Pollwatch: Open Letter to EU Referendum campaigns
Andy White, Head of Innovation

Dear [TBC],

I appreciate that this advice is both unsolicited and carries a health warning: the 2015 general election was a challenge for the pollsters so you may not be inclined to listen.

But as we dig through the election results and our polling data, we have unearthed some findings with significant implications for the EU “in-out” referendum campaigns.

The question matters

As my colleague Tom Mludzinski has said, it is simplistic to believe that “Yes” will be viewed more positively viewed than “No” – the latter option won both the Alternative Vote (AV) and Scottish Independence referendums.

But the way a question is phrased certainly has an impact on the way people answer it, particularly if they are undecided or disengaged. In our latest survey, there is a small but statistically significant difference in support for the “in-out” options depending on how they are phrased:


So an early objective for your campaign will be to test different question wordings, and make a compelling case to the Electoral Commission for one which does not attach negative connotations to your position.

Your campaign needs a name

You will be leading one of two official referendum campaigns, which will be able to spend considerable sums of money trying to convince voters via the airwaves, in the press, online, in the post, on billboards, and face-to-face.

Unlike political parties, which have developed their brands over decades, your referendum campaign will be a short-lived beast. This can be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing, because you can be more agile than a party weighed down by longstanding feuds and divisions; a curse, because it can be difficult to pull everything together in the time available.

The biggest challenge is getting the thing off the ground and getting people to listen to you. One simple way of communicating with voters, the media, and other influencers quickly is through your name.

Some campaigns opt for simplicity: No to AV, Yes Scotland. They do exactly what they say on the tin.

Others try to explain the benefits: Yes! To Fairer Votes (the campaign for a change to the alternative vote) or Better Together (the campaign against Scottish independence). The downside to these labels (besides the exclamation mark) is that they can add an extra layer of confusion.

Indeed, nuance is usually an early victim of a referendum campaign. Voters just don’t pay enough attention until very close to polling day, so in the meantime you might want to keep it as simple as possible for them.

“No to EU” would be an obvious choice for the No campaign. “Yes to EU”, though, brings in the negative baggage of the European Union and its unpopular institutions. So how about “Yes for Britain”?

Targeting the right people

30 million people voted at the 2015 general election. 50 million adults live in the UK. Were the voters a microcosm of the wider population, or did they look a bit different?

ComRes has developed the ComRes Voter Turnout Model in reaction to our understatement of Conservative support and overstatement of Labour support at the 2015 general election. It is based on simulations of voter behaviour based on actual constituency and ward-level turnout data.

What we have found is that voter turnout patterns are more strongly linked to affluence and deprivation than voters themselves are willing to admit. This has interesting consequences for the EU referendum – support for EU membership is much higher among affluent ABC1s than among less affluent C2DEs.

eu demogs

Turnout at referendums has ranged from a paltry 42% in the AV referendum to 65% in the 1975 European referendum, to a whopping 85% at the Scottish independence referendum.

Let’s assume that this referendum will attract somewhere in the 50-65% range. Those voters will look different from the wider population. They are likely to be older, more affluent, a little more civic-minded. Your strategy will need to skew towards these audiences.

The right message

That leads us on to the message. J. K. Galbraith once said that all great leaders have shared “the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”.

The intricacies of European institutions and the much-maligned Brussels gravy train are not the major anxieties of the majority of British people. So don’t worry too much about delivering or rebutting these attacks.

Instead, people’s anxieties revolve around the future: their hopes for themselves and their families. The impact of “in” or “out” on the British economy and people’s jobs will be the crucial debate. The “out” campaign will be tempted to drag EU migration into the debate, linking it with pressure on jobs and quality of life. The “in” campaign will argue that leaving the European Union would destabilise the country and harm a fragile economic recovery.

As a general rule, the side backing the status quo can afford to be more negative and can snipe from more angles, while the side looking for change must be more positive and more coherent. Yes Scotland also showed how the change option can be rebranded as a way of protecting a bigger status quo – in their case, by playing up the threat of Tory austerity.

The right messengers

Many famous faces will want to lend their support to the campaign. Be careful: the anxieties of the British voter may not coincide with the anxieties of the great and the good.

When Sweden voted on whether to adopt the Euro, all its major parties, national newspapers, and business organisations backed the move. It seemed like a foregone conclusion. But the Swedish public delivered a resounding verdict, with 56% voting against the move.

So don’t assume, as the Yes to AV campaign did, that winning the most celebrity endorsements will necessarily see you over the finish line. Instead, you will need to find people who are seen by your target voters to speak credibly and with a united voice on the specific issues being debated.

The logistics

Speaking as someone who has worked on the wrong side of a referendum campaign, there are also some tricky logistical problems to navigate: who should manage the campaign? How should it be structured? How and when should it spend its funds?

A wide coalition of support is an important way of building a winning majority, but this can come at the expense of discipline. The successful campaign will be one that can accommodate views from different political parties, as well as businesses, pressure groups, and media outlets, without drifting off message.

The consequences

And finally, referendum campaigns can take on a life of their own. After the accountants have finished winding up the official campaign organisations, the arguments will continue.

The lesson from Scotland is that tactical empty promises can backfire strategically. So be careful of offering too much in return for people’s votes. I argued that the ‘No’ side would have won comfortably without Gordon Brown’s last-minute offer to the Scottish people. When that was not delivered, the sense of injustice fuelled the SNP surge and arguably made Scotland more vulnerable to breakaway than ever before.

Ultimately, the “in” campaign’s starting position is strong. The status quo option normally wins over the undecided voters, and the campaign has a healthy lead among those voters stating a preference. But much can change in the space of a year, and there is no room for complacency.