Poll Excitement Intensifies the Spotlight on the Renegotiations

Posted on 16 December 2015 by John Curtice

Two polls released yesterday helped create a flurry of excitement in advance of this week’s meeting of the European Council at which, we are promised, the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership will be on the agenda. One, from Survation, suggested that Leave were narrowly ahead (by 51% to 49%), while the other, from ICM, reported the narrowest of leads for Remain – indeed so narrow that once Don’t Knows were excluded, the figures were Remain 50%, Leave 50%.

Inevitably, these figures were greeted with speculation that the Leave side has gained ground in recent weeks, and that, consequently, David Cameron is now under increased pressure to deliver (eventually) a successful renegotiation.

Of the two polls, it was in fact that from ICM that gave the greater support to that thesis. As we warned only last week, there are some consistent differences between polling companies in the level of support they are recording for Remain and Leave. Survation is one of those companies that has tended to paint a relatively optimistic picture for Leave. Before yesterday it had already reported leads for Leave in two of the four previous polls of referendum voting intention it had conducted using the question that will appear on the ballot paper. The latest reading of 51% for Leave is in fact exactly the same as the company reported back at the beginning of September in what was the first poll to be conducted by anyone after the ballot paper question was settled. In short, there is no evidence in this poll of a recent change in the public mood.

ICM, on the other hand, had up to now always put Remain ahead, never crediting it with less than 52% support (though, equally, never more than 55%). So its latest reading of 50% represents a departure from the company’s past record. But as ever in these circumstances, we have to be wary of placing too much weight on one poll. We now need to see whether the apparent narrowing of the referendum race is replicated by subsequent polls. ICM’s latest reading could still just be a consequence of the random variation to which all polls are subject.

Still, even if the race has not necessarily narrowed further since September, the latest Survation poll does provide us with evidence on whether the race may well have been closer throughout the autumn than it was during the summer. Establishing whether or not that is the case is difficult because the wording of the question on referendum voting intention included in most polls changed when the government agreed at the end of the summer to alter the wording of the question on the referendum ballot paper. This has made it difficult to be sure whether the fact that collectively the polls conducted since September have pointed to a narrower race than did those in the summer was a reflection of a real change in the public mood or was simply a consequence of the change of wording.

However, the latest Survation poll includes a question on referendum voting intention that the company also asked in July. It reveals that whereas on that occasion 39% said they would definitely vote to stay in the EU regardless of the outcome of the renegotiations, now only 35% say that is the case. Conversely, the proportion indicating that they propose to vote to leave, come what may, is up from 30% to 33%. Given also the evidence from YouGov’s Eurotrack series (which continues to ask the same question about referendum voting intentions that it has asked ever since 2012) that consistently put Remain well ahead in the summer but  has barely been able to separate the two sides during the autumn, it appears that the fact that the race has looked rather narrower since September is more than just a methodological artefact. Some may well attribute that change to the migrant crisis that was at its height in late summer and early autumn – and certainly the latest Survation poll reports that as many as 46% say that the crisis has made them more likely to vote to leave, while just 10% indicate that it has made them more likely to vote to remain.

So while the race may not be closer now than it was in September, it may well be tighter than it was during the sunny days of summer, shortly after Mr Cameron secured his unexpected overall majority. Meanwhile, perhaps the key figure to take from Survation’s poll is that nearly a third of voters (31%) say that they will consider changing their mind once they know the outcome of the renegotiation. That is consistent with evidence from YouGov’s most recent poll, which reported that 35% of those who said they would vote for Remain or Leave might, however, change their minds. All in all, given his stated preference to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, there is every reason why the Prime Minister should want the renegotiations to go well.

Mr Cameron has set out four objectives for the renegotiations – to ensure Eurozone members cannot dictate to non-members, to reduce business regulation, to secure an opt-out from a commitment to an ‘ever closer Union’ together with a greater say in EU decision making for national parliaments, and making the UK a less attractive destination for EU migrants. According to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, the talks are on course to reach agreement on the first three of those objectives – but are struggling to resolve the fourth. Alas, for Mr Cameron it is the fourth that matters most to voters.

Nearly every poll that has asked people what they most want from the renegotiations has found that the interlinked issues of immigration and welfare benefits are at the top of voters’ priorities. For example, BMG recently found that 52% reckoned it was ‘very important’ that Britain should get ‘the right to cut immigration from EU countries while the same proportion also gave the same response in respect of ‘reducing the right of workers from the EU to claim welfare benefits’. None of Mr Cameron’s other objectives were regarded as ‘very important’ by more than 44%. Equally, when YouGov invited their respondents to choose up to three objectives that they would like Mr Cameron to achieve, 52% picked gaining greater control over our borders and 48% limiting welfare benefits for EU migrants. No other item was selected by more than 29%.

Indeed, the latest Survation poll suggests that the issue of immigration has come to matter even more in the minds of potentially floating voters. Back in July, amongst those who either said they did not know how they would vote or else stated that they might consider switching on the basis of the renegotiations just under a quarter (24%) felt that the argument that was most likely to persuade them to vote to leave was that ‘leaving is the only way we can control our borders and set our own immigration policy’. Now that figure has increased to as much as 38%, 20 points above the figure for any other objective. And while this argument is particularly popular amongst those who are already inclined to leave (49% of whom consider it the most persuasive argument) it also appeals to no less than 37% of those who do not know how they will vote and 26% of those currently inclined to vote to remain.

Mr Cameron’s answer to the frosty response that his welfare proposals have received from other EU governments appears to be to seek other ways in which the flow of migrants into the UK might be stemmed. This, however, is to assume that voters only want to limit EU migrants’ access to welfare because it might help reduce immigration. However, restricting welfare benefits is popular even when the idea is not linked to the issue of immigration, suggesting that voters may well feel that this step should be taken anyway.

Moreover, while those who wish to leave the EU are especially concerned to see the UK gain greater control over immigration, according to YouGov at least those who say they are inclined to vote to remain are just likely to regard limiting access to welfare as a priority as they are controlling immigration. Mr Cameron is going to have to negotiate hard if his fourth objective is not to prove his undoing.

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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