Why the In-Out referendum is so difficult to predict

At first glance, the psychology favours the status quo - but In has a tricky fight on its hand. 

NS

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There are two mindsets that matter in politics.  The first is voters’: occasionally engaged, knowing few details and using quick heuristics to make snap judgements.  The second is politicos’: personally invested and steeped in detailed reasons why only their tribe is right.  The European referendum is the most unpredictable political question in this Parliament.  Everything I know about voters makes me think that Britain will stay.  But look at things from the perspective of the politicos involved and the pro-EU fight looks anything but easy.

 Start at the top.  The “Remain” campaign will be led by people, like David Cameron, who have spent much of their political lives criticising the European Union.  That background should help them persuade those crucial swing voters who don’t love the EU but aren’t committed to leaving.  The “Out” campaign will have less luck finding respected pro-Europeans who’ve decided that the benefits of leaving are now overwhelming. 

Yet these ex-Eurosceptic endorsers are not going to find it easy to participate in the pro-EU campaign, let alone lead it.  Last week, the “In” campaign were quickly rebuked when they claimed that Sajid Javid had said something pro-European.  Yet at some point in the next eighteen months, I suspect that Javid is going to be asked by David Cameron to stand next to a poster warning against leaving the EU.  Psychologists use reaction speeds to measure underlying associations: if you think dogs are dirty, you should take longer to put them in the same category as soap. The years of Euroscepticism that are such an advantage in these Conservative “In” campaigners are also going to be a huge psychological encumbrance that literally slows down the pro-European campaign.

Outside the eurosceptic right, the in-campaign has another potential advantage: generally speaking, “In” represents a broader coalition than “Out”.  “In” will have the bulk of both main parties, business representatives, trade union leaders and many more.  “Out” will be drawn more heavily from a few, narrower, groups.  Voters’ “extremeness aversion” may make them reluctant to place themselves outside the bigger tent.

But if Sajid Javid will struggle to say nice things about Europe, that’s as nothing compared to the painful contortions it will take for Labour’s frontbench to praise whatever renegotiation David Cameron reaches in Europe.  All their instincts will make these pro-Europeans desperate to echo the “Out” campaign’s key message that any renegotiation is sham.  Having opposed the referendum, there will always be something dissonant about devoting all your energies to participating in it.

So despite the support of most people in both major parties on paper, the “In” campaign is likely to be reluctant: not just offering grudging support for the European Union, but providing grudging support for its own position in the debate.  The “out” campaign will have none of those doubts.

The campaign to stay in will, inevitably, focus on the risks of leaving. There’s a wealth of evidence from behavioural economics suggesting that this will work. Unless the gains are dramatic or the situation deteriorating, the risk of losing weighs more heavily with people than the potential of winning.  The positive case against sticking your fingers in the electric socket isn’t really that necessary.  But there will be few spine-tingling speeches to applaud or be applauded for and plenty of grumbling editorials vaguely demanding something more interesting to write about.  The “In” campaign will be constantly under pressure to shift to a less effective frame and make a case that feels good to articulate, rather than one that moves votes.

The referendum will take a long time.  The issues will feel less immediate than during a general election.  While a close race may keep a lot of people interested, this isn’t going to be a voter-friendly experience. Towards the end of a close parliamentary by-election, canvassers from all parties sometimes face a surprisingly angry electorate, sick of being pestered about an election that won’t change their lives.  Half the country may feel the same by the time the referendum comes around.  But the politicos of the “Out” campaign will be in their element.  They will have the advantage of sheer interest in the subject matter that many of the “In” campaign will never be able to match.

If the vote looks like it will be close, the risks of exit will start to seem very real.  But suppose the “In” campaign achieves a poll lead of over ten points. The risks of exit will diminish and so the temptation will grow to just stick two fingers up at David Cameron or Jean-Claude Juncker.  So it’s hard to see how any substantial “In” poll lead can be sustained, without creating the corrective pressures that will bring that poll lead back to a point when exit becomes a realistic risk again. 

This is perfectly logical from a voters’ perspective, where a one vote margin is all that is really needed to stay in the EU, and every additional vote on top of that is an unnecessary pat on the back for some undesirable politicians.  But for the politicos, if there is an ounce of interpretability in the result, the game continues.  That makes the long term result – stay, leave, continue to fret about the question for another five years – so difficult to predict.