The referendum rollercoaster

The uncertainty is stress-testing the British elite and the rest of the world, which is looking on helplessly at the results

Since the beginning of the referendum campaign, the Remain and Leave camps have been neck-and-neck, with little movement in the polls. But now a new sense of urgency has entered the race. Less than two weeks before polling day, the British referendum has become a rollercoaster ride for both campaigns.

Three weeks ago, the Remain camp was in a funk. They had thrown in everything they could – Barack Obama, the International Monetary Fund, the governor of the Bank of England. But the polls did not shift. A week later, the Remainers came out on top: a series of telephone polls showed a clear lead in favour of staying in. The lead was so large that some people worried it would suppress turnout.

Now the conventional wisdom has swung the other way. Three new opinion polls show that the Leave camp is surging ahead: ICM has Leave winning with 48 percent (against 43 percent for Remain); a YouGov poll finds a 45 percent majority for Leave (41 percent for Remain); and TNS shows Leave winning by two percentage points. 

With the changes in the polls, volatility has returned to the currency market – sterling volatility is breaking levels not seen since the financial crisis. The uncertainty is stress-testing the British elite and the rest of the world, which is looking on helplessly at the results.

The two campaigns are not engaging head on. The Leave side has decided to focus the national debate on immigration. It is not even trying to fight on economic grounds: the co-chair of the Leave campaign committee, Michael Gove, would not name a single expert who thought that Britain’s economy would benefit from leaving.

With the changes in the polls, volatility has returned to the currency market – sterling volatility is breaking levels not seen since the financial crisis.

The focus on immigration is surprising given the way the official Leave campaign was born. When it became clear that a referendum was to be held, a bitter fight emerged between the two main factions on the Leave side. The UKIP-led Leave.eu, which wanted to run a Brexit campaign around the theme of immigration and closed borders, stood opposite Vote Leave, a group led by a largely Tory Eurosceptic elite that was keen to project a message of economic competence and internationalism. Vote Leave worried that an angry nativist campaign dominated by UKIP leader Nigel Farage would repel more voters than it attracted and create a “purple ceiling” to the Brexit vote – limiting the campaign’s appeal to UKIP voters rather than the general public.

Vote Leave, and with it the more moderate Tory Eurosceptics, eventually won the official designation, making Boris Johnson and Gove the leaders of the campaign rather than Farage. But the irony is that not long afterwards, they started to wage a UKIP-like campaign instead of the moderate one they had seemed to want. Johnson claimed that Obama was against Britain because of his Kenyan roots; he accused the European Union of being like Nazi Germany; and he wrote a poem about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s love of goats. The campaign’s messaging has focused relentlessly on scare stories about immigration, including manufactured stories about Turkey joining the EU and 12 million Turks coming to the UK. The label may be Vote Leave – but the tactics are Leave.eu.

The Remain camp meanwhile is desperately trying to steer the debate back to the economy, focusing on the benefits of the single market and the danger Brexit would pose to jobs and the economy.

To understand the logic of the campaigns, it is crucial to understand the sociology of British EU support and scepticism. The country is split into roughly three segments. One-third is in favour of staying in the EU. This group lives predominantly in London, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, its members often hold university degrees and are younger and more cosmopolitan than the average voter. The second segment favours leaving the EU. They tend to be older, not as well educated, and live predominantly outside London. The final third is undecided. It unites different groups such as older women – who would like to leave the EU in their hearts but worry about a leap into the unknown – and disaffected younger voters.

The Leave side’s immigration scare campaign is a core vote campaign. Its aim is to mobilise as many as possible of the one-third of the population who favour Out. Remain is running a campaign geared towards winning over swing voters. Their messaging about economic risks is designed to sow doubts in the minds of the head-over-heart voters, rather than to mobilise core votes. The aim is to expand the constituency and maximise turnout.

While polling does not favour Remain at the moment, there are two structural elements that give the Remain side hope. Research on the last six referendums in Britain has shown that in the last weeks before the election there is a swing back to the status quo option. This means that in order to win, the Leave option needs a decent lead so that they can withstand this last minute change of heart. Hence, even given the current lead of Leave, a Remain victory is still likely – if the turnout is high enough.

Turnout is the second structural element that could help the Remain camp. UKIP’s core vote strategy was devastatingly effective in the European elections where the turnout was only 35.6 percent. The great unknown about the referendum is about how high the turnout is going to be among different groups. The 1975 referendum may serve as a yardstick: at that time, there was a 65 percent turnout – roughly 9 percent less than the turnout in the October 1974 general election. Turnout in the 2015 general election was 66 percent, which means that if history repeats itself we could expect a turnout of 57 percent this year. Polling also suggests that people take this vote quite seriously. And if there is a high turnout, the swing voters will matter as well as the core.

A German version of this article has been published by Falter magazine.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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