My report for Business for Britain on the dynamics of the debate over the EU, and a small but telling process point on the EU

[NB. An op-ed I wrote for the Times on this subject (26/6/14) is added at the bottom of this post.]

My new company, North Wood, was hired by Business for Britain to do some market research on what swing voters think about arguments over the EU. The report is here. I do not work for or speak for BfB. If you want to know their views on things, ask them, and do not interpret what I say as their view or what they say as my view.

Please note that in this report I do not analyse any policy issues concerning the EU or immigration. I have written a lot about policy aspects of the EU (e.g. p.103-33 of my essay touches on EU issues, this blog gives a long view on UK foreign policy) but this report is purely about public opinion and the dynamics of political conflict. If you don’t like the comments reported, don’t get mad with me – ask yourself why people say the same things all over the country, and why their views are different to your views.

A few points on immigration and an EU referendum that are discussed in the Conclusions (p.16ff) and are often misreported / misunderstood….

1. The official OUT campaign does not need to focus on immigration. The main thing it needs to say on immigration is ‘if you are happy with the status quo on immigration, then vote to stay IN’.

2. The OUT campaign has one essential task – to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards. This requires a grassroots movement based on small businesses. If when voting comes on a referendum, people think ‘all the local businesses are voting IN and they say they’ll be firing people and going bust if there’s an OUT vote’, then the IN campaign will win. If people think ‘small businesses are clearly in favour of OUT’, then OUT will win easily. If people think ‘business seems divided’, then OUT should win.

Immigration is now such a powerful dynamic in public opinion that a) no existing political force can stop people being so worried about it and, contra many hacks I speak to, it wouldn’t matter if the Tories and Mail shut up about it – people’s actual experience and conversation with friends, family, and colleagues is the most important thing driving opinion, not the media; b) it is therefore not necessary for the main campaign to focus on it in a referendum (others will anyway) and focusing on it would alienate other crucial parts of the electorate.

There are some other points about immigration and the Conservative Party which are not directly relevant to the EU issue and I do not discuss in the report but which may be of interest.

A. Many Tory MPs think that if Cameron gives more speeches on immigration and stresses ‘the government’s achievements’ this would be a big help for the Party in the next election. This is deluded. Swing voters do do not think the government has achieved anything – they think the government has ‘kept the floodgates open’ and ‘made the problem worse’. (They do not blame Theresa May for it – she is never mentioned spontaneously.) Trying to persuade the public they are wrong is futile. CCHQ couldn’t do it if they spent £50m on TV ads just on this issue.

B. Much of the commentariat, in my opinion, is also wrong on this issue. The reason for the error is a widespread false model of swing voter psychology (cf. p.18) in which people think that swing voters occupy an average point equidistant between a Right pole and a Left pole. Swing voters, however, are more anti-immigration and anti-free market than the centre of gravity in Westminster.

The fundamental problem the Conservative Party has had since 1997 at least is that it is seen as ‘the party of the rich, they don’t care about public services’. This is supported by all serious market research. Another problem that all parties have is that their promises are not believed. This includes Conservative promises on immigration since 1997 which have not been credible. Now, people have four years experience of a Conservative prime minister and they can see that he has not stopped hundreds of thousands entering the country despite promising to do so.

Over the past year or so, the government has tried to project a ‘tough’ message on immigration. The polls have not moved in favour of the Tories. The commentariat then conclude ‘the public don’t like this, it’s too nasty party’ etc. This is wrong. The reason the polls do not move is that nobody believes a word they say! Why would the polls move?!

Before the 2001 and 2005 elections, immigration was less of a worry than it is now and people concluded ‘I don’t believe the Tories promises on immigration and tax and they don’t care about public services because they’re the party of the rich’. Because of the experience of the past four years, they still think the same about the party now. Promises of tax cuts and action on immigration after the next election will not be persuasive because people will think ‘it’s all talk, they’ve had five years and taxes and immigration have gone up’. This does not mean that ‘swing voters don’t really care that much about immigration and lower taxes’ as many pundits will claim. It means the Tories continue to have a disastrous brand, Cameron has confirmed its worst elements (‘party of the rich’ (50p tax) and ‘don’t care about services’ (‘they cut the wrong things because Cameron has bad priorities’)), and the public doesn’t trust promises. (NB. Swing voters do not think the Government has ‘protected’ spending on the NHS and schools.)

