Pollwatch: Popping the question
By Tom Mludzinski, Head of Political Polling  

A romantic setting, perhaps a weekend away, rose petals, champagne, getting down on bended knee. Getting the mood and the framing right is key to popping the big question. When proposing marriage, the important thing is not to offer your would-be betrothed a “yes” or “no” option, but to get the campaign right before hand, offer a positive vision of your life together, get them to believe in your vision for the future. Get this all right and the answer takes care of itself.

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? Yes or No? That is the question being proposed by the government for the EU referendum campaign to be held before the end of 2017. Already the wording has been criticised by those wanting to leave the EU. Nigel Farage said that by David Cameron “opting to give the pro-EU side the positive 'Yes' suggests strongly that his negotiations are so much fudge. He has already decided which way he wants the answer to be given.”

His argument is that No is at a disadvantage by being painted as the negative option and it is easier to win a referendum as the positive “Yes” argument. However, the last two major referendums in the UK have seen No to Scottish independence and No to AV both come out victorious. More important is the issue of being the “status quo” choice.

Indeed, a referendum on an existing relationship (whether that be the bond between Scotland and the UK, or between the UK and the European Union) is less like a marriage proposal and more like negotiating a divorce. The challenge for the “Out” side will be convincing voters that the breakdown in the marriage is now so bad that everyone would be happier living apart. The “In” side will play on the upheaval, the legal costs, and the protracted negotiations over who gets what.

The status quo option, or the “better the devil you know” side therefore tend to have the slight advantage. When it comes to interpreting opinion polls on the issue, the evidence from previous referendums worldwide is that most undecideds or “don’t knows” end up backing the status quo option on election day. As we argued at the Scottish Independence referendum, this means that to win a referendum, the “change” option needs to be polling above 50% – before “Don’t knows” are excluded from the tally. ComRes’s most recent poll on EU membership, from just before the General Election, had “Stay In” leading “Leave” by 22 points with 10% saying they “don’t know”. This already shows the scale of the challenge for the “No” campaign.

EU In out


The “No” campaign start off some way behind and the challenge they face is large, but it is not insurmountable; the question wording is not, however, their major issue. The unofficial campaign will no doubt already be getting under way, spelling out messages for and against leaving the EU. We’ll see posters, adverts, viral videos, leaflets, letters to newspapers, positive and negative messages and maybe even televised debates. These will be what shapes the result of the referendum, more than whether your campaign is “Yes” or “No”. In Scotland, No became “Better Together” to change the tone of the debate and try to move away from the negative wording.

Unlike in a one-off opinion poll when asking a respondent for their top of mind responses to a “yes/no” question can lead people to answer in the positive, the referendum campaign will have plenty of time to shape the information voters receive. Voters will be warmed up by the time it comes to placing their X on the ballot paper. It will ultimately come down to the way in which both sides of the campaign frame the choice. There is nothing to stop the “Yes” side running a negative campaign; likewise the “No” team can run a positive campaign.

One of the “Lessons for Labour” my colleague Andy White pointed out post-Election, is the importance to electoral success of targeting those sections of the public that actually go and vote. Referendum turnout is fairly unpredictable: in Scotland it reached the heights of 85%, while the AV referendum saw just 42% voting. However, the demographic pattern tends to remain the same, with younger voters and those from lower social grades being less likely to vote. Herein lies the interesting point for both the “Yes” and “No” sides: young Britons are most likely to support remaining in the EU but we know they’re less likely to vote. Older Britons on the other hand, are not only more prone to voting but also are where support for leaving the EU is strongest.

However, on social grade, another strong predictor of turnout, the opposite is true. Higher (AB) social grades and more likely voters, are where the strongest support for staying in the Union comes, while DEs – who tend to be less likely to vote – are more likely to want to leave the EU.



As ever in an election, the winners will be those who can get their supporters to fill in their postal votes or go to the polling station.

When you ask for someone’s hand in marriage you should be fairly sure of the answer before you pop the question. How sure are “Yes” and “No” proponents of the answer the British electorate will give them?