The Stalemate Continues

Posted on 11 May 2016 by John Curtice

The local and devolved elections on May 5th have come and gone, and so (apart from a by-election for Sadiq Khan’s former parliamentary seat of Tooting on June 16th) the political world can focus its mind exclusively on the EU referendum.

Not that polls of voting intentions in the EU referendum stopped appearing in the run up to the elections. Five Britain-wide polls of EU vote intentions were published in the days immediately before May 5th, while another two appeared not long after the counting of the election ballots was completed.

All of these polls shared one crucial characteristic. They were all done over the internet, and, as regular readers will be well aware, polls done that way have long painted a more optimistic picture for the Leave side than have those done over the phone. Indeed, once Don’t Knows were set aside, this latest clutch of polls on average put Leave neck and neck with Remain on 50% each (and these are currently the figures in our poll of polls). None of these polls have identified anything more than a two point swing in either direction as compared with when they were previously conducted, and a swing of that size can simply a consequence of the chance variation to which all polls are subject. Thus it is not surprising to discover that the average figures in these polls of Remain 50%, Leave 50% are exactly in line with the average for all internet polls conducted this year.

Most of these recent polls contained few if any additional questions, and those that they did carry uncovered little that was new. Immigration emerged as still the key issue for the Leave campaign, while the economy continues to be the main foundation underpinning support for Remain, a dichotomy that helps to explain the continuing stalemate.

Thus, for example, ICM in a poll for the Sun on Sunday found that while 74% of Leave voters regard immigration as one of the two or three most important issues in the campaign, only 18% of Remain supporters take that view. Conversely, the same poll reported that 57% of Remain supporters regard the economy as one of the key issues, compared with just 16% of Leave backers.

Equally, Ipsos MORI (in an online poll for Unbound Philanthropy in which the balance of support for Remain and Leave was not explicitly reported, but which appears to be 52% for Remain and 48% for Leave) found that 66% believe the number of EU immigrants coming to the UK would decrease if we left the EU, while only 9% feel that it will increase. Meanwhile, Opinium (for The Observer) found that 38% believe the economy would better if Britain remains in the EU, while only 29% reckon it would be better if we left.

Thus the crucial question is whether either side can break this apparent stalemate now that the campaign enters its most intense phase  – and, of course, which set of polls, those conducted by phone or those conducted over the internet, is the more accurate. On the latter issue, it is perhaps worth noting that none of the polls conducted reasonably close to polling day in either London or in Wales, all of which were conducted via the internet, managed to underestimate UKIP support. (In Scotland, at 2%, UKIP’s support was so low it was almost impossible to underestimate.) That may well be regarded by the advocates of phone polling, such as Danny Finkelstein in The Times, as evidence that those polls done via the internet are also overestimating support for Leave. But then no company put a phone poll to the same tough test on May 5th.

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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