Winning votes and alienating people
Report of research into past referendums and what they tell us about the upcoming EU referendum

A new report by ComRes (“Winning votes and alienating people: Lessons from past referendums”) which has looked at past referendums in the UK and internationally has uncovered a ‘Danger Zone’ whereby a simple victory for David Cameron and the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign would not be enough to end the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU. In order to really settle the issue and not risk it flaring up again for at least a generation Remain must defeat Leave by a considerable margin, at least 60% to 40%.

This new report by ComRes uses experiences of and research on past referendums in the UK and around the world to lay out what may unfold and how. It takes you through the phases of a referendum, examines how different types of referendum tend to encourage different messaging and who the key actors and influencers are likely to be.

The key findings of the report are:

  1. The Camerendum: It is unusual for a western government to hold a referendum when it would prefer to maintain the status quo. However, David Cameron has called three national referendums in his time as Prime Minister. As well as a party (and Coalition partner) management tool, he has used referendums as a way of trying to put to bed three challenging and recurring issues: electoral reform, Scottish independence and the European Union. His hope has been to end the clamour for change by quashing it directly at the hands of the electorate.
  2. The Danger Zone: It is Mr Cameron’s use of the referendum in particular that really risks the Danger Zone which, rather than killing off the debate risks flaming the fire further. Simply “winning” the EU referendum – presuming the Prime Minister will back the Remain option – will not be enough. If he is really to kill off eurosceptic calls to leave the European Union he will need a resounding victory with at least 60% of the vote. Any smaller margin of the victory and the Leave side will likely be galvanised and not slip away quietly.
  3. Politicians, not personalities: Although referendum campaigns often look to business leaders and well-known personalities to the front the campaign, it is the media and politicians that have the biggest impact: the media as the prism through which most people will see the campaign and politicians will bring with them partisan voters and organisation.

The latest ComRes polling shows public opinion at this early stage is on the cusp of the Danger Zone (55% Remain, 36% Leave).

Download the full report: Winning votes and alienating people