Many pundits write about the Tory 2001 and 2005 campaigns as if they were models of brilliant campaigning – ‘they tested X to destruction’, ‘if they didn’t work, what could?’ But the failures of 2001 and 2005 were merely proofs that the Party was led by people who did not understand the country’s priorities or effective political action and the campaigns were very poor (2001 was appalling, 2005 less so). Promises to cut immigration or taxes fail because those making them are not believed and, in 2001 and 2005, because neither issue was as important as public services which Labour led on – not because swing voters are ‘really’ happy with uncontrolled immigration and higher taxes.

A wrong model of swing voter psychology plus false logic about the 2001 and 2005 campaigns has led to false conclusions and false dichotomies about Conservative strategy. So-called ‘traditionalists’ wrongly concluded that if the Party shouts louder on the same subjects it would finally be persuasive. Some (not all) so-called ‘modernisers’ wrongly concluded that promises to cut immigration were unpopular with swing voters. Both sides in this conflict underestimated – and often still underestimate – the general anti-Westminster dynamic.

A small but telling process point about  Whitehall and Europe

A huge amount of what goes into a Cabinet Minister’s box should not be there – it is a measure of the system’s failure (not Private Office’s failure) – so I usually ignored a large amount of what went in MG’s box but now and then I would go through all of it, particularly on a Friday.

One of the things that is most striking is how much of a Cabinet Minister’s box is filled with EU papers. Here the process is simpler than for Clegg’s appalling Home Affairs Committee, where at least there can be disagreements about policy. In order to continue the pretence that Cabinet Government exists, all these EU papers are circulated in the red boxes. Nominally, these are ‘for approval’. They have a little form attached for the Secretary of State to tick. However, because they are EU papers, this ‘approval’ process is pure Potemkin village. If a Cabinet Minister replies saying – ‘I do not approve, this EU rule is stupid and will cost a fortune’ – then someone from the Cabinet Office calls their Private Office and says, ‘Did your Minister get pissed last night, he appears to have withheld approval on this EU regulation.’ If the Private Office replies saying ‘No, the minister actually thinks this is barmy and he is withholding consent’, then Llewellyn calls them to say ‘ahem, old boy, the PM would prefer it if you lie doggo on this one’. In the very rare cases where a Minister is so infuriated that he ignores Llewellyn, then Heywood calls to explain to them that they have no choice but to approve, so please tick your box and send in your form, pronto. Game over.

It’s the sort of thing you read in history books about how a capital city operated just before the regime collapsed. Like many aspects of contemporary Whitehall, if one put it in a satire, nobody would believe it. It also shows how persistent the form of constitutions can be long after the reality has changed. It seemed to me a bad tactic for officials to to do this as it is a weekly reminder of the ministers’ impotence / irrelevance, and if I were a standard official in Cabinet Office I’d probably knock it on the head – out of sight, out of mind. But as I type these words another thought occurs – perhaps they are behaviourists and they think that if they get the Cabinet into the mindset of just ticking things without reading them, then Whitehall’s interests are well served. Maybe that explains why so few ministers ever complain about it. However, I think that it has also polarised people. A few will be confirmed in their view that ‘there is no alternative to the EU, keep the mechanisms hidden’ but there are certainly others who increasingly think ‘this is a joke, we can’t go on like this’. [No, I am not implying anything about MG’s views – I am talking about an observable radicalisation of Tory ministers in general.]

Ps. Whenever you read ‘the CBI said…’, remember they also said 1997-1999 that we HAD to join the euro or else inward investment would flood out. Also, remember that many of the companies who keep the CBI afloat have vital legal interests in Brussels (e.g. BA and landing slots). Remember that many of their members do NOT agree with the leadership. When Business for Sterling polled CBI members in 1999, we discovered that the CBI leadership had been lying about the views of their own members. Within a year, the CBI had fled from the euro battle. The same can be done again…


Cameron’s hollow euroscepticism, The Times, 26 June 2014 

[The printed version was very slightly edited.]

Recently I ran focus groups in marginal seats with people who voted for Cameron in 2010 but think they’re unlikely to again in 2015.

