Leave is gaining ground. But do not rule out Remain just yet

Leave is gaining ground. But do not rule out Remain just yet


THE EU referendum race is getting too close for comfort. In The Economist’s poll-of-polls, Leave is ahead by two points. A survey published by ORB on Friday gave it a ten-point lead, sending the pound to a two-month low against the dollar; one by TNS today puts its advantage at seven points. Betting odds that used to put the probability of a Remain win above 80% now place it at some 60%.

Signs from the campaign trail point a similar way. Labour MPs say they are shocked at the levels of Euroscepticism they are encountering in their constituencies; hence Mr Cameron has stepped back somewhat this week to let prominent left-of-centre figures take the limelight. Brexiteers who previously pooh-poohed the notion that they might win now say they can do it.

Can they? It is true: the polls have narrowed in recent weeks. But look below the headline figures and there are reasons to stay sanguine—for now, at least.

First, take the ORB poll: an outlier, even by the standards of recent figures. Even that shows that more people think Remain will win than do Leave. That is telling. Past elections suggest that while people tell pollsters they plan to vote for the option they reckon is more popularly acceptable, they project their own deeper instincts onto others: so “Leave supporters” who tell pollsters that Remain will win may ultimately vote Remain.

Second, millions of voters remain undecided: 13% according to our poll tracker. After weeks of newspaper reports dominated by Leave arguments and in a popular environment in which support for Leave seems more acceptable than Remain, are these voters really shy Leavers? It seems more likely that those not yet persuaded by either side will err towards the safer option, Remain, in the privacy of the polling booth.

Third, referendums like the one on June 23rd tend to reveal more support for the status quo than the polls that precede them. That, at least, was the outcome of seven of ten recent referendums studied by Stephen Fisher and Alan Renwick, political scientists. From the vote on a Welsh Assembly in 1997 to that on a new electoral system in 2011 or the one on Scottish independence in 2014, the pollsters have typically overstated backing for the “change” option.

Fourth, think back to last year’s general election. The final polls put the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck. Some even suggested that the opposition was ahead. But on the day the Conservatives won their first majority for 23 years. The headline figures, it transpired, had been a poorer guide to popular opinion than polls asking voters which party they trusted on the economy and which leader they thought should become prime minister (these pointed to a Tory victory). The equivalent in this referendum may turn out to be the salience battle between the economy (on which Remain leads) and immigration (on which Leave does). Polls suggest that voters still care more about the pound in the pocket than the Lithuanian in the vegetable field and, moreover, that Remain’s lead on jobs and prosperity has grown as the campaign has advanced.

Fifth, in such moments—when faced by a choice between an imperfect status quo and a leap into the dark—Britons have, in the past, rarely chosen the latter. To defy that tradition, Leave has to disguise a vote to quit the EU as the safer, more small-c conservative option. Yet here too, the polling (judging by YouGov’s tracker) suggests that the campaign has failed. For all its bogus claims that Turkey will soon join the EU, I have yet to see proof that it has persuaded voters that the dangers of continuing in the club are greater. That most voters rightly consider the choice before them on June 23rd more significant than that at a general election suggests that they will be particularly risk-averse next week.

On Sunday evening I had a conversation that I suspect typifies how undecided voters feel. I am loath to quote taxi drivers (it feels too easy, too obvious a journalistic conceit) but do so now because what my driver in the outskirts of Southend, on the Thames Estuary, told me may shed some light on wider attitudes. I asked him how he would vote in the referendum if put on the spot. He responded, without hesitation, that he wanted Britain to Leave. Then he started talking about his life. His Dad, a London black cab driver, now had to fight off competition from immigrant Uber drivers from the EU, he complained. So far, so Brexiteer. But as our conversation continued, he started to reflect on his family and its future; weighing the options. “The thing is,” he told me: “I have a roof over my head. I can just about pay my bills. £100 more a week does not mean much to me. But £100 less would be terrible.” So I asked him: “How will you actually vote on June 23rd?” There was a long silence as we rumbled along the suburban Essex streets. “Don’t think I’d take the risk, to be honest. I suppose I’d vote Stay.”

This was a one-off conversation. It took place in Leigh-on-Sea, a fairly comfortable part of Southend. Yet this was the sort of place that decides elections; not rich but certainly not poor, neither urban nor rural, as middle-class as working-class. Most interesting was that a voter willing to tell me, upfront, that he wanted to leave the EU was then perfectly happy to say the opposite once he had spent a few minutes talking about his kin and their prospects. A good sign for Remain? Perhaps. But, at the least, a suggestion that the fight is not yet lost.

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