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).

69 Responses to “What Business thinks about Europe”

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  1. Stuart Rose seems to have taken a back seat in the “Remain” campaign., unless I have been missing things.

  2. OldNat

    Thanks for the link. Evidence, if further evidence were needed, that people aren’t rati-onal. Or, in this context, that language matters. I would have expected more people to be in favour of some vague concept of independence than would endorse specific proposals amounting to independence. Then again, the voting figures were more closely aligned with responses to the vaguer question…

    Speculating wildly as to possible reasons people weren’t happy to endorse the fuzzier, more abstract concept of ‘independence’ I’d suggest that Ms Sturgeon or her successor might want to consider holding a second referendum when Charlie gets his mitts on the orb and sceptre.

  3. Apologies for a long comment provoked by speculating about David in France’s comment upthread…

    David in France’s comment suggests that people don’t even have to think that business is competent and knowledgeable about economics to lend considerable weight to their opinions on the Euroref. They just have to think they know better than most.

    This got me wondering – if it’s relative credibility that’s important – then how much does absolute credibility matter? If someone thinks the economic pronouncements of ‘business’ aren’t at all credible but still thinks they’re marginally more credible than those of politicians/media/some other group will they still pay attention to a poll of ‘business’ opinion on the Euroref? How close is the relationship between the perceived credibility of a source of info and the weight given to that info?

    I suspect that low-credibility info is given more weight when there’s relatively little information available or relatively few sources (on the irrati-onal grounds that it’s better to use what little information you’ve got – even if it’s totally unreliable than to make a random choice). I think this is what happens in the case of weighing up the economic consequences of Brexit. Everybody’s guessing and economic modellers don’t have a great reputation. If you want to understand the rati-onale behind someone’s guess you have to actively look for it. Most of the information is at a very general level – what does ‘good/bad for business actually mean? – and it’s much rarer to find commentary on likely effects on specific economic variables.

    A variant of this argument explains why people give more weight to ad hominem arguments (which is what polls of ‘business organisations’ opinions on the Euroref amount to) when they don’t feel competent to evaluate direct evidence. You know what I mean: you judge your dentist/surgeon/solicitor/plumber on personal variables you like to think are correlated with his/her professional competence because you can’t actually evaluate how good he or she is.

    This works well for Remain. If memory serves there’s experimental evidence (might be able to dig up a citation if pushed, but I don’t have access to academic databases atm) showing that people attach disproportionate value to protecting what they’ve already got when they’re making decisions about risk. So without strong evidence that leaving would be economically beneficial most people are going to attach more weight to the potential negative consequences of leaving than the potential benefits of doing so.

    Actually, damn it, I’m going to have to try and find this paper and remind myself exactly what it showed as it was quite subtle. I think the driver of irrati-onal behaviour was that if one didn’t actually work out the odds (it was a gambl-ing task: card type A has high odds of a small loss and long odds of a big win; card type B has longer odds of a small loss, but is in the long run less profitable than type A) the loss was in some sense more salient.

  4. Personally I feel if the Brussels attacks have an effect either way (and it will be a short one), it is likely to give a boost for Remain. Tragedies of this kind tend to unite us rather than divide us. That said, the “free movement of Kalashnikovs” soundbite may have some traction.

  5. Leave has already muddied the waters when its clear the Boris renegotiation would lead to open borders. Brits worry about homegrown terror and this was again homegrown terror. People will want change in mainland Europe but I fail to see how this feeds into UK policy.

    When all the talk is about Schengen people keep hearing how we are not in schengen.

  6. “really up to speed on storage” was supposed to be “rarely”, but maybe autocorrect knows summat different…

  7. Sorbus

    You may onto a winning strategy there for the next indyref :-)

  8. As we seem to have strayed into the territory of ‘ what do I think’, I will just say that the killer moment for me was when the EU imposed their own leaders on Italy and Greece when elections didn’t go according to their wishes. It might be less likely to happen to us, but do we want the possibility?

    If the Leave campaign can get this point across, it could be decisive, but I’ve seen no evidence of them even trying it yet.

    Farage seems to have gone power-crazy, suspending Suzanne Evans, one of the very few UKIP politicians capable of widening their appeal. This UKIP spat could also damage the Leave polling figures if it becomes front page news.

  9. Boris before Tyrie’s Select Committee is well worth watching if you want a robust exchange on EU-and an appreciation of Boris as potential PM.

    Tyrie was magnificent in bringing Boris to order, and to fact rather than fiction-something he had to do throughout the hearing.

  10. There is an argument, certainly in the case of Greece, that the EU enacted to administer painful but necessary surgery after the people of Greece had voted merely to increase the morphine.

    In any case, politicians care far more about sovereignty (which more-or-less amounts to: can I do my job without interference?) than voters do, it’s a very ideological argument for a public which largely votes in rational self-interest.


    @”Business organizations are trying to bully ordinary people into staying in the EU, even though this is against the best interests of ordinary people.”

    With the overwhelming majority of “business organisations” being SMEs, ( 76% with no employees) ; and employing around half of all UK employed persons, Opinion of “business organisations” ” can hardly be represented as that of a small clique of Bloated Plutocrats.


