On Thursday 23 June 2016, the UK will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union. In this Just the Facts, which is part of a series European Movement Ireland is producing on the forthcoming referendum, we examine the shifting attitudes in opinion polls since the UK-EU negotiations in February, and the key role that turnout is likely to play in the overall result.
Opinion polls have shown fluctuating support between the Leave and Remain sides since they began in September 2010, but the gap has been narrowing in the months since negotiation of the UK-EU deal in February and more so since the beginning of the official campaign period in April. The general trend, however, leans towards Remain, which polls at 46% overall according to a Financial Times poll of polls last published on 30 May 2016.
February 2016: The UK-EU negotiation settlement
In February 2016, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, negotiated a “new settlement” deal with the EU, which listed new arrangements that would be made should the UK vote to Remain a member of the EU.
Following the reform deal, the date of the EU referendum was announced as 23 June. Around this time, the gap between Leave and Remain narrowed considerably. In a YouGov poll of 3,482 adults taken immediately after the deal, support for a Leave vote had fallen from 45% earlier in February to 38%, almost meeting Remain, which rose one point to 37%. A Comres poll of 1,000 adults taken for the Daily Mail around the same time found Remain leading by 12 points, with 51% compared to 39% support for Leave. However, this was a drop of 6 points since the previous Comres poll taken in January.
April 2016: President Obama visits the UK
Polls generally leaned towards Remain until the end of April. On 22 April, the US President, Barack Obama, on a trip to the UK, encouraged a Remain vote and gave a speech in which he dismissed the idea that the UK could easily negotiate a trading agreement with the US after a ‘Brexit’. While his involvement garnered much response, there was no noticeable boost for Remain in the polls.
An ICM online poll taken from 22-24 April found that 46% were in favour of leaving the EU, compared to 44% who supported remaining. When non-voters and undecided voters were excluded, this number changed to 51% versus 49% respectively. The poll also showed that Leave supporters were hardening their resolve, with 80% being absolutely certain they would vote, up from 75% in April.
An online poll taken for The Independent by ORB from 27-29 April showed that the camps were split 50-50, but when weighted for respondents’ likelihood to vote on referendum day, Leave rose to 51% while Remain fell to 49%. Additionally, 46% of those polled agreed that leaving the EU carried with it more risks than benefits, while 19% said they didn’t know. Only 23% agreed that President Obama’s speech had made a difference to their voting intention.
May 2016: The economy becomes the key issue
The Remain side regained its traction throughout May. Between 14-16 May, Ipsos MORI carried out a telephone poll which showed that the economy had become the key issue for voters. On balance, it also found that British voters believed that the economy would be worse off in the years following a Brexit, but better off in the long term. When asked whether they thought a Brexit would be better or worse for the economy over the next five years, 49% said worse, 26% said better, and 15% said it would make no difference. When the time period was extended to the next 10-20 years, 35% said they thought the economy would be worse, compared to 39% who thought it would be better and 11% who thought it would make no difference. These figures were supported by a ComRes telephone poll for the Daily Mail and ITV News taken from 14-17 May, which found that 55% said that the economy is one of three top factors influencing their decision on how to vote, up from 38% in February.
A telephone poll taken by Survation on 24 May asked to what extent respondents agreed or disagreed that the UK leaving the EU would lead to an economic recession, as Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had recently stated. Of those respondents who had indicated that they would vote to Leave, only 1% ‘completely agreed’ with the statement compared to 10% of those who had indicated that they would vote to Remain.
Nevertheless, polls have not remained static. ICM took two polls for the Guardian from 27-30 May using different methodologies – one online and one by telephone. Both indicated a lead for the Leave campaign. The telephone poll showed 42% in favour of remaining versus 45% in favour of leaving, while the online poll indicated 44% for Remain and 47% for Leave. When the undecided respondents were excluded, both polls resulted in the same figure – 52% in favour of leaving the EU and 48% in favour of remaining a member. The previous telephone poll taken by ICM/Guardian on 16 May had indicated a 10-point lead for Remain when undecided respondents were excluded. The findings of the most recent poll suggest a shift towards leaving the EU, despite warnings from UK government officials about the economic consequences of doing so.
The poll figures are not necessarily a clear indication of the final result. Turnout is expected to be an important element, with the deciding factors likely to be age and the degree to which older people are more likely to vote than younger people.
In an online poll conducted by BMG from 20-25 May, Leave was on 45% compared to Remain on 44%. The poll showed a strong generational divide, with 61% of 18-24 year olds in favour of remaining in the EU and 21% in favour of leaving. Meanwhile, 32% of those aged 65 and over say they will vote to Remain, whilst 61% indicate they will vote to Leave.
Polls show that older people are more likely to vote, and specifically to vote to Leave. In the BMG poll, 80% of those aged 65 and over said they would definitely vote if the EU referendum was held the next day, compared to 47% of those aged 18-24. Additionally, 13% of 18-24 year olds said they definitely won’t vote, while only 7% of those aged 65 and over said the same.