They think Cameron ‘cut the wrong things’ and is ‘just for the rich’ (the 50p tax cut was a disaster), Miliband is ‘weak, not a proper leader’, ‘everything’s gone up except my wages’, and ‘I don’t feel a recovery’. They think ‘I’m desperate for change’ but ‘they’re all the same’.

The combination of immigration, benefits, and human rights dominates all discussion of politics and Europe. People think that immigration is ‘out of control’, puts public services under intolerable strain (‘my doctor’s appointment was delayed’), and ‘stupid benefit rules’ allow immigrants to claim ‘without contributing anything’ then ‘they send the money home’ and ‘sometimes claim for kids back home’.

The biggest change in the EU debate since the the euro battle is that people now spontaneously connect the issue of immigration and the EU. The policy that they raise and discuss most is ‘the Australian points system for immigration’ and many realise that membership of the EU makes this impossible. People also repeatedly mention ‘the guy with the hook’, Hamza, who combines immigration, benefits, Europe, and ‘human rights’ in one striking story.

The second strongest argument for leaving is that ‘we can save a fortune and spend that money on the NHS or whatever we want’. They think that the EU’s ‘costs outweigh its benefits’, ‘we stick to the rules while the others cheat them’ and on issue after issue they side with ‘let’s take back control’ over ‘we gain more by sharing power’.

While a fifth of the electorate is strongly pro-EU and a third are strongly hostile, about a third is up for grabs. While most of these people would like to leave, what holds some back is fear: ‘if we leave they’ll shaft us, businesses will close, jobs will be lost’. The Foreign Office’s belief that EU membership brings more global influence cuts no ice.

The focus of any future referendum choice will therefore be: do you fear economic disaster? If the answer is Yes, then they would reluctantly vote to stay. However, if not then the prize of controlling immigration and ‘saving all the cash’ mean that they would vote to leave.

Significantly, people no longer see the EU like the German football team – more advanced and successful than us. The post-2008 euro crisis has changed this long-term factor and provides an opportunity to argue ‘closer integration with the euro basket cases will cost you a fortune’.

Many Tories hoped that a promise of a referendum would swing the election but this is misguided as the pledge is not believed, and the greater the hostility to the EU the greater the disbelief. People believe that ‘Cameron and Miliband want to stay in’ therefore ‘they won’t risk a referendum’, and recent promises are ‘just because UKIP’s on the up and the election is coming’ – ‘just a typical lie’ because ‘nobody will do anything about immigration’. The fact that Cameron won’t threaten to leave confirms that he is ‘not serious’.

If there were to be a renegotiation, the two things they most want are ‘control of immigration’ and ‘send less money’. If the EU remains in control of immigration, renegotiation would be seen as a failure and would make people more likely to vote ‘out’, as renegotiation would raise expectations then increase anger. While the status quo in a referendum usually has a structural advantage, in an EU referendum this advantage could be lost as the ‘out’ campaign could say ‘this is your chance to change immigration policy’.

Cameron hoped that the referendum promise would push the EU issue beyond the election and he would not have to infuriate people by revealing how little he wants to change. Wrong. People have already concluded he doesn’t want to change much. Picking fights over Juncker won’t fool people.

He bungled into a promise he never liked that commits him to something he never wanted to do yet doesn’t even achieve his aim of persuading people to vote for him.

Because his policy lurches in response to pressure, it never solves his problems. His MPs do not trust him and may soon set their own red lines for a new relationship that does require major treaty changes. He rages that his party is making his position untenable. As they say in Moscow, ‘everybody’s right and everybody’s unhappy’.

If Miliband hires a proper chief of staff and campaigns on the message ‘I won’t put up your taxes and you can’t afford another five years of Cameron so vote for change’, Cameron is finished. If Miliband doesn’t, Cameron will soon face an awful dilemma: the country wants more back from Europe than he wants to ask for, or Europe wants to give.

Meanwhile, many ‘eurosceptics’ have defined their goal as winning a dicey and distant referendum. But even if people vote ‘out’, who thinks Cameron could negotiate the details, and who doubts that powerful forces that want us to remain may try to force a second vote?

