Immigration and the Economy: The Two Key Issues in the Referendum?

Posted on 28 January 2016 by John Curtice

What are the issues that matter most to voters in the EU referendum campaign? This kind of question is often addressed in opinion polls by asking people directly which are the issues that matter most to them in whatever vote is about to take place. However, approaching the question this way assumes that voters are sufficiently self-aware of their reasons for voting to be able to provide an accurate report. In practice the approach often leads to a long list of issues that at least a few people mention, while none emerges as the dominant motivation. The result can be a mish-mash that is often quite difficult to interpret.

Academic researchers (or at least those of a statistical bent) usually prefer to approach this subject more indirectly. They typically take the view that what matters most in persuading voters to support one side or the other are those issues on which the supporters of the various options (in a referendum) or parties (in an election) are the most polarised. In short, if those who are backing option A take a very different view on issue X from those who prefer option B, we reckon that issue X matters. If, conversely, the two sets of voters have more or less a similar distribution of views on issue X, then we take it as evidence that issue X is not one that is pushing many voters to vote in one direction or the other. It is, in other words, an approach that suggests the proof of the pudding lies in the eating rather than in the list of ingredients provided by the cook.

So we thought it worthwhile to see what can be gleaned from the polls about what matters to voters in the referendum if we use this more academic approach. In particular, given the prominence of arguments about the economy and immigration in the referendum debate (and in academic research on attitudes towards the EU), we were particularly interested in how far apart existing Leave and Remain supporters appear to be on these two issues. Are they further apart on one than the other, suggesting that there is one central issue in the campaign so far as most voters are concerned?  And is there any other subject that appears to rival either of these two in the extent to which the two sets of voters diverge from each other?

Two important points immediately became apparent. First, relatively few polls have asked much at all about what voters think the consequences of remaining in or leaving the EU might be. Much polling is focused on how people might react to various possible (hypothetical) outcomes of the EU negotiations or what they feel about the various (potential) spokespersons for the two sides. Second, in so far as the subject has been covered, no single poll has asked people what they think the implications of EU (non-) membership might be for both the economy and for immigration.  We can only compare the pattern of answers to the two subjects in different polls, which inevitably creates some uncertainty about whether any differences that we find are occasioned by the difference in the subject matter or in the way that the polls have been conducted.

Still, as our latest briefing paper published today shows, we can make some progress. First of all, polling by YouGov shows that the two sets of voters are further apart from each other when asked about the economic consequences of leaving the EU than they are when they are asked about the implications for a variety of other subjects, including the NHS, pensions, and Britain’s influence in the world. The economic consequences of leaving the EU is one issue where a clear majority of Leave and Remain voters take a diametrically opposed view from each other. No less than 73% of Remain supporters believe that Britain would be worse off economically if it left the EU, while 59% of Leave voters reckon the country will be better off.

Second, the two sets of voters also take a very different perspective on what leaving the EU would mean for immigration. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft, 65% of Leave voters believe that we will never be able to bring immigration under control unless we leave the EU, while 56% of Remain supporters reckon we will still not be able to bring immigration under control even if we did leave. This gap is not quite as big as it is in the polling on the economic consequences of leaving the EU undertaken by YouGov, but given the methodological limitations of the comparison, we cannot push this too far. In so far as we can tell, both issues are relatively important to voters.

Third, that said, the two sets of voters differ somewhat on the two issues in the extent to which they back the arguments of their own side. As the figures we have already quoted exemplify, Remain supporters are more likely to be convinced that leaving the EU would have an adverse impact on Britain’s economy than Leave voters are to believe that it would be beneficial. Conversely, Leave supporters appear to be more united than Remain voters on the issue of immigration. This suggests that for Remain voters it is their view of the economic implications of leaving that is more likely to be the key to their referendum choice, whereas amongst Leave voters immigration is the bigger concern.

These results create a dilemma for the two campaigns. Should they be attempting to enhance their appeal on the issue on which they appear to be less persuasive than at present? Or should they try to focus voters’ minds on the issue on which they appear better able to win over supporters? It is a dilemma that will be familiar to many a party politician at election time.  Should the Conservative party, for example, try to persuade voters that it does have a strong commitment to the future of the NHS, or should it focus on other issues such as defence and the economy with which it is typically more strongly associated in voters’ minds? Experience suggests that the closer that polling day comes, the more campaigners are likely to try and focus on the issues on which they appear to be stronger. If so, then we may have to look forward to a referendum campaign in which the two sides are often talking past each other rather than engaging in a debate on the merits of their respective cases.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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