Ask the Expert: Analysing the EU referendum polls

In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask The Expert seminar, Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and Professor Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe at King's College London, gave their analysis of the EU referendum polls.

Turnout will be crucial to the EU referendum result; but whatever the outcome the EU question won’t go away in UK politics.

Goodwin: Turnout will be key

Professor Goodwin presented data on trends in poll results. According to most polls, the race between the Leave and Remain campaigns is very close and has been narrowing. As recently as June 2015, an Ipsos telephone poll showed a 44 percentage point lead for the Remain campaign. However, the solid lead the Remain camp enjoyed has disappeared in recent months, with the same poll showing a lead of just 8% in March, and online polls showing a lead for the Leave camp.

Furthermore, there is very little evidence that David Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU – announced on 19th February – had any meaningful effect on public opinion. Cameron announced reforms including a UK exemption from ‘ever closer union’ and restrictions on EU migrants’ benefits. The Government hoped for a swing towards Remain. However, there was no evidence in the polls of any substantial gains for the Remain campaign.

Given the apparent closeness of the vote, what might swing it one way or another? A clue can be found in the campaign tactics: looking at the geographical areas in which events have been held, the Remain camp have targeted areas that are already fairly pro-EU, whilst the Leave camp have targeted areas with substantial numbers of UKIP voters and other Eurosceptics. The tactic seems to be to focus on mobilisation rather than persuasion – turnout could be key in swaying the referendum one way or another.

If turnout is key, the problem for the Remain camp is that older people say they’re much more likely to vote – and they’re also much more Eurosceptic than younger voters. Although the Remain campaign still enjoys a slender lead in the telephone polls, a difference in turnout between Remain and Leave voters of just 5% could sway the vote towards Leave. Whoever wins, it’s likely to be the side that is most successful in getting their supporters to the polling booth.

Menon: The negative tone of debate and the post-referendum politics of the Conservative Party suggest the referendum won’t put the issue of the EU to bed

Professor Menon argued that, regardless of the EU referendum result, the EU question is unlikely to be resolved in UK politics. Several factors contribute towards this. First, knowledge is playing very little role in the EU referendum debate. Both camps have been using facts that are demonstrably false, and people appear thirsty for stories that confirm their prejudices rather than looking for balanced information. This contributes to opinion becoming polarised rather than a reasoned debate taking place.

Second, the tone of the debate is highly negative: voters are being offered the options of being ‘fully out’ or ‘half out’ of the EU, rather than Remain campaigners being more positive and offering a ‘fully in’ option. This is demonstrated by Cameron’s attempts to water down the UK’s relationship in his renegotiation package, and means that scepticism and negativity towards the EU are likely to continue after the referendum.

Third, UK politics makes it hard to think this issue will go away. The fact that the Conservative Party has a large number of Eurosceptic MPs will inevitably ensure Europe is a key issue for the next leader. Furthermore, should the referendum trigger Cameron to resign, the consequent leadership election would be likely to happen alongside ongoing debate over the status of the UK’s ’emergency brake’ on EU migrants’ benefits – part of Cameron’s renegotiation deal. This will probably include a ruling by the European Court of Justice on the legality of the ’emergency brake’. There is a good chance the ruling could be unfavourable for the Conservatives, which would do little to appease Eurosceptics in the Tory party.

You can listen to a podcast of the event here:

Ask the Expert is the SMF’s lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC).

Building on from the success of Chalk + Talk, the SMF Ask the Expert series brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.

This new series of events is aligned with current government consultations and parliamentary inquiries, giving policymakers the opportunity to engage with experts in those policy areas.

To suggest a subject for a future Ask The Expert event, please contact the SMF’s events officer Hannah Murphy via


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