The EU referendum debate shows no sign of abating. Remainers wait to be proved right about the terrible consequences, while Leavers are anxious to exit before the democratic will is frustrated by Sir Humphrey or a political stitch-up. To see where we are going, we must understand where we are coming from. Compared to a bland Radio 4 documentary on why we voted Brexit, I was impressed by an analysis by Michael Mosbacher and Oliver Wiseman in Standpoint, which debunked various myths about the referendum verdict. Having campaigned for Leave, and spoken to hundreds of people on the High Street, I agreed with everything Mosbacher and Wiseman wrote.
For example, the heavily-criticised £350 million per week emblazoned on Boris and Gove’s battle bus was a tactical success, however dubious the amount. The purpose was to highlight the vast sums of money we send to Brussels, and to lure their opponents into a trap. Since the referendum, Remainers continually argue that the result was invalidated by this ‘lie’. Yet they did not present their own figure, which suggests something to hide. Do the losers really believe that if a more accurate figure of around £250 million had been used (taking account of our rebate), that many people would have voted differently?
My only point of contention with Mosbacher and Wiseman is on the Jo Cox murder. They state that this tragedy had no significant influence on the vote seven days later. Indeed, the sadly deceased MP’s own constituency voted to Leave, despite her vociferous pro-EU stance. But the effect of the killing on the referendum campaign was palpable.
On 15th June, I was in high spirits. Walking home, I met a fellow campaigner, who stopped to chat while leafleting. The shift towards Leave seemed to be gaining momentum, with only a week left. Minutes later, switching on the radio, I felt the news from Yorkshire like an electric shock. It was immediately obvious that this awful incident would be used against the Brexit campaign, and that we would all be tarnished as nasty misanthropes, in stark contrast to the saintly benevolence of a young female Labour politician who had committed herself to the plight of Syrian refugees. Hope or hate would be the simplistic choice for voters.
No decent person would suggest that the Cox murder was planned, but undoubtedly it was a boon to the Remain side. However, Mosbacher and Wiseman believe that the swing back to Remain in the opinion polls on that last weekend was merely the tendency to revert to the status quo as polling day looms. Newspaper headlines, notably the Mail on Sunday, showed a sudden shift from an average Leave lead of two points to a ten-point advantage for Remain. The confidence of Leavers was shattered, and many were openly accepting defeat.
Campaigning was suspended for two days, and when we returned to the stall on the Sunday, I was downhearted. But talking to ordinary people in the precinct, I saw most dramatically the chasm that has emerged between the politically correct way of thinking presented on the BBC and how the hoi polloi really think. The murder certainly had impact, but instead of changing voting intentions, it was making Leave voters more reticent. As it had become less socially acceptable to be anti-EU, they were keeping their opinion to themselves. This was a marked change from the previous week, and explains the considerable change in opinion polls.
Social desirability is a well-known phenomenon in politics, and although opinion pollsters try to allow for this, they have seriously underestimated its increasing influence. With the censorial norms of social media and the rise of identity politics, few people will give their candid views on a topic such as immigration on Facebook, as they would risk being verbally abused and ostracised. The reflexive behaviour is cautious, and not to divulge thoughts that could get one into trouble. Honesty is reserved for trusted relationships, or the ballot box.
Recent elections have shown the widening gap between the debate in public space (on and offline), and the actual verdict. In a tight contest, the side that is deemed more politically correct is burdened by exaggerated support. Not only does social desirability underestimate the opposing side, it also causes complacency. This is particularly when an apparently winning side is backed by young people, who are least likely to bother with visiting the polling station. In the Scottish independence referendum, turnout was extremely high, but there were areas such as Glasgow with strong Yes voting intentions but lower than average voting. In the general election of 2015, the pollsters failed to account sufficiently for the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon, and were suckers for people giving socially acceptable answers. Those who really favoured Labour, meanwhile, were least likely to exercise their democratic duty.
Social desirability is a handicap to the apparently favoured side. In public, citizens may be swayed by cultural forces to indicate their support for the EU or for parties of the Left, but voting is private. By now it should be evident that internet communication is a flawed indicator of electoral outcomes, and that social bubbles cause lack of awareness and a severe shock to the side that thought they were so right. I guess that among the 17.4 million Leavers were many a schoolteacher, university lecturer or student, and perhaps the leader of a major political party.
(Image: Garry Knight)