Why Britons will still probably vote to remain in Europe

June 17, 2016
Neighbours Tony (L) and Frank pose for cameras after hanging rival EU referendum banners from their balconies in north London, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall - RTSFUUU

Neighbours Tony (L) and Frank pose for cameras after hanging rival EU referendum banners from their balconies in north London, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

The bar for what most people would call intelligent and civil political debate clearly has been lowered during Britain’s European Union referendum campaign, but the push and pull in the final stretch is going as one might expect, and suggests the Remain camp will prevail, although by a much narrower margin than anyone thought it might.

The most notable development in the polls over the past week is the Leave campaign’s quick surge to lead a series of surveys conducted online as well as by phone, the latter of which up until now had been showing Remain comfortably ahead, in some cases by double digits.

Even more notable is how muted an effect this sudden shift has had on sterling, which otherwise has had a terrible run since the EU referendum was first called in February and has taken a bigger drubbing over far less dramatic shifts. Betting odds on the outcome, despite the recent surge for Leave in the polls, still have not come close to crossing over to Leave.

Along with a potentially much higher turnout than was originally expected, and clear signs in the data that plenty of minds have not yet been made up, that suggests it’s not over yet.

It may well be that the clear shift in public opinion to Leave over the past week defines the last days of the campaign and ends up convincing enough undecided voters to yield a dramatic upset result for Brexit once the final results come in early on June 24.

But if the past history of such referendums on momentous events is any guide – and it might not be in this case – even with a week of polls showing Leave in the lead, an overall vote to leave the European Union is still not the most likely outcome.

Polls tend to narrow very quickly in the final weeks of any referendum as vast swathes of people who have been paying little attention suddenly wake up to the debate, start thinking more deeply about the issues, and start changing the polling tallies. Now is that time.

In the two most recent contests where such a radical change to the status quo was put to voters in any kind of comparable way – Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 and Quebec’s referendum on independence from Canada in 1995 – a surge toward the option for change peaked shortly before the vote and then flat-lined into it.

That too appears to be happening right now.

In such votes which are essentially a protest against the establishment, what also matters is what people think is going to actually happen, not just how they intend to vote.

As in both of these recent referendums that resulted in a vote for the status quo – the same polls that suggest the voters will bring about change now also show that most people think the status quo will carry the day.

The rationale is simple: some people simply want to give the government or the establishment a good kicking, but don’t necessarily feel strongly enough to want to take a leap into the dark with the more radical among them.

It is also common in any election that many voters, even those who have declared to pollsters that they have made up their minds quite resoundingly, may still change their minds before they go to the polling booth. The number of undecided voters in the final polls running up to the EU referendum is still remarkably high – 13 percent in the Ipsos MORI poll published June 16.

It is generally accepted wisdom that for the majority of undecided voters in contests that are likely to personally impact them either through major economic or political change, if they aren’t swayed convincingly on most aspects of the change they’re being asked to support, they tend to opt for the status quo in the quiet, anonymous calm of the polling booth.

Some innovative research from Ipsos MORI published this week based on measuring response times to in-person interviews on conviction questions showed a very interesting conclusion: only about one-third of declared Brexit voters respond emphatically, i.e., are very convinced of the rationale behind the views they hold. While 89 percent of those supporting Leave say doing so will reduce immigration, only a bit more than one-third of them say so emphatically. Similarly half of leavers say leaving the EU is best for the economy in the short-term, but less than one-quarter of them say so with any great conviction.

The conclusions from the latest Ipsos MORI poll this week, which showed a dramatic swing toward Leave, also suggested that 20 percent of those who said they had made up their mind still might change it. If that were to happen in one direction, it could provide Brexit with an overwhelming margin of victory, but it could also wipe out their lead altogether.

So while it may be that nearly all of the people who have declared their intention to pollsters follow through and vote to leave the EU, there is good reason to believe that a close examination of arguments other than immigration, which has dominated the agenda as the support for Leave has surged, may swing more than a few of these people back the other way.

Indeed, the most striking disconnect among all conclusions in the various polls on voter intentions is what appears to be a huge chasm between varying degrees of begrudging acceptance that leaving the EU might actually be economically painful in the short run as well as the belief that whatever pain there is, it won’t be felt by them. Again, it may be that that entirely illogical position carries through to the voting booth, but it’s not really likely.

Britons may be exceptionally quick to recoil from “expert” advice these days, and particularly from leaders and international organisations from outside their own country. But the evidence suggesting that people’s pocketbooks and the British pounds in them are going to take a hit is overwhelming and takes an exceptional amount of denial, or sweeping statements dismissing the conclusions of an entire profession, to totally ignore them. Even the most adamant advocates of leaving the EU admit that there are at least short-term risks involved.

