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Message to referendum demanders: Careful what you wish for!

🕔22.Jan 2013

“So this is it … This is just what I wished for; just isn’t how I envisioned it. I just thought the shit’d be different.” OK, they were broadly my reactions to last year’s mayoral referendum, but they’re also the opening lyrics of Eminem’s rap, ‘Careful What You Wish For’ – a warning pinched, possibly unknowingly, from Aristotle’s story of King Midas, who was delighted by his ability to turn everything he touched into gold, until he sat down for a celebratory meal and eventually died of starvation.

And this relates to what exactly? To David Cameron’s much delayed speech on Europe, and Nikki Sinclaire’s Chamberlain Files blog, dissing the PM’s expected call for renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU and ‘demanding’ instead a binding in/out referendum asap –

Ms Sinclaire is one of our West Midlands MEPs, representing originally UKIP and now her new ‘We Demand a Referendum’ party, and it is presumably her belief that the preponderant view of the British electorate has turned against our EU membership and that her wished-for referendum result would be a decisive, or decisive enough, ‘Out’. I won’t repeat Eminem’s more colourful language, but I do wonder if the outcome might in fact be rather different.

My case is based on two injunctions that at first sight may seem contradictory: (1) look at the opinion polls; (2) remember referendums aren’t opinion polls.

Last summer the polls showed that, asked how they would vote in a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, most respondents, even an overall majority, said they’d vote to leave. The most recent, identically worded, YouGov poll reported – if rather quietly, in this week’s Murdoch-owned Sunday Times – that just 34% would vote to leave, and 40% to remain. True, this is the first YouGov poll in recent times  actually to have found a plurality in favour of staying, but the mini-trend in the past several polls has been unmistakeable: those for leaving falling from 51% in November, to 46% and 42% in January, to this week’s 34%.

Of course, opinion polls are snapshots at specific points in time and could easily move as quickly in the reverse direction – even, in principle, during the course of a referendum campaign. Actual referendum votes, however, are very different from hypothetical opinion poll responses, and there are good reasons for doubting the likelihood of such a dramatic reversal on this particular issue.

First, such a reversal would represent a rarity in referendums generally. It’s not an iron law, but in most referendums, over history and around the world, as voting day comes nearer, the status quo comes to seem relatively more attractive to more voters. This would seem especially likely on an issue which, for many voters, if not campaigners, is more about what they don’t like about being in the EU, rather than about the positive benefits they think either they themselves or the country will actually gain by leaving – and when they’re warned of the potential economic and political costs, as they’re already being, by everyone from local business leaders to the US President.

Second, all this becomes that much more likely, if the referendum takes place after a period of negotiation in which the PM can at least claim that he has protected Britain’s interests and achieved an improved membership deal. Even last summer a plurality of respondents was prepared to stay under those conditions (42% against 34% for leaving) – just as their predecessors were in the June 1975 referendum.

In the autumn of 1974, most voters told opinion pollsters that they wanted out of what was then the Common Market. The Labour Government embarked on a renegotiation process, a majority of a split Cabinet supported the renegotiated terms, Prime Minister Harold Wilson headed the ‘Yes’ campaign, claiming the new terms represented a much improved deal for Britain, and achieved a 2 to 1 majority in favour of staying.

So my guess, for what it’s worth, is that, if David Cameron were to offer a ‘renegotiation then referendum’ package, he could win the eventual vote to stay that he is presumed to want. Whether he wants to face the internal party vituperation and protracted national and international uncertainty that such an offer would bring with it is another question.

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