What explains the failure of ‘Project Fear’? – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

What explains the failure of ‘Project Fear’?

A lot of attention has been paid to the motivations of people who voted leave. I want to turn the question around and ask what failed to motivate people to vote remain.

On EU referendum election night, at ITV, we used a forecast of leave and remain votes across each local counting area, using British Election Study (BES) data. Leave out-performed our expectations in the areas we expected to vote leave. Remain votes were broadly consistent with a 50:50 tie in areas we expected to vote remain. In Scotland, results were both less convincing than we expected for remain, and also in much fewer number in terms of turnout. The same was true in London – though not to the same degree vis a vis turnout. Turnout was lower in general across the counting areas that voted remain, and higher in areas voting Leave. Why may that have been the case?

One simple answer is that change was more mobilising than the status quo. While many expected a status quo bias, the momentum was with Leave.

The perceived economic costs of leaving the EU were not large in contrast to the perceived ‘benefits’ of reducing immigration. 31% of our BES respondents thought the general economic situation would get worse whereas 57% thought it would stay about the same. Contrast those figures with the 54% who thought immigration would get lower and the 27% who thought it would stay about the same.

Another simple answer is Britain’s euro-scepticism. Only 16% of our British Election Study (pre referendum campaign wave) respondents saw themselves as strongly European. That figure was 61% for those people seeing themselves as strongly British. These identities are predictors of attitudes to the costs and benefits of being in the EU. A majority (57%) of our respondents thought free trade with the EU had been good for Britain. The proportions seeing other aspects as positive (worker’s rights, bringing people from different countries together) were below 40%. The proportions seeing the negatives (sovereignty, enlargement, red tape) were above 60%. Remain needed to win votes from many people who held a very negative view of the EU.

Another answer might be to conclude that voters are not motivated by fear, or were turned off by project fear. 59% of our BES respondents saw the Remain campaign as being about fear. The equivalent figure for the Leave campaign was 43%. However, to conclude that fear is not a motivator ignores the fact that fear of immigration, change, of a future Britain following the same trajectory of one felt so far, was an underpinning of a vote to leave.

There is a bigger question for the Remain campaign. Given that the economy is sometimes thought of as a super-issue that so commonly decides elections, why did risks to the economy fail to win the argument for Remain?

The perceived economic costs of leaving the EU were not large in contrast to the perceived ‘benefits’ of reducing immigration. 31% of our BES respondents thought the general economic situation would get worse whereas 57% thought it would stay about the same. Contrast those figures with the 54% who thought immigration would get lower and the 27% who thought it would stay about the same. All of the other consequences of Brexit we asked about (higher unemployment, lower international trade, Britain’s voice in the world, worsening working conditions, the NHS) provided little net difference in opinions comparing the proportions who thought things would get worse and the proportions who thought things would get better.

Second, if people thought the general economy would get worse they were not all convinced that they themselves would feel the economic impact. Only 18% thought their personal finances would get worse (before the campaign), in contrast to the 31% who thought the general economy would deteriorate.

The third explanation builds on the above two. The BES conducted a pre-EU referendum wave and then a daily campaign wave, from 8th May til 22nd June. Preliminary analysis of those data suggests there was no aggregate trend in public opinion about the costs or benefits of Brexit on the economy – nor on reducing immigration levels. This was not a campaign that convinced a majority of voters about the costs – or benefits – of leaving.

There is also the possibility that economic predictions were simply discounted. If people had low trust in MPs, the proportion thinking the economy in general would get worse if we left the EU was 29% whereas that figure was 38% if our BES survey respondents had trust in MPs.

Each of these explanations are general. There is a particular question, however, about Scotland. The Scots may have been less mobilised because of repeated elections, but I think this explanation unlikely. The Scots may have been so sure they would vote to remain that they were less likely to turnout to help ensure the outcome. This explanation doesn’t explain why the Scots had much lower turnouts against expectations, whereas Londoners were only slightly less likely to turn out than we expected. It may be the case that SNP support has begun to un-wind, and erstwhile Labour supporters were not mobilised by Labour and the same was true for the other pro-Remain parties. But there is little evidence so far of any substantial un-winding of SNP support. It is a possibility – as yet untested – that the Scots voted less enthusiastically for Remain because of the continued importance of the nationalist cleavage in Scottish politics. A vote for Leave, or a decision to stay-at-home, made it more likely that the UK would leave the European Union and Scotland would gain independence. Or the benefits of remaining in the EU were simply in conflict with the desire for Scotland to be independent. If this is true, it is ironic that the SNP are courting EU membership and another referendum on Scottish independence on the strength of Scottish votes for remain, when the absence of Scottish remain votes helped contribute to UK exit from the EU.