And how we can reach 25L:75R
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg looks at why the polls have not moved since June 2016. We have to offer Leave voters a better change than the one they voted for.
Brexit? It’s all bad news
There has not really been much by way of good news about Brexit since the referendum. Thankfully, the forecast of an immediate recession was wrong, but Sterling fell and growth has lagged. Even the welcome growth in manufacturing exports lags the recovery in our overseas markets. Everything has proven to be harder to do than promised, the problems of Brexit have multiplied, the necessities of trade and the realities of power mean that the scope for Brexit upsides are more limited than promised.
Yet opinion on the merits of Brexit has not shifted
YouGov’s tracker shows 43L:45R (March 2018), that’s 49L:51R after adjusting for don’t knows. Applying a typical three percentage points margin of error for headline poll numbers that could just as well be 52L:48R. Don’t those numbers look familiar?
Nor have the numbers in properly structured polls really ever been much different, certainly not consistently. There is no evidence of much Bregret. The slight improvement in Remain’s position is largely due to referendum non-voters saying they would vote next time; non-voters’ promises to turn up next time do not amount to much.
So the fairest description is that the country is still at half and half.
The proportion of Re-Leavers has been falling
There are many Re-Leavers - Remainers who think that the referendum result means we must Brexit. However, the proportion has fallen from about half of Remain voters (June 2017) to about a quarter (March 2018). This table shows the trend over time. It’s for all voters, but Leave voters have been pretty constant in their views, the movement has been amongst Remain voters.
So there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst Remain voters on what has to happen as a result of the referendum.
We do not know why. Leadership will be part of it. Immediately after the referendum even Nick Clegg was saying that we had to Brexit. The most salient pro-EU organisation was Open Britain, which campaigned for a better Brexit. The European Movement had its “red lines” campaign for what Brexit should look like. Over time, political leaders and organisations emerged for Remain. The continuing repetition that the Article 50 notice may be withdrawn, that Brexit is not a done deal, helps.
Fundamentally however, people accept news that they already believe. So Remainers are more willing to act on the Brexit bad news than Leavers are. Preaching to sustain the morale of the converted is valuable and has shifted public opinion amongst former Re-Leavers. But the most it can achieve is that half the country thinks Brexit should be stopped.
Why there has been no shift on the merits of Brexit
Most people tune out. Europe was always unpopular but never a particularly salient issue for most people in British politics (immigration was a big issue). Europe/ Brexit now tops the poll when Yougov asks “what is the biggest issue facing the country”. But perhaps if the poll asked “what is the biggest issue facing your family” it would be lower down the list.
Leave voters think the question has been answered.
Both of the main political parties are still promising that we will have either all the cake (Jeremy Corbyn) or most of the cake (Theresa May) while eating it. If it is all going to be good, why re-think?
What about Remain campaigning?
But with all that bad news, should we not have made more of an impact?
Many Remain campaigners were polite and sensitive. They focussed on the essential democratic task: persuading Leave voters to vote Remain in their own best interests.
But I suggest that much of the Remain movement made two mistakes of commission and two mistakes of omission.
We dissed the referendum and Leave voters
For most of the active Remain movement – though for few MPs – the most attractive course of action, elegantly advocated by Professor Grayling, was that Parliament should just set the referendum aside. The electorate had got it wrong: their views should therefore be ignored.
Few of the arguments advanced had much going for them. None justified ignoring the largest statutory public vote for decades.
But these calls to set the referendum aside ensured that Leave voters would not listen to us. Part of the Leave vote was a cry from the ignored. Telling them that they should be ignored, that they were stupid, narrow-minded – that just confirmed them in their view that society needed to be shaken up. So calls to set the referendum result aside harmed our cause.
We focussed on our hurt
As with the Stronger IN campaign there was a big focus on the economy – often with exaggerated forecasts of doom. That does not reach many Leave voters, either because the economy has treated them badly or because cultural issues are much more important. Leavers for whom the economy is a big deal are often committed either to full-on socialism or full-on deregulation.
We highlighted issues that would affect us. We would no longer be able to go on Erasmus or retire to Spain. The European Medicines Agency would leave London. The finance industry would suffer. It would be harder to get young EU staff to make sandwiches at Pret.
Many Leave voters either do not care or see it as a plus: “Not just Brexit but also bankers and London and citizens of nowhere get it in the neck”.
We should make our arguments on their ground
To persuade people we must talk to them about matters that concern them. We do not have to accept their solutions. But we have to recognise their problems.
So we have to focus our conversations on taking back control, sovereignty, immigration, feelings of national belonging, the balance of order and difference in society.
We must make them an offer
Remainers wish to go back to how things were. Leavers voted for change. To win them over we have to offer a better change than Brexit promises.
Most voters care about practical things: the NHS, austerity, schools, pensions, jobs, taxes and so on. Overwhelmingly, these are Westminster issues on which the EU has relatively little to say.
The European Movement is all-party/non-party and (apart from EU relations) we do not have a view on the future direction of UK politics.
What we can do is explain to the voters that the various political parties have listened; that they have competing policies designed to address their grievances; that leaving the EU will make it worse not least because Government will spend the better part of a decade trying to sort itself out rather than addressing real problems. As Rafael Behr puts it in the Guardian: If the state decided to put its absolute focus on solving one of the problems facing the UK, ‘Whatever the issue, whatever the question, one thing is certain. The answer would not begin: “First, leave the EU.” ‘.
If we are members of political parties we can try to influence their messaging so that they make clear where their policy proposals are a direct response to the discontent revealed by the Leave vote; and that they explain that, at the least, these policies would work under Remain.
Our aim should be 75R:25L. That is achievable. Referendum exit polling showed that just under half of both Leave and Remain voters had made up their minds before the start of 2016. They are not going to change their minds. The others might.
To change their minds we have to find a way of encouraging 2016 Leave voters to believe that EU membership is in their own best interests or at least that of their children. That means we have to articulate an offer for changes in the UK which mean that their lives will be better under Remain.
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