Is opposition to EU membership collapsing, or is it just bad polling?


8:50 am - January 21st 2013

by Leo Barasi    


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Yesterday’s YouGov poll shows a startling change in attitudes to the EU. The results suggest more people would now vote to stay in the EU than to leave it: 40% staying in against 34% wanting to leave.

That’s a big swing from two months ago, when 49% said they would vote to leave: 17pts ahead of those wanting to stay:

Shifts like these don’t just happen by themselves. But is it real, or is something going on with the polling?

Option 1: a change in opinion

There are grounds for thinking a real shift has happened. The last time ‘vote to stay in’ was this high was December 2011: just after Cameron’s walkout of the EU summit.

At that time, the suggestion that the UK would leave the EU moved from remote to seeming more possible. Perhaps people started responding to the polling question differently: saying “I’d vote to leave the EU” became less of an empty threat.

Maybe that’s what happened this time as well. Over the last couple of weeks, discussions about the UK’s future in the EU have dominated the news again. People have started thinking about their own view, and they’ve responded to YouGov with a more considered opinion, which has taken some people away from the ‘out’ camp.

Option 2: bad polling

Some polling is designed to find out what people would do if they’re exposed to certain information or arguments. If Tesco promised to make its beefburgers with only British ingredients, would you be more likely to shop there? If you’re told that 60% of people affected by the benefit cap are in work, would you be more likely to oppose it?

But other polling is supposed to be a pure measure of what people currently think. Questions like voting intent and the EU referendum should be in this category.

So for the EU referendum question to show accurately what people think, respondents shouldn’t be shown anything that might influence their response. In an ideal world, they’d only be asked about the EU, and then the poll would finish. But that would be expensive, so we have to accept that the EU question will go in a poll with other questions.

In that case, the other questions respondents see need to be consistent between polls. So if respondents are being influenced by the other questions, at least it’s happening in a comparable way.

But that’s not how YouGov have done it.

The most recent poll, which shows ‘stay in the EU’ ahead by 6pts, asked six questions about Europe before it got to the referendum question. The previous recent high for Europhiles, in December ’11, asked 13 Europe questions before the in/out question. But the poll that showed ‘leave the EU’ the furthest ahead, in May ’12, didn’t ask any EU questions before it got to in/out.

Perhaps these other questions are affecting the result. The latest poll, for example, has several questions about renegotiating Britain’s terms of European membership – so respondents might be thinking of the in/out question in the context of revised terms. That could have prompted a few people to drift into the ‘stay’ camp.

Conclusion: has opinion changed?

There’s a plausible explanation for why opinion about an EU referendum might have changed over the last couple of weeks. As we apparently saw in December ’11, when the UK’s membership is in the news, people think about it more and become a bit less sure about wanting out.

But while this might make intuitive sense, there’s really no good polling evidence for it. The way YouGov have been asking the question has the potential to shift people’s responses in ways that are different from poll to poll. We can’t tell for sure whether it does skew things, but the inconsistent question structure means we equally can’t be certain that opinion really is changing.

I’d like to see YouGov move the in/out question to the start of their questions on the EU. Then we will be able to see what’s really going on with our views on the EU.

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About the author
Leo is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He manages communications for a small policy organisation, and writes about polling and info from public opinion surveys at Noise of the Crowd
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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

“The in May ’12, didn’t ask any EU questions before it got to in/out.”

Wrong link. That’s the Jan 2013 survey again.

The hiatus at the gas plant at Tigantourine in Algeria, along with the prospect of conflict with al-Qaeda in North Africa lasting years or decades, puts a different complexion on intra-European co-operation.

Britain soon – and sensibly IMO – offered air transport support for French forces to operate in Mali to contain the Jihadist rebellion there and defend the Mali government. Safe havens for Jihadists in North Africa would threaten European security as well as continuity of energy supplies. With our own troubles from Jihadist terrorists at home, we tend to forget that France has also had to endure a long history of terrorist outrages at home:

“Seven suspects held as prosecutor says bomb-making material was the same as that used in fatal Paris Metro blast in 1995″ [Report in Guardian for 11 October 2012]

Chaise Guevara – well spotted. In fact, that whole sentence has got a bit garbled.

The original said:

The most recent poll, which shows ‘stay in the EU’ ahead by 6pts, asked six questions about Europe before it got to the referendum question. The previous recent high for Europhiles, in December ’11, asked 13 Europe questions before the in/out question. But the poll that showed ‘leave the EU’ the furthest ahead, in May ’12, didn’t ask any EU questions before it got to in/out.

The 3 poll links in that are:
Jan 2013: http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/1ix1a52xzw/YG-Archive-Pol-Sunday-Times-results-18-200113.pdf
Dec 2011: http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/66o7mthsox/Sunday%20Times%20Results%20111216%20VI%20and%20Trackers.pdf
May 2012: http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/rrg9m6jpwf/YG-Archives-Pol-ST-results-18-200512v2.pdf

Really the own graph disproves the idea that it’s “bad polling”. The last three polls show rising support for staying in the EU. Looking at the previous week’s polling (f/w 10-11 Jan) there were no EU questions preceding the ‘would you like a referendum/how would you vote’ ones, but there was still an 8 point rise in EU support since October.

Calling it “bad polling” is a bit unfair as well. If you’re going to ask a group of questions in a topic, you have to ask them in some order. Asking the referendum questions first might skew the answers for other EU questions in a different way – there’s no perfect solution.