    @”Personally I feel if the Brussels attacks have an effect either way (and it will be a short one), it is likely to give a boost for Remain.”

    For anyone reading this morning’s post Brussels revelations, or having watched last night’s Panorama -I very much doubt that will be the effect. Add to the disastrous failures of Belgian Security , the reports of the two lorries full of illegal migrants on the day TM said border security was being tightened, and the opinion of Sir Richard Dearlove , and you have a cocktail which the “Remain” camp will not welcome.

    One might conclude from today’s reports that UK Security Forces are much better served by co-operation with their Turkish counterparts, than with their EU ones.

  13. The option of expelling all Muslims from Belgium isn’t on the table. I gather though that Finland has ‘persuaded’ several thousand Iraqis to leave.

  14. Good morning all from a breezy grey central London.


    Totally agree with your last comment. :-) :-)

  15. PETE B

    I think for now we will have a slight lull on the EU debates until after Easter. There was a lot of activity at the beginning when people were setting out their stalls such as Big B and IDS and Theresa May’s apparent 180 degree u turn and backing remain.

    After that the opening salvoes will commence and I would expect some of of the Brexit campaigners to address part of your comment
    ” I will just say that the killer moment for me was when the EU imposed their own leaders on Italy and Greece when elections didn’t go according to their wishes. It might be less likely to happen to us, but do we want the possibility?”

    I’m sure the sovereignty card will be played out prominently as we get closer to the vote.


    If you could shut out the bluster & the battle with Tyrie yesterday, Boris made some very telling points about the ECJ and its reach.

    They were best made in exchanges with Committee member Jacob Rees Mogg, who is a much better spokesman for Leave than Boris , and who goes out of his way to try & explain both perceived Pros & Cons .

  17. @Colin,

    Like you, I watched last night’s Panorama programme and it was indeed fascinating, although I suspect my fascinations were differently nuanced to yours. You’re right to point to security and intelligence lapses, although I’m not at all sure these are exclusive to Belgium, and I just hope to God we’re not tempting providence here by some implied air of superiority in the UK. John Reid is probably right in accepting that there is an awful lot of luck involved in these terrorist plots in terms of their success or not and, as the cliche goes, they’ve only got to get lucky once whereas we have to be lucky all the time. One day, while this madness is abroad, our luck will run out.

    Long term, we have to neutralise the motivation that lies behind these atrocities otherwise the whole issue becomes just a policing and security one and a question of how many plots get through or not. In other words, who gets lucky and who doesn’t. We can’t go on like this. Watching Panorama, I was again struck by the link between the bombers and murderers recruited by the IS puppeteers and low level, petty criminality. I know there are exceptions to this, not least the two medical students convicted yesterday for a drive by shooting plot in London, but all the Belgian and French citizens involved in the recent Paris and Brussels atrocities appeared to come from socially, culturally and financially impoverished backgrounds, sinking into a world of petty crime from an early age. They were targeted and sought out by the IS puppeteers and brain-washers for precisely these sets of reasons. An alienated underworld of disillusioned young people, hostile and murderously resentful of the countries in which they were born and lived.

    There is, it seems to me, no security solution to this. Good security and intelligence will thwart some plots but not prevent them all. We need to ask ourselves what it is that incubates the hatred and alienation that can lead to a young Belgian citizen walking into a metro station a few hundred yards away from where he grew up and lived and murder as many people, of all races, genders and ages, as he could. I’m not sure Belgian foreign policy in the Middle East was uppermost in his mind. Yes, some religious fanaticism at play, I accept, but a burning hatred of his country and its citizens seems to be at the heart of it. If we could get to what causes that hatred, we may be on to something. I expect you and I may well disagree on this, but I think there are socio-economic and cultural alienation issues here that we need to urgently address in the West.

  18. If anyone can get hold of back copies of Granta issue 103 there’s an interesting article by Richard Watson on the rise of the British Jihad.

  19. CB11


    I watched the programme maker on DP today-he confirmed his belief that the Lone Wolf ( local recruits left to their own devices) phase was now superceded by an IS External Operations function manned by fully trained operatives in a network of European Cells.

    Effective Security is therefore an absolute necessity.

    As to tackling source factors , my view is that it is hugely complicated & includes many elementts. Clearly foot soldiers are best found in marginalised European ethnic communities so there is an issue for EU politicians. But the attachment of this brutal creed to a religion-Islam-cannot , in my view be shoved under the carpet of platitudes about it not being authentic Islam.

    Yasmin alibhai brown beats a regular drum of hers this morning ( DM-so you won’t have read it ) -the inward looking, conservative, mysoginism of sectors of the Muslim “community” . The lack of real disapproval which it engenders , of anything which strikes against the Liberal Western lifestyle, and provides comfort for their cocoon of self imposed isolation from the modern world.

    In Pakistan the other day, a new law to protect women from domestic abuse has been criticised by clerics as ” UnIslamic “!!

    YAB says that this element of the problem’s core can only be tackled when Governance & Political life is separated from religious life in all countries-included those with majority Muslim populations. The State must be Secular.

    Presumably that will take them as long as it took us-so we’d better be prepared to fund increased Security costs for a very long time.

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