This doesn’t line up with other polling of the British public that suggests if any given initiative would make them even one pound worse off than they are now, they would not vote for it. Even if the truth is only halfway between those two, that suggests a lot of votes for Remain that haven’t been declared to pollsters.

In recent history, there really has been no other referendum with such a powerful potential to change people’s political, economic and financial situation apart from the Scottish referendum in 2014. Then, at the end of the day, worries about the economic risks ended up overruling an emotional attachment to identity at the ballot box.

The 55-45 victory for No, even though most polls showed the race neck-and-neck, repeated a pattern that was established in the Quebec referendum in 1995, where polls overstated considerably the support for change by as much as seven percentage points, right into the day of the vote, only for voters to narrowly reject independence.

This experience suggests that in order for the Leave campaign to win, support for Brexit in the polls would also need to be running at least several percentage points ahead to assure more than a tiny margin of victory. Recall again the voting instincts of those who say they support change as a protest, but who aren’t actually thinking that it’s going to happen. This mattered in Scotland and in Quebec and there is no reason to believe it doesn’t matter now.

Matt Singh, a former rates trader at Barclays and one of the only people to correctly predict the May 2015 shock Conservative election majority correctly and who now runs his own consultancy Number Cruncher Politics, is still forecasting a 58% percent chance of a win for Remain — although by a very thin margin of 51-49.

Betting odds on Betfair, which obviously are part derived off of people’s interpretations of the polls among other things, have moved back to roughly 63-37 in favour of the status quo, despite the fact that 14 of the past 25 polls over the past month showed Leave in the lead based on headline published numbers, and crucially, seven of the last 10.

So if all of these arguments hold up, what could still go wrong?

Turnout, as ever, could be the clincher.

The original worry at the start of the EU referendum campaign was that only those really motivated over the issues, which tend to be those who want to Leave and those who may have been waiting for a generation or more for their chance to vote on this, were likely to turn up.

But now that the campaign has taken a few dramatic turns, and it’s been made clear that this will represent a profound change for the future of the country no matter what statistics you think are true, there is every reason to believe turnout will be quite high.

Unlike the Scottish and Quebec referendums, where the status quo was carried by older voters, most people over the age of 50 and certainly over the age of 65 are in favour of Leave. Remainers overwhelmingly are the young to early middle-aged.

Clearly youth registration, as well as turnout, will be crucial if the status quo here is to prevail. That’s a much more uncertain prospect based on a long and growing history of young voters who just don’t get out to vote.

But there are a few things which suggest turnout may be a lot better than the Remain camp’s worst fears. (Indeed, another piece of generally accepted wisdom is that revolutions tend to be led by the young, not over 50s, and certainly not over 65s or octogenarians, as a few prominent Leave campaigners are. So they are successful, Brexit will be unusual for yet another reason.)

Statistics on voter registration from March 1-May 24 suggest plenty of younger people have signed up to vote, with those more likely to vote Remain outnumbering older voters by 2 to 1. The decision to leave voter registration open for two extra days owing to a website outage at the last minute before the original deadline earlier this month may also favour Remain as it’s the young who are always leaving these decisions to the last minute, and again, are the people who are more likely to vote to stay in the EU.

Finally, there are also the postal votes from Britons living abroad, particularly those living in the EU, which will be overwhelmingly in favour of Remain as it is against their self-interest to cut off EU membership and put their residency status at risk or even force them having to contemplate taking citizenship in their country of residence. There is plenty of evidence of contingency planning by many in the event of Brexit already going on.

The trouble is, there are so few of the estimated 5.5 million UK voters living overseas who are registered to vote, probably at best only a bit over 200,000 compared with 106,000 in the 2015 General Election.

Finally, there is something entirely intangible but palpable in the air.

Whatever the figures, the politics, the arguments, the cases made or not made, the tone of the debate has been surprisingly sour. Many people are angry and frustrated, and many others who weren’t are now angry and frustrated that so many people are angry and frustrated.

But there have also been several recent developments, a few of them unusual, and another one unspeakably tragic, which may give voters reason for calm and careful reflection in every aspect of their daily lives in coming weeks.

In the final vote, this all may mean nothing. But common sense and an understanding of human nature suggests that a period of reflection leads most human beings, no matter where they’re from or what their politics, to take decisions based less on emotion or anger and instead using their head to do what they think is best for them and the people they love.

There’s been precious little of that in recent weeks, and perhaps there may be a lot more in the final week before the most momentous decision put to the British public since the Second World War.

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