Britain will not be leaving the European Union. Or rather, it will take an almost unprecedented performance from the ‘Leave’ campaign to secure victory when the ballot is eventually held.
Contrary to common misconception, there hasn’t been a sustained Eurosceptic poll lead for three decades. While the most recent polls show narrower margins, fluctuating between 0 and 10 points in poll of polls, even in their best case scenario it is Eurosceptics who have ground to make up.
A history of plebiscites shows this is pretty unlikely to occur. Research from Alan Renwick and Larry LeDuc has found that in the run-up to such a poll, public opinion shifts by an average of 7.5 points towards the status quo. This is much like the incumbency advantage sitting governments receive in general elections. The proximity of the ballot box engenders a deeper consideration of the issue than an inquisitive pollster months before the vote. Ultimately those who have never felt strongly either way will reliably plump for avoiding the unknown.
Renwick suggests three ways to reverse this trend. The most effective is a long term “settled will” in favour of change (the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution being the obvious example). Given their historic polling deficit however, this will not come to the aid of Eurosceptics.
They may have more traction in claiming that a Remain vote would still result in significant change. In last year’s independence referendum the nationalists argued that independence would protect Scottish public services from callous budget-cutters in Westminster. i.e. only a Yes vote would preserve treasured aspects of the status quo.
We’re already hearing that “Europe is changing, it’s federating, the other countries are pursuing ‘ever greater union’”. If the Leave campaign know what they are doing (granted that’s a big “if”) then they’ll repeat this again and again in the lead up to the poll.
The final method is what Renwick calls the ‘anti-establishment bandwagon’, though to my mind any bandwagon will do. Expect that to be “the liberal, metropolitan, Westminster, establishment is ignoring you ordinary British people” from lots of old, rich, white men…
The prominence of UKIP personnel will largely determine how unsavoury the bandwagoning is allowed to become (albeit Iain Duncan Smith is doing his best to keep up). The gathering of Galloway and Farage et al under the banner Grassroots Out was the most hilariously unattractive combination of pound-shop demagogues British politics has witnessed in many years. Faragists don’t seem to get it but in reality UKIP’s brand of aggressive xenophobia is despised by a majority of the electorate.
This is presumably why the more moderate Vote Leave group has sought to exclude them from the start. Less sensibly however, its director, Dominic Cummings, has antagonised a number of supporting MPs, many of whom have now become prominent members of Grassroots Out.
Indeed, the cross-party appeal of Grassroots Out could even lead to Vote Leave missing out on the official designation from the electoral commission. This will have a significant effect on the tone of the campaign; as well as an array of media slots and a £600,000 grant, the designation lifts a campaign group’s spending limit from £700,000 to £7 million.
The other big unknown is what Boris Johnson will choose to say on any given day. His most recent iteration is that a ‘Leave’ vote would simply precipitate another referendum in two years’ time, with a better deal on the table. I actually think this is less barmy than it first sounds, but I’m pretty certain that “chance your arm, they probably won’t call your bluff”, or words to that effect, is not the argument to convince the country.
Fortunately whatever the Leave campaigns do will likely be irrelevant. Correctly or otherwise, it is widely understood that EU membership is essential to the British economy and to millions of our jobs. The Leave campaign won’t even be able to describe what kind of relationship an independent Britain would have with the rest of Europe; the institutions that could provide direction on this point are ideologically aligned to us staying in.
Worse, any positive result suggested by the Outers is open to Europhiles claiming it is fantastical, and any negative one is simply an argument not to leave. Like the last two general elections, the day will be carried by the Conservative leadership’s propaganda machine combining arguments about economic security with just-about-plausible scare stories. The political broadcasts will say “if we leave the European Union, YOU will lose YOUR job”.
Kyalo Burt-Fulcher is regional outreach officer for the Young Fabians executive committee. He is speaking at the ‘Europe for us all’ conference in Manchester tomorrow.