Dates, deals and dilemmas: what are the key factors in the EU referendum?
We’ve finally been given a deal and a date for the EU referendum, with David Cameron firing the starting pistol on Saturday morning. The polls are all over the place, the campaigns are gearing up and the big names are announcing which side they’re fighting for. But what are the factors that are likely to affect the result, and how have key decisions affected the shape of the campaigns? Let’s start with the date—a terrible one in the interests of democracy, and one that will have complicated impacts on how the two sides campaign.
Polling data gives at best a mixed picture (as they almost always do) of EU-sentiment, but what is clear is that the difference in numbers seems to be narrowing, as it has many times in the past—Cameron will no doubt figure that giving the Out campaign less time to spread their message will secure him victory, with the slight polling advantage for Bremainers and the generally conservative nature of voters edging him to victory.
Yet this might not be the savvy maneuverer it at first appears to be. Looking at those most likely to remain to stay in—the young, the more highly educated and those outside of England—these are the people that are going to be hardest to mobilise for a June referendum. A good chunk of young and degree-bearing (or soon to be) people will be students, and the majority of these will be at home for the summer, leaving them out of reach of their peer networks and Students’ Unions, tools which could have been used to mobilise them into voting.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all have just had Assembly elections, meaning again the volunteers and activists that would mobilise these individuals to vote in the referendum will be fatigued from months of electioneering. Whilst these factors are unlikely to massively alter the vote they don’t need to—a small drop of In-voter turnout due to a less concerted mobilisation could be enough to swing the election if the polls narrow much further between then and now. The question also needs to be asked of how informed a decision the public can make when the campaigns have been given such a short time to gear up: will the British public get the debate and the information they deserve?
And what about the deal? Setting aside whether it was the deal Britain needed or not, what matters for the referendum result is whether people perceive it as the deal that they wanted. Key to this will be who captures the narrative—Cameron has had some small success in changing rules around immigration, benefits and that ominous ‘ever-closer union’—perhaps not enough for some people’s preferences but enough for him to get some good soundbites out of it. This will likely make the difference for many moderates, pulling back those hovering on the edge of a Brexit, and giving conservative Bremainers a bit of ammo for the doorstep.
Yet when it comes to narrative, Brexit campaigners have the upper hand. There is a growing voice from the Left calling for leaving the European Union, that increasingly has important things to add to the debate, but thus far it has been relatively unheard, in part due to the fractious nature of the Left hampering its coherence, and also because it has yet to secure the backing of any major party. This leaves it straddling in the wake of UKIP and the far-right, a group that have a powerfully simple and emotive narrative that, agree with it or not, has certainly made great strides in recent years and framed the European debate—indeed it’s possible we wouldn’t even be having this referendum if it weren’t for their rising success.
By appealing to national identity UKIP plays a powerful card that taps into deep psychological mechanisms concerning social identity, at the same time constructing an out-group that can be blamed for our woes, fostering anger which has been proven to mobilise people politically much more than fear- the main tool the ‘In’ campaign seems to be relying on. It taps into fundamental and universal principles of morality too in the form of fairness and control—a sense that somehow migrants are unfairly advantaged, EU gravy-train riders are controlling our lives without democratic approval, and that Britain is made to pay far more than it ever gets back. All of this coalesces into a powerful and simple narrative, explaining the situation to voters in a simple, emotive way, a narrative that was fatally lacking in Labour’s strategy last year and is missing for the ‘In’ campaign now. The validity of these claims matter little in the short months available to campaigners now: what matters is how captivatingly they and their rival counter-narratives are told.
The In campaign thus far has been far more splintered, with vocal advocates much further apart (the Galloway/Farage duo not withstanding)—not much else could place Cameron on the same platform as Caroline Lucas. Caroline’s line of argument on reforming and reclaiming Europe, whilst admirable, requires a level of nuance difficult to get across in soundbites and doorstep-canvassing, a real issue when contrasted with the simplistic vision Brexiters will be offering. Given the short time of campaigning left the best hope for the In camp will likely be in those moderates hovering on the edge being convinced that the concessions Cameron has managed to squeeze out of the EU are enough to make the union palatable enough for them.
The only other reprieve for them will be in pressing the awkward questions for Farage and co. regarding trade and growth—nothing takes the oomph out of an anger-rousing speech than being left stumped by a difficult question. A powerful narrative on the economy has been an election winner for Cameron before, and highlighting economic ‘uncertainty’ (a phrase used about Labour last year) in the case of a Brexit may help, but whether it will be enough this time round feels unlikely.
At the heart of this debate is a matter of control—can the European Union exist in a world hungrier for more personal liberty and democratic oversight? There are powerful arguments to be made regarding human rights, development funding and the policing of nations that can help with this argument, but can they be made well enough to genuinely compete with simplistic calls for British jobs and sovereignty? In 4 months, we’ll have our answer.