I’ve been critical myself on UKPR about what you might call ‘directed polling’ which can happen, particularly on the extensive Sunday Times polls, where it often looks as if News International are testing out the prospects or results of a particular attack line. For example you can see in the latest poll they are testing out the “Civil servants are running the country – stopping Cameron creating utopia” story. YouGov usually seem to try to make sure that the question wording and ordering give the most accurate picture of what the public think (hence some of the long preambles that you often see to questions), but they don’t always get it right

There is, anyway, the case that such polling is valid as showing the effect of certain arguments on public opinion. At least we get to see the mechanics of how it is being done and can criticise biased reporting of the results that doesn’t take the context into account.

To return to the EU, the first option in the article looks like it’s correct. People are against the EU – unless they actually have to think about it. Polling is never flawless but there’s enough there to show a pattern of increasing awareness bringing increased support for staying in.

5. Richard Carey

@ 4

“To return to the EU, the first option in the article looks like it’s correct. People are against the EU – unless they actually have to think about it.”

Nonsense. You are just trying to make out the anti-independence side are the clever ones.

The real situation is that there is a large minority who are absolutely decided that we should regain our independence, another minority which is absolutely opposed to independence and a large section in the middle who don’t feel so strongly, and drift with the wind between opinion polls, and get misled with talk of renegotiation and reform, both of which are red herrings.

Due to this latter group, it’s most likely that the anti-independence side would win a referendum, because that side will have most of the money and all the leaders of the main political parties, plus various powerful business interests. This has probably always been the case, but the anti-independence side has been so wedded to avoiding any kind of democratic voice in the ‘European Project’ that it has run scared from any public poll.

Roger Mexico – that’s a good point about the previous week’s poll. Have added a note to the original article: http://www.noiseofthecrowd.com/is-euroscepticism-collapsing-or-is-it-just-bad-polling/

7. Northern Worker

Isn’t YouGov Peter Kellner’s outfit? He who is married to Baroness Ashton, the EU High-something foreign minister?

I don’t think the majority of the UK population understand just how much the EU affects our lives. Therefore if we had an in/out now, what with Cameron et al all for ‘in’, and the EU chucking money at an ‘in’ vote, the great unwashed would go for status quo. So yes, it’s quite likely that opposition is waning.

I’m one of those who voted to go in the only time we have had a vote. I voted ‘in’ because we were told it was a single market. No-one mentioned a political and fiscal union. No-one mentioned 3,000 new laws every year handed down by a commission we didn’t elect.

But even if the full implications of what we have let ourselves in for could be explained I think the majority would still vote ‘in’ at the moment. However when it all starts going pear-shaped, it’ll be a different story. And it will. You can’t effectively disenfranchise 500 million people and not expect a reaction. Not here, but in the more volatile corners of the EU.

8. Robin Levett

@Northern Worker #7:

I’m one of those who voted to go in the only time we have had a vote. I voted ‘in’ because we were told it was a single market. No-one mentioned a political and fiscal union. No-one mentioned 3,000 new laws every year handed down by a commission we didn’t elect.

I just missed being allowed to vote in the referendum, but this isn’t a true reflection of what took place. We were in a free-trade area already… Perhaps you can explain what you see as the difference between a free-trade area and a single market, without discussing sovereignty pooling and new laws.

Nor is it true that we have “3,000 new laws every year handed down by a Commission we didn’t elect”. The Commission (made up of people appointed by duly-elected Governments) has no law-making powers; laws are made jointly by the European Parliament (which we directly elect) and the Council of the European Union, which is made up of elected representatives; see, for a thumbnail sketch:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/0080a6d3d8/Ordinary-legislative-procedure.html

9. Northern Worker

Robin, maybe the Commission is appointed by our elected representatives, but that isn’t democracy. Never mind the fact that we didn’t elect Cameron or his party or his coalition.

On the EU parliament, is it not the case that only the Commission can propose bills? How is that democratic?

On the referendum in 1975 (?), it was for a ‘Common Market’. Absolutely definitely. What we are sleep-walking towards now is far from what the electorate, including me, voted for back then.

But as I said in my original post, I don’t think it’ll be up to the UK. The EU will fall apart long before we get a say,because you can’t treat workers in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, etc as they have and get away with it. I’ll give it until 2020 and it’ll will history.

10. Robin Levett

@Northern Worker #9:

On the EU parliament, is it not the case that only the Commission can propose bills?

No, it isn’t. Parliament can as well.

On the referendum in 1975 (?), it was for a ‘Common Market’. Absolutely definitely.

Not. Going back over my posts on the subject, I note this one from May 29 last year – replying to you, as it happens…:

I’m so old as to have voted against it the only time we were given a choice.

Pausing here: Interestingly, your vote seems to have changed over the last 8 months. If you can’t even remember whether you voted for or against, can you actually remember what you were voting about?

Ted Heath swore it was just free trade…

I’m not quite old enough to have voted – but do remember the arguments. Would that be the Ted Heath who said this in a Tory election manifesto in 1974:

Membership of the EEC brings us great economic advantages, but the European Community is not a matter of accountancy. There are two basic ideas behind the formation of the Common Market; first, that having nearly destroyed themselves by two great European civil wars, the European nations should make a similar war impossible in future; and, secondly, that only through unity could the western European nations recover control over their destiny – a control which they had lost after two wars, the division of Europe and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The question of sovereignty was flogged to death in the referendum campaign; but the “Yes” side didn’t deny that there was an issue; it instead argued that we had more control over our destiny in than out.

http://liberalconspiracy.org/2012/05/29/would-labour-be-mad-to-promise-an-eu-referendum/#comment-386049

Do you deny that the Tory election manifesto explicitly stated that the EEC was emphatically not just a Common Market – and that that was carried through into the referendum campaign?

11. Robin Levett

@Northern Worker:

Where did you go?


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