What does business think about the EU referendum? Well, define what you mean by business. The source for official government numbers for the number of businesses in the UK is the business population estimate – 2015 figures are here. According to those figures there are 5.4 million businesses in Britain. The overwhelmingly majority of businesses are extremely small – 62% of businesses are sole traders, and 76% have no employees. Only 0.7% of businesses have 50 employees or more, only 7000 have more than 250 employees.

In terms of government statistics UKPollingReport is a business… yet when people talk about business opinion, I suspect they are largely thinking of people who run shops and factories and banks, people who buy and sell and pay other people’s wages, not people reporting some secondary income from running a website.

If you carried out a representative survey of all British businesses then the majority of your sample would be made up of sole traders. In a survey of 1000 business representatives, you would probably have about seven people employing more than 49 people, and likely no one at all from a large company. If you did a survey of businesses employing at least one person, less than five percent of the sample would employ more than fifty people. But that assumes you weight it so the views of the CEO of BP count the same as a local newsagent – one could equally make a case for weighting by turnover, or number of people employed.

There is no “right” answer, and definitions like this tend to become a political football because people running large companies are often very pro-European, but people running small businesses and sole-traders are often far more similar to the national average. I don’t intend to open up that can of worms in this post – I’m just going to look at what polls and surveys we’ve seen have said about businesses of different sizes.

Surveys of business organisations

Most of the polls claiming to represent business opinion are actually surveys of membership organisations, like the CBI, FSB, Institute of Directors (IOD) and Chambers of Commerce. Even if these are done well, they will be representative of businesses who are members of that organisation, not businesses as a whole. For example, the CBI has a large proportion of members who are large employers, with over 250 employees; the FSB, as its name suggests, is made up of small companies. All four of these organisations have published surveys attempting to measure the opinion of their members.

The CBI has commissioned two polls of their members, one carried out by YouGov back in 2013 which found 78% of members in favour of staying, 10% wanting to leave (details), one carried out by ComRes at the end of last month which found 80% thought that Britain remaining in the EU would be better for their company, only 5% thought leaving would be better (details). The ComRes poll was sampled and weighted to targets based on the overall profile of CBI members, so should be representative of the CBI… but not necessarily of business as a whole. Based upon the profile in the ComRes survey the CBI membership heavily favours large companies, almost three quarters of the respondents were from companies employing more than 250 people.

The Federation of Small Business commissioned a representative poll of their members last June and July, conducted by a professional research company called Verve, and weighted by region. They found 47% of their members would vote to REMAIN, 41% would vote to LEAVE. (details). Verve have done a subsequent survey of FSB members this year, but I don’t think it asked whether respondents were in favour of staying or leaving.

The British Chambers of Commerce conducted a survey of their members in late January and early February, conducted by Research by Design and weighted by region. They found 60% of members would vote to stay, 30% to leave. While the majority of respondents to the survey were “microbusinesses” with fewer than 10 employees, compared to the profile of businesses nationally the BCC are also skewed towards businesses with more employees (BCC members are also more likely to be exporters than the national profile of businesses). They did provide a useful breakdown by number of employees though – among member companies with more than 250 employees the split was 75% REMAIN, 20% LEAVE; medium companies (50-249 employees) split 69% REMAIN, 23% LEAVE; small companies (10-49 employees) 60% REMAIN, 31% LEAVE; micro companies (0-9 employees) were 54% REMAIN, 34% LEAVE.(details).

Finally the Institute of Directors conducted their own survey of their members straight after Cameron’s renegotiation. This appears to be a straw poll they did themselves, so it won’t necessarily be representative of their membership. 60% of members taking part said they’d vote to remain in, 31% to leave (details).

There have also been various surveys of specific trade associations, such as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, or TechUK. I haven’t tried to collect all these up, but obviously they will only be representative of the particular sector.

