most important issues", figures that mean it doesn't even make the top ten of voters' concerns (it is ranked 14th).

Arguably, here, the Statesman is missing the point. Where the two main parties are dismissed by so many voters as being the same, any issue that creates "clear blue water" between the them can confer considerable electoral advantage.

Only if UKIP continues to savage the Tories on the issue is Miliband wise to stay out of the fray. If, as looks distinctly possible, UKIP continued to exploit every possible avenue it can find to expedite its own self destruction, does the Labour leader need to move in and neutralise what could become a significant Tory electoral advantage.

As for an actual referendum, we need to count our blessings that, despite the enthusiasm of the Daily Express - today's editorial demanding that the politicians "let the people decide on the European Union" - there will be no immediate vote. The odds are still heavily stacked against us gaining a majority to leave the EU.

On the other hand, if the Europhiles in Labour or elsewhere had any sense, they would be pushing as hard as they could for an early referendum. Allied with UKIP and the Express on this, they could neutralise the anti-EU movement for a generation.