We won’t get any actual polling numbers until tonight or tomorrow, and certainly won’t get a clear handle on any impact upon voting intention until at least tomorrow, but here’s a few initial thoughts on the European referendum.
Referendums are popular, but most people don’t care much about Europe. Polls consistently show that people support the idea of a referendum on Europe, but they also show people would like a referendum on almost any subject you care to ask about. This is because a poll question asking “Should there be a referendum on X” is the equivalent of asking “should you be allowed a say on this, or should politicans decide it for you.” Hence polls showing people approve of the referendum don’t necessarily show that people think it is an important issue and are crying out for a referendum on the subject. Asked about what the most issues facing the country are, Europe comes low down the list. Asked what the important issues facing people themselves and their families, it is even lower down.
More important will be the impact on perceptions of Cameron. That isn’t to say the announcement won’t have some impact on the polls. If we go back to Cameron’s European “veto” in December 2011 it produced a significant boost in Conservative fortunes. However looking at the underlying figures, this mainly seemed to be on the back of improved perceptions of Cameron: people thought he was more decisive, a stronger leader and so on. Keep an eye his personal ratings this time – will it make people see Cameron as a strong and effective leader, will it make it look as if he has more purpose and drive, is more in control of events?
…and on the Conservative Party. The same applies to the Conservative party, which at time in past months has seemed riven by internal dissent and splits. If the announcement can make the party more united and loyal to its leadership it will probably improve perceptions of the government’s competence and capability, one of the key problems that has been facing it since last year. On the other hand, they need to be careful not to bang on about Europe too much…remember it is not a particularly salient issue, the general public care more about the economy, pensions, crime, health and so on, so if the Conservatives now proceed to obsess about the issue it will only make them look out of touch.
It may bring back some UKIP support. As we’ve discussed before, despite its genesis as a anti-EU party, support for UKIP is not actually driven by opposition to the EU. Counterintuitive it may be, but most people who vote UKIP do not think that Europe is an important issue facing the country. Their vote is driven more by concerns over immigration, disillusionment with the government and general unhappiness with modernity. Nevertheless, some are driven by Europe, and the referendum may well chime with the worldview of some others.