Polls of business as a whole

As well as surveys of membership organisations, there have also been some polls of business in general. For practical reasons, these tend to either be surveys focusing specifically on large businesses, or surveys focusing on Small and Medium Businesses. This will be both because of the difference in scale (as discussed earlier, the number of small and micro businesses utterly dwarfs the number of big businesses) and the practicalities of conducting the polls (you cannot randomly cold call the CEOs of FTSE companies and expect to get through.)

Ipsos MORI carry out a regular “captain’s of industry survey”, which covers board directors and chairmen of the 500 biggest companies by turnout and 100 biggest financial companies by capital. Results there were that 87% thought REMAIN would be better for their company, 7% thought LEAVE would be better (results for how they would personally vote were 83% REMAIN, 12% LEAVE (details).

The ICSA do a twice yearly survey of company secretaries of FTSE 350 companies. They did not ask preferences directly, but 71% of respondents said Brexit would be damaging for their company, 28% that it would make no difference and 2% that it would be positive. (details).

Deloitte do a quarterly survey of Chief Financial Officers of FTSE 350 companies. In the last wave of that (conducted in Nov/Dec of last year) they found 62% thought it was in the interests of business to stay in the EU, 6% that it was not, 28% that it depended upon renegotiation. This may, of course, have changed post-renegotiation! (details) .

Moving to smaller businesses, Zurich do a quarterly poll of small and medium enterprises (their “SME Risk Index”). The most recent wave of that included a question on the EU referendum, with results of 49% remain, 39% leave (details)

YouGov conducted a poll in November 2015 that attempted to be broadly representative of businesses with employees. As discussed earlier, in practice that meant over 95% of the sample was made up of small businesses. This found 47% in favour of remaining, 42% in favour of leaving (details.)

As you’ll see, there’s a clear pattern here: polls of leaders of big business (and polls of membership organisations that are dominated by business) tend to be overwhelmingly pro-European. However, polls conducted of small and medium businesses (or surveys of organisations that are dominated by small and medium businesses) tend to have a more even split. That said, even polls of small businesses still generally find the balance of opinion in favour of remaining.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that all business is made up of emphatic pro-Europeans. In this post I’ve tried to restrict myself to business surveys asking purely about Britain remaining in or leaving the EU. If you widen the net you’ll find plenty of surveys of business showing dissatisfaction with the EU and EU regulation, and businesses that would rather have free trade without some of the EU’s political integration. However, when it comes to the either or of whether Britain should remain or stay, the polling evidence consistently suggests business is in favour of remaining – big business by a big gap, small business by a smaller one.

UPDATE: The BCC survey of their members was actually conducted by an external market research company and weighted to their membership profile, I’ve updated the post to reflect that. According to the BCC their members are also more likely to be exporters than businesses on average, which will also have an impact on their results (companies who export appear to be more in favour of EU membership).

The Times have a new YouGov poll in tomorrow’s paper, conducted after Wednesday’s budget. It’s not good news for George Osborne.

Every budget has positive and negative parts, and it’s the same here: some parts of Osborne’s budget are popular, some aren’t. Increasing the personal allowance is popular (83% say its a good idea), as is cracking down on international tax avoidance (81%), freezing fuel duty (74%) and the sugar tax (62%). People are more divided over the increase to the higher rate threshold (46% say it’s good, but 37% the wrong priority), and are negative about the cut in corporation tax (32% good idea, 43% wrong priority). The worst ratings are for the cuts to disability benefits for people reliant on aids or appliances. Only 13% of people support the disability cuts, 70% think they are the wrong priority at the present time, including 59% of Tory voters.

Budgets are more than just the sum of their parts of course. After each budget YouGov ask the same question about whether people think the budget was fair or unfair, this year 28% thought the budget was fair, 38% unfair. Both of last year’s budgets were seen as more fair than unfair, so were the budgets of 2014 and 2013 (past figures are all here). You have to go all the way back to 2012 to find the last time an Osborne budget was seen as unfair… the omnishambles budget. That is not a good precedent.

