Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov
One important value of opinion polling is that it corrects a widespread bias in human thought – our perception that people agree with us more than they really do. We tend to mix more with people that are like us than unlike; and we forget that people have a tendency to agree in conversation; these two forces can make us think our own positions more popular than they really are. So opinion polls can be a useful corrective.
But sometimes polls can actually mislead us further, especially if two measures become confused. In the case of euro-scepticism, breadth and depth of opinion are significantly different, and assuming the first is the same as the second leads to a dangerously flawed conclusion.
Polls that show euro-scepticism is widespread throughout the country are making some eurosceptic activists over-confident about the true force of the issue. Anti-EU feeling may be popular without being an important factor in the next election. Campaigners who believe attitudes to the EU will be a potent force are in danger of harming their own cause by misconstruing the nature of the underlying feeling.
True, the EU is unpopular, UKIP is gaining a significant foothold among the electorate, and in any case all it takes to impact prospects for a Conservative victory is for UKIP to hold on to two-thirds of their current support in the polls. In an article in Saturday’s Times, I wrote that UKIP “splits the eurosceptic vote”. This is obviously correct, but had I had more space I would have gone on to make the follow-up point, that euro-scepticism is probably not a vote-changer in itself but functions as a vehicle for something else: an amorphous but powerful sense of unfairness that converts into anti-establishment anger.
The voters currently captured by UKIP are more concerned about energy prices and immigration than about Europe. They blame any part of the establishment they can finger, and that certainly includes the EU, but no European policy you can dream up will make them feel much better about their profound sense of being neglected by politicians. These are working or retired people who feel they are struggling to do the best they can, but are unregarded and undervalued, while those at the top and those on welfare are reaping the rewards.
This is a feeling that oozes in all directions through the electorate. Nigel Farage spoke at a recent YouGov conference and (with his permission) we replayed a part of his speech to two dial groups
– several hundred UKIP-sympathisers, and the same number of UKIP-detractors, who showed their continuous state of approval or disapproval by moving their mouse (it should have been called a mouse test instead of a dial test) between a negative and positive response.
So we had two aggregated response lines, that of the detractors and that of the sympathisers. The sympathisers of course gave Farage a positive response throughout, but we were surprised by two things – first, that the detractors actually rated him more positively than we expected (nearly half said afterwards they thought what he said was broadly right), and second, that both groups loved the section when Farage launched into his attack on the political class.
Farage’s anti-establishment ‘a plague on both your houses’ theme is extraordinarily effective and makes him sound like the true voice of those that feel like outsiders. The problem for mainstream politicians is that the way politics is practiced these days makes most people feel like outsiders. That is why the most important trend in elections is the nearly continuous post-war decline of vote-share enjoyed by the two main parties, from above 90% to below 70 per cent. It makes majorities ever harder to achieve.
If eurosceptic activists in a mainstream party mistake Europe’s true level of priority as an issue in voters’ minds, they could actually increase their image of being out-of-touch even when they think they are being most in tune with popular thought. The time to go strong on Europe is not at the general election, nor even at the European election (which for most voters will not really be about EU policy), but whenever there is a referendum.