The truth is that nobody knows what will happen in the EU referendum tonight. Neither the commentators, nor the campaigners, nor the pollsters can tell how it might go. There’s a general consensus that it’s close, but that itself is based on polling which is still taking tentative steps towards recovering its credibility after last year, and trying to tackle an issue which seemingly cuts across all sorts of normal party political indicators.
At the weekend, I wrote a brief guide to how the results will be announced. Now it’s time to look at some of the trends that are worth watching as the night wears on:
If it really is as tight as the polling suggests, then turnout could hold the key to the result – particularly if one side’s Get Out The Vote operation does a better job of turning out its voters. However, even this will be hard to predict from the overall turnout figure. Both sides are praying for a good response from normally lower-turnout groups – Remain are banking on young voters, while Leave are banking on the less well-off. So a high turnout overall could benefit both, or either. Results watchers will have to keep a keen eye out, then, on whether turnout differs from place to place. If among the early results Sunderland shows a turnout markedly higher than its General Election figure but Wandsworth then has a lower turnout than last year, then things could be looking good for Leave.
2) England versus the rest of the UK
Tonight will also likely see another illustration of the political gap between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which Henry Hill explored in more depth the other day. There are several aspects of this to look out for – how heavily does England vote for Leave, and will it be enough to carry the day? Will the general perception of an overwhelming Scottish vote for Remain turn out to be somewhat overblown, as there are some signs that a sizeable minority of SNP voters have no more love for Brussels than they do for Westminster? Will UKIP’s recent surge in Wales, which carried them into the Assembly, translate into a showing which is closer to England than to Scotland? Quite how much will Northern Ireland, which is rarely polled, add to the Remain total? All these will provide pointers to future political issues – particularly as the SNP waits eagerly to make the most of any possible grievances which might arise from being outvoted.
3) London versus the rest of England
The capital is certainly Remain’s stronghold – its drift into a politics of its own follows a long process of developing an economy and a society which is increasingly distinct from the rest of England, and those factors are further bolstered by the presence of something like 40 per cent of Labour Party members. Just as the potential divide between the Home Nations in the results could point to future political tensions at a UK level, the gulf between London and most of the rest of England will be under the spotlight. Looking at some of the district-by-district polling, it could turn out to be a Yes2AV coalition of London, Cambridge and Oxford backing Remain, with much of the rest of the country voting Leave. With more devolution and a new raft of mayors arriving soon, that’s an interesting political picture.
4) The Labour Party versus its own core voters
If, as seems likely, England does vote Leave, it will be many Labour cities which help to carry the day – and specifically working class Labour voters will be crucial to the result. There have been increasingly worried noises coming from parts of the Labour Party about the experience of their canvassers who knock on normally reliable doors only to find their pro-EU pitch is sharply rejected. If a large part of the Labour core vote does swing to Leave, two things are on the cards. First, another bout of internal criticism of Corbyn, seeking to blame his lacklustre campaign. Second, and more seriously, the fear will grow that this is the English equivalent of the Scottish independence referendum, which led large numbers of voters to realise their views were no longer represented by Labour. That would be the Opposition’s nightmare scenario – and Farage, among others, will be poised to try to pull those voters away from Labour permanently.
5) Cameron’s appeal in the swing seats
Remain are hoping to counter their problem among the Labour vote by deploying the greatest asset: the Prime Minister. Time and again he has sought to use the same messages on risk that worked for the Conservative Party in the General Election. The final thing to watch, therefore, is whether it works – the swing seats which the Conservatives gained last year will be key indicators of the success or failure of that approach.