WITH seven days to go until Britain votes on its EU destiny, what’s on the minds of the electorate?
Voter focus groups hosted by the Guardian last week in Brighton on the south coast and Knowsley on Merseyside suggest it’s all about immigration — and everyone is confused.
The group in Brighton involved 21- to 34-year-olds (and they were leaning towards remain), while the group in Knowsley had older voters, 45-65, favouring a vote to leave.
Carried out by research group Britain Thinks, the exercise saw voters share their hopes, fears and frustrations about the referendum campaign and the role of Brussels in British life — and they offered some startling insights. Here are 10 things we learned:
1. It’s all about immigration
Notwithstanding remain politicians’ careful efforts to construct an argument about the economy (David Cameron, George Osborne) or the risks to workers’ rights or the NHS of leaving the EU (Jeremy Corbyn), voters see immigration at the centre of the argument, whichever way they lean personally. “Immigration, that’s what everyone’s thinking about, whether they say so or not,” said one man in Knowsley. “Immigration is the first thing that seems to get mentioned. I saw it on the news, the radio,” said one of the Brighton women.
2. People are confused — and frustrated
“Confusing” was the most-used word when participants were asked to write down the first things that sprang to mind when they thought about the referendum. Asked to bring an object to symbolise the campaign so far, one woman in Brighton brought a pair of sunglasses, “to represent the fact I think people are covering things up”.
Far from being delighted at the opportunity to express their views on Europe at the ballot box, many of the participants felt frustrated or not well-informed enough to make a choice — and that applied even to those planning to vote leave. “I don’t think we should be having a referendum anyway. They only did it to hoover up the Ukip voters,” said one leaver.
3. Remain’s focus on the economy is not sticking
Remain’s central argument, that leaving the EU would hit the economy, jobs and living standards, has failed to feed through to the public. When questioned, many did acknowledge that leaving could be risky. “If we leave it’s the whole uncertainty thing — do we know, really, what’s going to happen?” one female remain leaner said. But most said they didn’t see how their own circumstances would be affected and indeed some said they had seen that house prices could fall, an idea the young voters of Brighton, at least, would welcome.
4. The £350m to Brussels claim is cutting through
In contrast, Vote Leave’s claim that Britain sends £350m a week to Brussels may have been disputed by experts — Labour’s Angela Eagle told Boris Johnson last week to “get that lie off your bus!” — but it cuts through with the public. Even the remainers were attracted to the poster spelling out the £350m a week argument, and connecting it to the cost of the NHS and schools, when presented with a selection of alternatives. Stronger In’s poster claiming that average households would be £4,300 a year worse off, by contrast, looked like “scaremongering”.
5. The campaign is damaging the (already-damaged) politicians
Voters’ lack of faith in politicians has been exacerbated by the way the campaign has been conducted, too. One man in Brighton turned up with a jam swiss roll, because “if you have a bit of it, it’s alright, it’s a bit interesting. But after a certain amount of time, you feel quite sick and you just want it to all be over.” In Knowsley, one of the Brexit-leaning men brought a whistle, because he said politicians had been “dog whistling — scaring people”.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, may need to work on his public profile. Shown photos of a selection of public figures, and asked whether they would trust them on the EU referendum, our focus groupers were unable to venture an opinion, because none of them knew who he was. A group shot of pro-Brexit ministers, including employment minister Priti Patel and Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons, received a similar response.
6. Remainers see Brexiters as xenophobic
Perceptions of the kind of person who would vote to leave were very different in the two places, offering a glimpse of the culture clash that is one aspect of the national debate. Brighton’s remainers saw a typical Brexiter as rightwing, nationalist and perhaps xenophobic. “All I keep thinking is people saying ‘back in the day’,” said one. Knowsley’s leavers, however, saw Brexiters as “brave”, and concerned about the impact of immigration on public services.
7. Leavers see the rich and ‘unaffected’ as remainers
The flipside was true, too: Brighton’s young voters saw the typical remainer as cultured, well travelled, well educated. Knowsley’s leavers agreed with some of that, but lumped politicians, big business and the rich in with the remain camp — people whose lives would not be affected, they thought, by a vote to stay.
8. Voters are not trusting the politicians
When it comes to whom the public trust on the EU, it’s not the politicians, or at least not British ones. Almost everyone pointed to money expert Martin Lewis — whose article about how to vote has been viewed almost 700,000 times — as a trusted source.
9. Leavers are upset with Obama
Barack Obama, who was wheeled out weeks ago by No 10, was viewed as convincing by remainers — but his involvement was resented by leavers. “Obama’s not even in Britain so what does he care, what does he know?” said one. But if telly naturalist or David Attenborough or footballer David Beckham were to venture an opinion on Brexit, our focus groups suggest the public would be all ears.
10. The crystal balls are not working
Both sides struggled to spell out how Britain might change in the event of Brexit — apart from blanket media coverage. “I wouldn’t feel much change at first apart from the fact that it would be on every single show,” said one of our Brighton group.
Apathy may still be the enemy for the remain campaign, and although most of our participants, after an evening spent discussing the referendum, said they were likely to vote, they were far from certain about it. One of our young Brighton women summed it up for many when she said: “People don’t know which way to vote so they just say ‘meh’.”
—By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2016