We are told that the Brexit debate is the most important political decision our neighbour has made so far this Millennium. Even so, the debate in the UK could compete for the most boring referendum campaign ever. It’s been little more than a series of ‘he said, she said’.
The claims made by each side are notable both for their increasing extremity and their increasing certitude. The outcomes of political decisions are rarely certain, but this has not stopped those on either side make predictions with impossible precision.
Brexit will cost each British subject £32,000 according to one, house prices will fall by 25% according to another (hardly a bad thing anyway). The population will ‘surge’ by four million if the UK votes to remain. Even more extreme claims about Hitler and implications of World War III are aired and taken seriously, or derided.
In Ireland there is a consensus that Brexit will be a disaster for us, but I’m not sure how we can be so certain about that. I suspect people have formed their positions and then escalated their rhetoric to suit the position. If it does nothing it should make people think about the appropriateness of referendums for making important policy decisions.
But who will win? Whether it is the impact of claim and counterclaim or not, there has been a change in the polling numbers over the last two months. From late April to mid-May the Leave side was in the ascendant; then since mid-May the Remain side maintained a comfortable lead. More recently still a couple of polls show this lead tightening, sometimes dramatically.
The polls have come under some scrutiny because of last year’s failure to predict the UK election. Telephone polls are significantly different from online polls. The telephone polls, which were more accurate predictors of the eventual 2015 general election results, show a large lead for Remain, much larger than the internet polls. This prediction is confirmed by the inevitably streetwise betting market (which may or may not be independent of the polls) which show that the odds of Remain are never less than 1/2.
The move to Remain is consistent with a common explanation of voting in referendums: that people are risk-averse and so tend to have a status quo bias as they approach the actual act of voting. We can see that the number of undecideds has fallen.
But it could also be the campaign that matters. As a series of claims and counterclaims on the issues of the economy and immigration, the ordinary voter can be forgiven for being confused. The ‘facts’ are contested and so the voter has to depend on something else. That something else could be the credibility of those making the claims.
The Leave side is unlucky to have so many barmy, old, white English men making its case. Though there is no gender difference in the polls, there are significant regional and class differences. London and Scotland are more likely to support Remain, as are the young and the better off.
And try as it might to set the agenda in the campaign, the Leave side has been left reacting to claims. I suspect a more systematic analysis of the referendum campaign might show the Leave side spending most of its time responding to, or rejecting, the barrage of reports, and claims, cascading from the Remain side that Brexit would damage the British economy.
But the Remain side is hardly blessed. Labour is not campaigning strongly; it’s been somewhat diverted enjoying the Tories tear themselves apart. Its traditional vote is probably unfashionably interested in the immigration issue, and could shift to Brexit.
Regaining your sovereignty might not actually mean much anymore, but it elicits a visceral response for most people. If you think that your country is in trouble, saying ‘do nothing’ doesn’t seem adequate. Seemingly irrelevant factors can become relevant in a referendum. The English team’s performance in Euro 2016 could yet play a part. It will increase the sense of patriotism, which might spill into the ballot box.