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23 June 2016

The EU referendum: Four questions I wish I knew the answer to

The known unknowns in the referendum contest. 

By Stephen Bush

Are the markets right after all? Both the bookies and the stock exchanges are buoyant as Britain votes on whether to stay or leave the European Union, as are all of the country’s pollsters. Peter Kellner, the respected former journalist and pollster, believes that Remain will win.

What’s going to happen? My instinct is that we’ll leave, but to be honest, I’m sufficiently invested in the result that I could just be preparing myself for the calamity that I think a Brexit vote would be.

What I do know for certain are the questions I wish I knew the answers to.

I don’t know how accurate the polls are

Just over a year ago, the pollsters called the general election catastrophically wrong. The possibility remains that the changes made since then have failed to fix the problem. They got London broadly right but London is ripe with groups that are easy to poll – the young, the well-educated, and the politically engaged. They overestimated the SNP’s performance slightly, which, in a close election, could indicate that the big Remain vote that pro-Europeans need out of Scotland might be smaller than advertised.

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Just as with the general election – where voters said that they didn’t want Ed Miliband in Downing Street but would vote Labour – the headline numbers and the underlying numbers are contradictory. IpsosMori’s latest is a case in point: a strong lead for Remain at the top, but concern over immigration and the European Union at record highs.

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I don’t know what turnout will be

Broadly, a moderately high turnout (say 60 per cent all the way up to 80 per cent) is good for Remain, and anything below 45 is good for Leave. On a low turnout, the preferences of the elderly and the devout are exaggerated – in this contest, both those groups aid Leave. But on a very high turnout, more people on a low income will vote than they usually do – which helps Leave.

My instinct is that the past tends to be a good guide to the future. Following that line, since turnout in the 1975 European referendum was ten points below the 1974 general elections, this time we’ll have a turnout of 55 per cent, which ought not to tilt the contest one way or the other.

Or, just as importantly, where turnout will be

There’s a big “but” here, which is that it may be that turnout is wildly uneven in the country. As I write in this week’s NS, it feels to me that support for Remain feels more like an identity in and of itself, while support for Leave is the result of other identities that feel beleaguered for one reason or another.

In Scotland, in the run-up to the referendum, you could tell that turnout was going to be high just from the conversations around you. The only places that I’ve been that have got close to that are in places that are enclaves of pro-European sentiment.

I wouldn’t be shocked if turnout is very high indeed in areas that trend Remain and lower in areas that trend Leave. But equally, those pro-Remain areas have a tendency to vote less than the elderly, Leave’s ace in the hole.

I don’t know what the status quo is

The status quo tends to overperform the final polls in referendums, although the dataset is fairly limited so it is hard to tell.

But here’s the question: what’s the status quo in this referendum? Do the elderly – yes, them, again – see membership of the European Union not as the status quo but a prolonged experiment? It could be that the late rally history teaches us to expect in the ballot box comes not for Remain but for Leave.