Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He has previously taught PR and Political Communications at London Metropolitan and Cardiff Universities. Follow Quentin on Twitter.
Polling suggested the 1975 referendum on Europe would be close, but the result was a 2:1 victory for “yes”. In 1979 polls suggested a close vote on Welsh devolution and an easy victory in Scotland. Scotland was the close one and Wales voted heavily against. Just weeks before the AV referendum that too looked close, but the vote was 2:1 for the ‘No’ camp. What all these votes had in common was a last minute swing to the status quo. This is not unusual, and to any conservative should not be surprising. In countries such as the UK, Ireland and France, where referenda are rare, this is the normal pattern. Switzerland and California are very different because they hold referenda all the time. This makes sense. The fact of having a referendum communicates to Britons – as it does not to Swiss or Californians – that the issue is very important. The result is that last minute deciders swing to the status quo. People who are not convinced of the need for change by the last week of the campaign tend to swing strongly against it.
Can voters be persuaded to vote for significant change? Sure. In Ireland it usually happens when there is a strong political consensus in favour of change. But even when all the major parties recommend voting ‘yes’ on a European treaty, the votes are usually fairly close and sometimes go against. In 1997 Scotland voted strongly for devolution – though the Welsh vote was very tight indeed. In both cases there was a considerable consensus among the political class – recall that the Conservative Party lost all its seats in both countries a few months earlier. In Scotland the consensus had been maintained for several years. It may also be relevant that the Scottish referendum (though not the Welsh, which was a week later) was massively disrupted in terms of media coverage by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a week and half before the vote.
All this is to say that the fact that polling presently suggests people would vote to leave the EU does not mean that they actually would. There is little chance of a strong political consensus for withdrawal, and big business is likely to be mostly against. Faced with such a situation, it is very probable that voters would develop a touch of nerves and balk at voting to leave. My own estimate is that on an In-Out vote, with the leadership of the main parties all recommending ‘In’, the’ Out’ side would not getmuch more than a quarter of the vote. Demanding a referendum is therefore a risky strategy. A decisive result such as this could take the issue off the agenda for another generation, or two.
But what if the Conservative leadership had reached the point where it wanted to campaign for the Out camp? Could such a campaign be won?
I would suggest the following tactics:
- Campaign for ‘Yes’. If you are the government, you get to choose the question. Phrase it so that your side is the ‘yes’ camp. It always more positive.
- Take the status quo off the table. If you time the vote to coincide with a major change – such as the forging of a fiscal union – you can make it impossible for people to vote for no change. In a choice between more integration and less integration I think people would vote for less, but you have to make sure there is no available choice of leaving things as they are.
- Create a broad consensus. This works more often than not, even in countries in which referenda are rare, but is not really an option in this case. The ‘in’ campaign is sure to include almost all Lib Dems, most of the Labour Party, most of the CBI and several leading Conservatives.
The ‘in’ camp would seek to present leaving the EU as a major – and very risky – change. The ‘out’ camp is sure to argue, under pretty much all circumstances and with some justification, that there is no status quo: that ‘in’ means a ratcheting process towards full political union. Winning that case may be key to winning the vote, and the wording of the question could be critical to that.
One final note: a question needs two options to be suitable for a referendum – this is precisely the argument between David Cameron and Alex Salmond over the proposed Scottish referendum. A question offering more integration, less integration, or keeping things the same would be unworkable, even assuming that keeping things the same is an option that other EU members would be willing to allow.