A Little Relief for Remain?

Posted on 20 June 2016 by John Curtice

It is often said that what goes down must come back up again. We thus perhaps should not be surprised that, after a sharp decline in support for Remain during the course of last week, four polls conducted over the weekend should have reported some recovery in its position. Even so, that will not stop them coming as something of a relief to the Prime Minister.

Three of the polls were done over the internet, two by YouGov and one by Opinium. During the week YouGov had been one of the pollsters who reported a sharp drop in support for Remain, putting them on just 46% (after Don’t Knows are left to one side). Now in a poll conducted on Wednesday and Thursday for Good Morning Britain the company put Remain on 49%, while in a second poll done on Thursday and Friday for The Sunday Times it reckoned support for Remain was back up to 51%, just where it was ten days ago. Between them the two polls give the impression of a gradual recovery in Remain’s position during the course of the week.

Not that this impression is confirmed by Opinium (in a poll for The Observer), though they were one company that did not identify a fall in support for Remain last week. The company reckons the two sides are tied on 50% each, representing a one point drop in support for Remain since last week. As a result, Opinium continue to suggest that the outcome is too close to call – just as (until the last couple of weeks at least) internet polls have been doing ever since the onset of the campaign.

One of the weekend’s polls, meanwhile, was done over the phone. This came from Survation (for the Mail on Sunday), who had been one of the phone pollsters that last week put Remain behind with just 48% support. Now they reckon Remain are back in the lead with 52% of the vote. However, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that this still represents a relatively low share of the vote for Remain as compared with Survation’s previous telephone polls. In short, this poll still suggests that the referendum race is rather closer now than it was a month ago.

Inevitably, if not entirely tastefully, it has been asked whether any of the apparent swing back to Remain might have been occasioned by voters’ reaction to the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. In fact, only one of the weekend’s polls, that conducted by Survation, did all of its interviewing after that tragic event. But it is impossible to tell whether any of the swing back to Remain in that poll might have been occasioned by that tragic event, and in particular some of the criticism of the tone of the Leave campaign on immigration that it stimulated in some quarters. True, the poll found that 43% of voters felt that a poster of a large queue of immigrants accompanied by the headline, ‘Breaking Point’, unveiled last week by Nigel Farage was ‘inflammatory’. However, at the same time almost as many people thought that the Leave campaign had fought the ‘most [sic] responsible’ campaign (27%) as said that accolade belonged to the Remain campaign (31%).

Meanwhile, while much of the interviewing for the second of YouGov’s polls was conducted after Mrs Cox’s murder, that for the first was undertaken beforehand. Yet that first poll had already detected a swing back to Remain, suggesting that the improvement in Remain’s position may have been in train before Thursday and thus not have anything to do with what happened on Thursday.

There is, however, relatively little in the weekend’s polls that gives much of a clue as to what else might have occasioned the apparent movement back to Remain. True, one striking finding from YouGov is that the proportion who say that their own personal finances would suffer if the UK votes to Leave has increased from 23% ten days ago to 33% now. That, it was argued, indicated that the reason why Remain was gaining ground was that voters were beginning to accept that the the allegedly deleterious economic consequences of leaving the EU would have implications for themselves. However, if that is the case, it is somewhat curious that the 51% level of support for Remain in YouGov’s latest poll is exactly the same as it was when the company last found that only 23% reckoned their personal finances would suffer.

Meanwhile, of what there is evidence in YouGov’s  poll is that the Remain campaign’s most recent attempt to persuade voters that leaving would bring with it financial costs – that is, a suggestion by the Chancellor, George Osborne, that he would have to introduce an emergency budget in which taxes went up and public expenditure cut – was widely disbelieved. As many as 47% said that the Chancellor’s claim was ‘probably false’ while just 28% reckoned it was ‘probably true’. At the same time, Opinium report that just 18% have found George Osborne ‘convincing’ in the referendum, apparently making him the least persuasive of any major politician in the campaign.  This would not appear to be a backdrop against which the Remain campaign seems likely to have suddenly made significant progress in promulgating its economic case.

A couple of other brief points. First, in an online poll that did not ask about vote intentions, ComRes report that 76% say that the economic implications of leaving the EU will be important to them in making a decision, whereas only 59% say the same about immigration. This makes sense. We should remember, that while YouGov have persistently reported that a plurality believe that the UK will be worse off economically if we leave the EU, a majority reckon immigration will go down if we leave. That implies that if immigration did matter to as many voters as does the economy, Leave would be ahead in the polls. The Remain side are in truth reliant on the economy being the more important issue in voters’ minds.

Second, it has, of course, long been apparent that middle class graduates are keen on remaining in the EU while more working class people and those with less in the way of educational qualifications wish to Leave. Voters are seemingly not unaware of the social division underlying this referendum. YouGov report that as many as 41% believe that the Remain campaign mostly represent the ‘establishment’ while just 10% feel they represent ‘ordinary people’. The equivalent figures for Leave are 19% and 26% respectively. At the same time, in the poll that Survey Monkey released at the tail end of last week, 33% said they thought EU membership had ‘hurt’ working class individuals, whereas only 18% said the same about the middle class and 7% the upper class. Convincing the less well-off that EU membership is in their interest as much as anyone else is one of the key challenges facing Remain in the few days of campaigning that are left.

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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