We can still lose. The worse case scenario can still come to pass. You are still what is standing between Britain and a disaster.
Living in Korea does rather limit the amount I can contribute to the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. I’ve given money and turned my social media accounts into a barrage of propaganda but I can’t knock on doors, deliver leaflets or ring phones. So please allow me to hector the people who can.
Please, please, please, please, please, please do not relent in anyway. I know the polls are looking better but there’s still a very real risk of this all going very wrong. Please maintain the sense of panic you felt when Leave first took a poll lead – it’s still justified.
Perhaps the best summary of the narrative that seems to be emerging in response to the polls over the weekend is that provided by Anthony Wells, Director of YouGov’s political and social opinion polling, who wrote that:
…the movement [towards Remain] may be … to do with people worrying about the economic impact of leaving the European Union. In the Sunday Times poll 33% of people said they thought that they would be personally worse off if Britain left the EU, up from 23% a fortnight ago and easily the highest we have recorded on this question.
The pattern of public opinion on the EU referendum is looking very similar to the Scottish referendum in 2014. Back then there was a long period of little movement when most ordinary voters were paying little attention, this was followed by a period of movement in favour of Yes, as people were excited by the prospect of change, followed by a sharp correction back to the status quo as, in the final days, people worried about the risks associated with it.
This is a reasonable analysis and it’s probably right. Nonetheless, I don’t think it justifies the notion that Brexit is now implausible or a remote possibility. Nor do I think Wells would claim it does. It could very well still happen. Indeed, was I betting I would probably be putting money on Brexit. That doesn’t mean I think it is likely but I do think it is significantly less unlikely than the betting markets are suggesting.
1. The polls are still really close
I would suggest that if you looked at those numbers without some kind of prior conviction that Brexit was unlikely or that the polls are understating support for Remain then you’d conclude the situation is more or less a wash. Yes, Remain has been ahead in the last three polls but never by enough to be outside the margin of error and by less than Leave was ahead during its moment of ascendancy.
2. There’s still plenty of stuff that could go wrong
If Remain’s lead is as narrow as the polls are suggesting it wouldn’t take much to wipe it out.
There are multiple TV debates during which Remain could hit a banana peel. The leader of the opposition might open his mouth and say something typically unhelpful like: ‘EU free movement means no immigration limit’. [What’s that? He’s already said that? Well that was daft of him!] A high-profile business leader could come out for Leave and muddle the message on that issue. God forbid, there could even be (another) terrorist attack.
3. The polls could be wrong
They were in the General Election and those are easier to poll because the pollsters have more experience with them because they occur more frequently. The assumption up till now has been that they are understating Remain because Leave supporters appear to be easier to contact and may therefore be being oversampled. But pollsters appear to be correcting for this and it’s possible there’s some other wrinkle they’ve not detected that means they are understating Leave.
4. We can’t put too much weight on the evidence of previous referendums
Part of the reason that such narrow poll leads have begat such confidence from some people is that historical precedent seems to be on Remain’s side. Peter Kellner, recently wrote that “referendums in Britain have tended to produce a late move to the status quo. The record from six such contests in the past four decades is striking”. That’s persuasive evidence, especially given that it seems to be coming to pass, but it’s hardly definitive. Six is not a huge sample size to draw inferences from and the political context of this referendum is different. Kellner also admits that in one referendum there was no movement towards the status quo. We should be alive to the possibility that this referendum could be another exception.
5. Turnout is a joker in the pack
Generally speaking the impact of turnout on British elections is pretty simple to understand. A higher turnout helps Labour. Tory voters draw disproportionate support from older and more affluent voters who tend to turn out reliably. The question therefore becomes whether Labour can get enough of its flakier supporters to the polls to overcome that advantage.
The Brexit vote scrambles that. Remain appear to lead with more affluent and better educated voters whilst Leave do better with older voters. It’s therefore, hard to predict how turnout will affect the result.
But one strong possibility is that Leave supporters will be more motivated to vote. It may be that part of the reason pollsters are finding them easier to contact is that they are simply more enthusiastic about telling people what they think about Europe. And as Wells’ description of the situation makes clear a lot of Remain support seems rather grudging. If it had a clearer lead Remain could be more sanguine about that but it doesn’t so this modest handicap could prove fatal.
6. The perception that Remain is ahead could actually cost it votes
If there are a body of voters who want to vote Leave but fear the consequences of doing so, and that notion rings true to me, if they start to think that those consequences will never actually materialise, they may feel secure in unleashing their political id.
7. A narrow victory is not good enough (Bonus point)
In a normal election it doesn’t really matter by how much you win. If you win, you win. But this isn’t a normal election. Don’t get me wrong I’d rather nearly lose than actually lose but if we have to eke out a victory that creates problems down the line.
Most concerningly, the Brexiteers would use it as a pretext for holding a second referendum. Heck, we don’t even know the result yet and they are suggesting it now.
I assume that the prospect of another round of regular politics grinding to a halt, divisive rhetoric spewing forth and financial markets tumbling does not fill you with joy. Each extra vote you win makes that less likely.
Conversely, a decisive vote against Brexit will be interpreted as a repudiation of putting up posters that look like they were artworked by Goebbels and just flat out inventing stuff. If the result is more ambiguous so will be the lessons drawn about the utility of such despicable techniques.
Conversely, a narrow victory for Leave is preferable to a larger one because that would make it easier to argue for remaining in the Single Market.
I’m not expecting that Britain will vote to leave the EU. But I won’t be surprised if it does. And neither should you. A small poll lead that only emerged recently combined with a modest set of past examples should do little to move our sense of the probabilities much off 50:50. The prospect of Britain doing something very reckless is very real. If you are in a position to do something to make that a little less likely please, please, please, please, please do.