Recent polls are overall veering towards but not decisively towards a ‘Remain’ win in the referendum. It is important that those wanting to leave the EU should not get downhearted. There are still the TV debates to come which will expose the often hypocritical and always vacuous positions those advocating a vote to remain will, of necessity, have to put forward because they have no hard facts to support their position. All they can offer is a catalogue of ever more wondrously improbable disasters they claim will happen if Brexit occurs, everything from the collapse of the world economy to World War III. The only things they have not predicted are a giant meteorite hitting Earth and wiping out the human race or, to entice the religious inclined vote, the coming of the end of days.
There are other signs which should hearten the ‘Leave’ camp. There appears little doubt that those who intend to vote to leave will on average be more likely to turn out to vote than those who want to remain. This is partly because older voters favour Brexit more than younger voters and older voters are much more likely to turn out and actually vote. But there is also the question of what people are voting for. Leaving to become masters in our own house is a positive message. There is nothing positive about the ‘Remain’ side’s blandishments. A positive message is always more likely to energise people to act than a negative one. Moreover, what the ‘Remain’ side are saying directly or by implication is that at best they have no confidence in their own country and at worst they want Britain to be in the EU to ensure that it is emasculated as a nation state because they disapprove of nation states. Such a stance will make even those tending towards voting to remain to perhaps either not vote or to switch to voting leave.
What should we make of the polls?
Leaving aside the question of how accurate they are, it is interesting that the polls which are showing strongest for a vote to remain are the telephone polls. Those conducted online tend to produce a close result, often half and half on either side. Some have the Leave side ahead. On the face of things this is rather odd because traditional polling wisdom has it that online polls will tend to favour younger people for the obvious reason that the young are much more likely be comfortable living their lives online than older people. Even if online polls are chosen to represent a balanced sample including age composition, the fact that older people are generally not so computer savvy means that any sample used with older people is unlikely to represent older generally, whereas the part of the polling audience which is young can be made to represent the younger part of the population because almost all of the young use digital technology without thinking.
It is likely that the older people who contribute to online polls are richer and better educated on average than the old as a group. But that brings its own problem for the ‘Remain’ side because another article of faith amongst pollsters is that the better educated and richer you are the more likely you are to vote to remain in the EU. Moreover, if the samples are properly selected for both online and phone polls, why should there be such a difference? Frankly, I have my doubts about samples being properly selected because there are severe practical problems when it comes to identifying the people who will make a representative sample. Polling companies also weight their results which must at the least introduce an element of subjectivity. Then there is also the panel effect where pollsters use panels made up of people they have vetted and decided are panel material. Pollsters admit all these difficulties. You can find the pollster YouGov’s defence of such practices and how they supposedly overcome their difficulties here.
The performance of pollsters in recent years has been underwhelming. It could be that their polling on the referendum is badly wrong. That could be down to the problems detailed in the previous paragraph, but it could also be how human beings respond to different forms of polling. Pollsters have been caught out by the “silent Tory” phenomenon whereby voters are unwilling to say they intend to vote Tory much more often than voters for other parties such as Labour and the LibDems are unwilling to admit they will be voting for those parties. It could be that there are “silent Brexiteer” voters who refuse to admit to wanting to vote to leave the EU, while there are no or very few corresponding “silent Remain” voters. This could explain why Internet polls show more Brexit voters than phone or face-to-face polls. If a voter is speaking to a pollster, especially if they are in the physical company of the pollster, the person will feel they are being judged by the person asking the questions. If they think their way of voting is likely to be disapproved of by the questioner because it is not the ‘right’ view, the person being questioned may well feel embarrassed if they say they are supporting a view which goes against what is promoted every day in the mainstream media as the ‘right’ view. The fact that the person asking the questions is also likely to come from the same general class as those who dominate the mainstream media heightens the likelihood of embarrassment on the part of those being questioned.
The “embarrassment factor” is a phenomenon which can be seen in the polling on contentious subjects generally. Take immigration as an example. People are terrified of being labelled as a racist. At the same time they are quite reasonably very anxious about the effects of mass immigration. They try to square the circle of their real beliefs with their fear of being labelled a racist – and it takes precious little for the cry of racist to go up these days – by seizing on reasons to object to mass immigration which they believe have been sanctioned as safe by those with power and influence. They might say that they are not against immigrants but they think that illegal immigrants should be sent home, or that the numbers of immigrants should be much reduced because of the pressure on schools, jobs, hospitals and housing. What they dare not say is that they object to immigration full stop because it changes the nature of their society.
There is an element of the fear of being called a racist in Brexit because a main, probably the primary issue for most of those wanting to vote to leave in the referendum is the control of borders. This means that saying you are for Brexit raises in the person’s mind a worry that this will be interpreted as racist at worst and “little Englanderish” at best.
There is a secondary reason why those being interviewed are nervous. The poll they are contributing to will not be just a single question, such as how do you intend to vote in the European referendum? There will be a range of questions which are designed to show things such as propensity to vote or which issues are the most important. Saying immigration control raises the problem of fear of being classified as racist, but there will be other issues which are nothing like as contentious on which the person being polled really does not have a coherent opinion. They will then feel a fear of being thought ignorant or stupid if they cannot explain lucidly why they feel this or that policy is important.
That leaves the question of why online polls show more for Brexit and phone or face-to-face-polls. I suggest this. Answering a poll online is impersonal. There is no sense of being immediately judged by another. The psychology is akin to going into a ballot booth and voting. This results in more honesty about voting to leave.
Part 2 of this feature will appear here later today.