As the starting gun fires on the European Union (EU) referendum, polling shows that the two sides are almost level pegging, with Leave edging just ahead on 38 per cent against 37 per cent for Remain, while a full quarter of the electorate have yet to make up their minds.
The result – the first since the Prime Minister David Cameron concluded his renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU – suggests that Mr Cameron’s ‘Project Fear’ is working, as support for Leave has slipped seven points since the beginning of February, YouGov has found in a poll for The Times.
Yet while the scare tactics may be eroding support for leaving the union, they aren’t convincing people to vote to remain: support for remaining in increased by just one per cent, while a further three per cent said they simply weren’t going to vote at all. Another three per cent said they were now unsure about which way to vote, leaving the field wide open for either campaign to make take sizeable ground.
Mr Cameron has also made much of the deal he struck with his fellow European leaders over the terms of Britain’s membership, in particular the ‘emergency brake’ on in-work benefits for migrants which he says will limit benefits paid out to migrants from within the EU for seven years.
Research by Migration Watch shows that promise to be all but meaningless as very few EU migrants receive significant in-work benefits, as Breitbart London reported this morning. Those who do stand to lose benefits will be more than compensated for any loss by the coming rise in minimum wage.
However, the British people appear to have been one step ahead on this issue: 49 per cent said they think changes to benefits will make no real difference to the number of people coming to the UK, while a further 24 per cent said they thought the change would only reduce the numbers coming “a little”. Just eight per cent thought the brake would significantly reduce immigration.
Yet it is not all good news for the Remain campaign: just 17 per cent of respondents said that immigration was the most important factor in deciding how to vote, making it the third most popular factor.
One in three nationally said they would primarily be looking at “which is likely to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries.” That was the most popular answer everywhere except in London, where more people were concerned with what the vote would mean for jobs and the economy.
Overall 34 per cent thought that Mr Cameron’s deal constitutes a significant change, whereas 45 per cent said it did not.
Drilling down into the demographics shows a geographical divide across Britain, with Scotland and London being the only two regions in which the majority of people want to remain within the Union. With the ‘don’t knows’ excluded, Scotland is by far the most pro-EU area, with two in three wanting to stay in. London is rather more evenly split; 54 per cent of Londoners who have made up their minds want to stay in the Union.
Conversely, the Midlands and Wales are the most keen to exit the bloc, with 57 per cent of those in the region who have made up their minds declaring they want to leave.
Age is also a strong determining factor in how people are opting to vote, with young people in particular overwhelmingly coming out in favour of remaining within the Union. Among those who declared a preference, fully three quarters of 18-24 year olds are planning to vote to remain. However, as always, young people are the least likely to vote – one in ten 18-24 year olds don’t intend to vote at all. At the other end of the scale, two thirds of those aged 65 and over are planning to vote to leave.
Questions have been raised over how accurate polls such as these actually are, following the failure of the pollsters to correctly predict the results of both the Scottish referendum in 2014, and the General Election in May last year.
In light of those failures, YouGov have introduced some changes to the way the results are weighted, including dropping weighting by newspaper readership and replacing it with weighting by highest education qualification and the level of attendance paid to politics. It has also begun to weight voting intention figures by likelihood to vote in all polls, not just general elections, and has down-weighted respondents who did not vote at the last election.
A spokesman for YouGov said: “If there are lessons to be learnt from the polls last May, it’s that [the polls] are not infallible, and sometimes it’s the underlying questions that are a more useful pointer to the final result.
“Historically polls three or four months ahead of a referendum have not been a good predictor at all – voting intention in referendums can move fast. However the underlying questions in our polling shows that ‘remain’ has some notable advantages – leaving the EU is seen as bad for jobs, bad for British influence, bad for the economy.
“Above all, remaining is seen as the safe option, leaving is seen as increasingly risky. And in our experiments we found a much higher ‘potential vote’ for remain than for leave. If we had to make a prediction based on our current data, we would expect the poll to end up moving towards ‘remain’.”