Meanwhile voting intention stands at CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 16%. This is very much in line with the ICM poll earlier in the week that had Labour and Conservatives equal. People were understandably wary of reading too much into one poll, but we now have two polls both showing Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, suggesting something is genuinely afoot.


Time for a quick update of other polls over the last few days. Firstly, YouGov put out new Scottish voting intentions at the weekend and London voting intentions yesterday.

YouGov’s Scottish voting intentions were SNP 49%, LAB 19%, CON 19%, LDEM 6% for the constituency vote; SNP 43%, LAB 17%, CON 19%, GRN 8%, LDEM 5%, UKIP 4% for the regional vote. The SNP obviously retain their overwhelming lead. Note how the Conservatives and Labour are essentially neck-and-neck for second place, this is consistent with YouGov’s last Scottish poll, but no other company has the Tories so close to Labour. Full tabs are here.

YouGov’s London poll shows Sadiq Khan still ahead, his nine point lead over Zac Goldsmith almost unchanged from January. Topline figures are KHAN 45%(nc), GOLDSMITH 36%(+1), WHITTLE 7%(+1), PIDGEON 5%(+1), BERRY 4%(-1), GALLOWAY 2%(nc). While Khan wouldn’t win on the first round, asked how they’d vote if the final two candidates were Khan and Goldsmith supporters of other candidates split 43%-30% in Khan’s favour, so he would come out as the comfortable winner. Full tabs are here.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there was a new ORB poll of EU referendum voting intentions in the Telegraph this morning. Topline figures were REMAIN 47%, LEAVE 49%, DK 4% (don’t know is so low because ORB have a squeeze question, asking how people who say don’t know are leaning). What’s interesting is that the poll was conducted by telephone – up until now we’ve seen a straightforward divide between phone polls showing a solid REMAIN lead and online polls showing a race that is neck-and-neck. Suddenly that online/phone divide doesn’t look so black and white. Full tabs are here.

ICM have released their monthly poll for the Guardian, topline figures with changes from last month are CON 36%(-3), LAB 36%(+4), LDEM 8%(+1), UKIP 11%(nc), GRN 3%(-1). Full tables (and Martin Boon’s very wary commentary) are here. It is the first poll since the general election not to show the Conservatives ahead.

In one sense, people shouldn’t get too excited about this poll. As everyone will know, the polls at the last election overestimated Labour support, and it is possible (though not a given) that polls are still overestimating Labour now. In the case of ICM they have made some minor changes to the way they reallocate don’t knows, but such changes are limited so far. In Martin’s commentary on his poll he says that ICM are currently testing a new turnout model that would have changed this poll into a three point Conservative lead.

On the other hand, even if the absolute level of the lead in this poll is off, there has been a significant change in the lead since last month’s poll, and one that is consistent with the ComRes poll at the weekend. Sure the absolute levels of the Tory lead in the two polls is very different (because ComRes have adopted a very different turnout model to ICM), but the trend in the two polls was the same – ComRes had the Tory lead dropping by five points, ICM had the Tory lead dropping by seven points.

Even if there is reason to doubt the size of the lead in this poll or the ComRes poll, the common trend appears interesting – could the Conservative infighting and division over Europe be damaging their support?

ComRes have their monthly online poll for the Indy on Sunday and Sunday Mirror tomorrow. Topline voting intention figures are CON 38%(-3), LAB 29%(+2), LDEM 7%(-2), UKIP 16%(+1), GRN 4%(+1). The Conservative lead has dropped five points since last month, but that still leaves it at nine points (ComRes’s online polls tend to produce the largest Conservative leads of all the companies, largely because of ComRes’s new turnout filter that is based on socio-economic data. The nine point lead is actually the smallest ComRes have shown in their online polls since the election – up until now they’ve shown a Conservative lead between 11 and 15 points). Full tabs are here.

Ahead of the budget there were also a few economic questions. More people think George Osborne is doing a bad job as Chancellor (41%) than a good job (31%), but Cameron & Osborne have a 16 point lead over Corbyn & McDonnell on which pair people would trust to run the country’s economy (45% to 29%).