I like to think there are three angles to understanding public opinion on issues and their impact on politics – support, salience and image – and all three are necessary to understand the issue of Europe.
Support is the most basic and simple to measure level of public opinion, and in the case of Europe is relatively straightforward. The British public tend to have a negative impression of the European Union – asked to rate their feelings towards it on a scale of 0 to 10, 38% say 0-3, 33% 4-6, 19% 7-10. 45% of people think that Britain’s membership of the EU is a bad thing, compared to 22% thinking it is a good thing. 50% think membership has had a negative effect on the UK, 29% a positive effect. While the figures are different depending on the questions asked, the same rough pattern normally emerges – putting it very crudely around a quarter of people are generally positive towards the EU, around half are suspicious or negative towards it.
When YouGov have asked people directly about Britain’s relationship with Europe they’ve found around 10% of people who support a more integrated Europe, 13-17% happy with the status quo, 33-40% supporting a less integrated Europe with more powers returned to the UK, 23-29% in support of total withdrawal from the EU.
On a forced choice between staying in or getting out, those who support a less integrated Europe tend to come down on the side of get out, meaning straight YES/NO polls on British membership of the EU tend to show much higher figures in favour of withdrawal – around 50% – and questions on how people would vote in a referendum on EU membership tend to show a big lead for withdrawal (for example, 27% stay, 51% go here.) Asked how people would vote in a three option referendum, people prefer renegotiation to withdrawal – 15% would stay, 47% renegotiate, 28% go.
Polls on attitudes towards Europe have become increasingly anti-EU in recent years, but this is not a long term trend. Looking at long term trackers from MORI, attitudes towards the European Union and its predecessors have ebbed and flowed over the years – the peak of opposition towards Europe was in the early 1980s, its nadir in the late 1980s and early 90s (while I’m on the subject of changing attitudes towards Europe, it’s probably also worth noting the experience of the 1975 referendum. Before the campaign started polls showed a majority in favour of withdrawal, eventually people voted 2-1 in favour of staying in – so don’t assume that because polls currently suggest people would vote to leave the EU that they actually would in practice).
Finally, polls nearly always show a large majority in favour of a referendum, a result that should largely be ignored. Referendums are popular per se, and I have yet to see any poll showing, in a straight question, that people think there should not be a referendum on an issue. Asking if there should be a referendum on an issue is essentially asking if politicians should decide an issue, or whether the respondent should be allowed a say. That said, a referendum on EU membership is more popular than referenda on some other issues – a YouGov poll for the Constitution Society last Sept asked which of a list of various constitutional issues people would like to see a referendum on, and the EU came top with 43%.
That brings us onto salience. We know that far more British people are negative than positive towards the EU, but do they actually care? People saying they support or oppose something when a pollster intrudes into their lives and asks about it is entirely different to them thinking about it the rest of time. If we hadn’t have asked, perhaps it would never have even crossed their mind.
Polling people on whether they support an issue is relatively straightforward. Polling on whether an issue is important or not is tricky. You cannot ask “whether issue X is important”, as people will almost always say yes because they feel they should consider these issues important. The real question is whether issue X is important when compared to issues A, B and C. (There are similar problems with the question “will policy X make you more or less likely to vote for party Y”, but I think I’ve ranted about that far too many times in the past. Suffice to say that the way people actually answer such questions means they really only measure support or opposition and tell us virtually nothing about salience)
The best regular measure of salience is Ipsos MORI’s monthly issues tracker, since it is entirely unprompted. MORI ask people what they think the most important issue is facing the country, and what other important issues there are facing the country. Europe normally rates very, very low on this survey. In September 3% of people counted Europe as an important issue facing the country, which is typical of the last five years. When placed alongside issues like the economy, immigration, crime, health and unemployment people simply do not care about Europe.
However, it is also important to note that while very few people care about Europe presently it is not incapable of being a salient issue. Go back to the 1990s and up to a third of people were regularly telling MORI that relations with the EU were one of the most important issues facing the country, and indeed that it would be an important issue in deciding how they would vote. So while people don’t care now, it doesn’t follow that they won’t in the future if it becomes a major issue of political and media debate.
The final angle on any issue is the most difficult (indeed, often impossible) to measure. What difference does a party’s stance upon that issue make to the overall way the party is viewed? Does going on about an issue people don’t much care about make you look out of touch, does arguing about it make the party look divided. Are some issues associated with moderation and others with extremes, some with being modern, others with being stuck in the past? Take the Conservative party’s attempts to rebrand itself under David Cameron – he spoke a lot about an issue that not many people care much about (the environment), and virtually ignored a very salient one (immigration) because (one assumes) the party thought talking about the first one made the party look more modern and moderate, and the latter would have reinforced existing negative perceptions of the party as bigoted and intolerant.
I have yet to see a really good way of measuring the effect of policy standpoints on party image, so with no evidence to back it up I am not going to suggest that a particular policy on the EU would have an impact one way or another, but we need to recognise that this impact is there. One thing we can be more confident about is the risk to perceptions of party unity – looking again at MORI’s long term trend data, in 2010 just 13% of people described the Conservative party as divided, their lowest for 23 years. At the peak of the Maastricht rebellion in 1993 50% of people described the Conservative party as divided, and it didn’t fall below 30% again until 2005. This is probably not a party image the Conservatives wish to regain.
So, in summary, the British public are generally hostile towards the EU if asked, but will tend to favour renegotiation or repatriation of powers over withdrawal if given the choice. Secondly, while it has been regarded as an important issue in the past, only a tiny minority particularly care about the issue at present. Thirdly, the Conservative party are seen as vastly less divided these days than during the years of arguing with each other over Europe, a unity that took a decade to reforge and which they would probably be well advised not to throw away lightly.