Alastair Meeks on the messaging challenges this presents for IN and OUT
Leave campaigners have been vehemently arguing that we urgently need to leave the EU for many years as a top priority. Such is their vehemence and their prominence, it is easy to forget that this is a minority view. Ipsos-MORI have been tracking what the public considers to be the important issues of the day for decades. Most of the time, the EU languishes at about 10% naming it in the top three issues of the day. In April, after many months of both sides of the debate yelling about just how important an issue this is, this rose to 30%. Even then, even when primed in that way, only 16% name it as the most important thing facing the country.
So five sixths of the public think that other issues are more important than the EU. 70% don’t even rank it in the top three. Unless turnout is astonishingly low, the referendum will be decided by people who place a fairly low priority on this question.
The two sides have occasionally ventured theses about Britain, the current state of the EU, Britain’s place in Europe and its place in the world. No doubt these were much appreciated by their faithful supporters. They are, however, unlikely to have changed or cemented many votes.
It cannot be stated often enough that the undecided and persuadables think about questions quite differently from the committed. If you don’t see a grand principle that particularly bothers you, you won’t make your decision based on a grand principle. You’ll choose pragmatically based on principle. Ardent Leavers and ardent Remainers have much more in common with each other than they do with this middle group when thinking about how they will decide how to vote.
So both Remain and Leave are pursuing other topics and seeking to tack them onto the referendum. Both sides have strong suits which address the more pressing issues that the public commonly name. Remain are running with the risks to the economy of Brexit while Leave, after some initial hesitation, are pressing hard on immigration. We have seen Leave seek to argue that the NHS is only safe in their hands and Remain seek to argue that Brexit would be a threat to national security.
Some of these arguments look tangential to the question of EU membership. Hell, some of these arguments are tangential to the question of EU membership. But if you’re a member of the public for whom the passerelle clause is less real than santa claus, you might well decide how to vote based on even quite minor impacts on subjects which you regard as being of much greater importance.
Remain are currently showing more message discipline about staying with their strong suit (perhaps because some of Leave’s leading protagonists aren’t anywhere near as anti-immigration as their potential supporters). With Leave’s condemnations of the EU having moved from forthright to Fourth Reich over the weekend, the damage to the Leave cause was potentially not just the appearance of xenophobic battiness but shifting from the much more fruitful vote-hunting ground of immigration.
That type of wandering off message is an occupational hazard of working with Boris Johnson, who seems congenitally incapable of sticking to a script. Set against that, as the major figure on either side who seems least committed to his position, he may well be better placed than anyone else to identify with the fence-sitters. So far, however, he has proven unwilling to let his electricity be channelled.
Which of these propositions will be more compelling? So far such polling as we have suggests that Leave’s lead on immigration is bigger than Remain’s lead on the economy. Set against that, will the undecided place the desire to control immigration above the desire to look after the money in their pocket? Can either side nullify the other’s perceived strength with the public?
Whatever, constitutional questions look set to take a back seat. If you ask the public a question they aren’t all that interested in, don’t be surprised if you get a stupid answer.