EU referendum: Polls suggest economy is key battleground

By David Cowling
Former editor, BBC Political Research Unit

Polling station

Just as we approach the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership of the EU with the polling industry in disarray, following its car crash in 2015, so were the polls in the 1975 European referendum burdened with past failures.

In the 1970 general election, all bar one had predicted the wrong result and their performance in the two 1974 general elections was charitably described as "unhappy".

Why then should we be interested in the latest poll conducted by NatCen and published in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) series? The answer is that here we are dealing with the quality end of polling.

The underperforming polls in the 2015 general election were conducted quickly over a few days and by telephone or via the internet. The BSA poll on attitudes to Europe was conducted face-to-face with 3,000 respondents between July and early November 2015.

Professor John Curtice, who presents the findings, is also able to draw on a great treasury of past data that the BSA has accumulated in its annual surveys stretching back three decades.

Immigration v economy

The survey suggests that 60% favoured continuing EU membership, compared with 30% who favoured withdrawal. A strong lead, but half the 60% lead for staying registered in 1991. And support for remaining is not unqualified: the survey also found that 43% preferred a looser relationship with the EU than at present - a view shared by 43% of Scots as well.

What are the main pressure points in our current relationship with the EU? The BSA highlights four from the evidence they have gathered:

  • Two thirds (68%) favour reducing the ability of EU migrants to access welfare benefits
  • A majority (60%) also favour reducing the extent to which the EU regulates business
  • Almost as many (59%) want to stop people from other EU countries accessing the NHS for free
  • Just over half (51%) want to end the free movement of people within the EU

The survey also suggests that there is also a deeper issue at play in all this. When asked 'How much do you agree or disagree that being a member of the European Union is undermining Britain's distinctive identity?' some 47% agreed, compared with 30% who disagreed.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Could worries about the future of the UK economy trump voters' concerns about immigration?

For many concerned about our national identity, the issue of EU migrants plays an important part in their judgement; 57% of respondents believed immigration would be lower if Britain did leave the EU.

Much of this would seem to offer very fertile territory for those advocating the UK's departure from the European Union. However, this is where things begin to get more complicated. In the face of these significant concerns, why do the same respondents give a 30-point majority to continuing membership? It seems clear that even large dollops of scepticism are not sufficient to persuade enough people that Britain should actually leave the EU.

The missing ingredient in all this appears to be the economy. As the report states: "For scepticism to translate into support for withdrawal, voters need also to be convinced of the economic case for leaving. And at present most are not."

Indeed, only 24% believe that Britain's economy would be better off if Britain left the EU, while as many as 40% feel it would be worse off.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Britons last had their say on Europe in the 1975 referendum

It seems to me that the real battleground in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, the territory where the battle will be won or lost, is to be found in two key statistics identified in the report.

It says: "Only two in five (40%) of those who believe that the EU is undermining Britain's identity but who are not convinced that the economy would be better say that they wish to withdraw from the EU. But that figure is at least double (82%) amongst those whose cultural concern is married with a belief in the economic benefits of withdrawal."

Concerns about the future of the economy played a significant part in the 1975 European referendum as well. In 2016, it seems it may be another case of déjà vu all over again. For scepticism to translate into support for withdrawal, voters need also to be convinced of the economic case for leaving. And at present most are not.