It is unlikely that we will remove the supremacy of EU law and negotiate a new treaty until there is a prime minister who can articulate inspiring goals in a completely different way to the petulant and hollow euroscepticism of Cameron, who is supported by an unprecedented grassroots movement mobilising small businesses, and who can exploit what they call in Brussels ‘beneficial crises’, just as Monnet exploited them to build the EEC. We cannot conjure leaders from thin air but we can build the movement as we await the crises.


19 thoughts on “My report for Business for Britain on the dynamics of the debate over the EU, and a small but telling process point on the EU

  1. Thanks for making these points.
    You only have to look at the information technology business where this country has continued to print uncapped intra company transfer visas in large numbers, for mainly Indian nationals to come in, in skills areas already in oversupply. Gone on to give many, and their families, indefinite leave to remain and citizenship simply for working here a while. Given large tax perks (first 12 months free of national insurance, many supposed expenses payments allowed tax free that Brits working away from home within the UK cannot get, tax allowance not pro rata with amount of tax year they are allowed to work here, etc.) and allowed the large outsourcers to bring many in and subcontract them onto our large companies for less than it costs to hire a Brit. Give their families free schooling, free healthcare regardless of any expensive pre-existing conditions, and so on.
    Meanwhile Brits have been displaced from the workforce in large numbers, British students are less than keen to study Computer Science as they can see all the entry level jobs go to Indian nationals.
    And of course the EU/India “free trade” deal (it is nothing of the sort) will commit us to accepting uncapped numbers from India to work in areas with large skills oversupply already for evermore.
    The way Cameron and friends engage with India is naïve in the extreme, and they are taking us to the cleaners slowly but surely. In many ways the relationship between our senior politicians and rich Indian businessmen is corrupt and against the best interests of this country.
    Blair did open the flood gates, but the current government have done nothing to slow it down. Ms May talks of disagreements with the liberals which have stopped her acting, which I frankly don’t believe, and all we the people can see is evermore out of control immigration in front of us.


    • Quite, it’s just ludicrous the way the tax system is actively weighted in favour of outsourcing jobs to foreign workers via the ICT scheme.


    • Not disagreeing with your overall point, however I would challenge the idea that we’ve an over capacity of supply in IT. Working in that sector I can see a chronic under supply of talent in the home Market matched with resultant salary inflation. The problem isn’t purely freedom of access. It’s an execrable education system. IMO. You somehow yank back control of inflows and you’ll find courtesy of supply and demand a massive spike in wages as companies fail to fill positions onshore.


    • Re “Not disagreeing with your overall point, however I would challenge the idea that we’ve an over capacity of supply in IT. Working in that sector I can see a chronic under supply of talent in the home Market”
      I work in that sector and there is no shortage of supply of talent, there maybe a shortage prepared to work for the low wages an Indian national on an intra company transfer visa will work for but that is not the same as a shortage. Indeed the British state does not think so either, information technology professionals are NOT on the official shortage occupation list, and it’s only because they mostly come in on uncapped and unrestricted intra company transfer visas that they bypass that particular rule. Except for a shortage of junior staff caused by the intra company transfer visa entrants being given all the junior jobs, and British potential computer science students reacting accordingly and going into other areas of work, that shortage would quickly sort itself out if the government stopped manipulating the information technology jobs market in this way.
      It should be the objective of the government to run the country for the benefit of the British people, not of the Indian outsourcing movement, or the large employers addicted to importing cheap labour. British highly skilled workers should not be expected to compete with Indian nationals on our own soil, especially when it’s much harder for a Brit to get a work visa to India than it is for them to come here.
      Other countries apply intra company transfer visa rules much better:
      – the fact that entrants are supposedly highly skilled in a specific skill tied to their company means they should not expect to be trained in their first months here by Brits who they will be used to replace
      – the fact they are supposed to have skills unique to their employer means they should not be allowed to be subcontracted into other organisations
      – large multi thousand employee organisations are not permitted to operate with the majority of their workforce imported from India on these visas
      – no tax perks to undercut the native workforce
      – relevant laws policed and enforced, employment, immigration, data protection, copyright, tax, discrimination, anti-bullying, etc all routinely flouted by the Indian outsourcers
      It’s got to be said the abuse of these Indian workers by the outsourcers needs to be seen to be believed, a big hidden scandal, kept going because they have no choice as if they upset their employer they not only lose their job but also their right to be in the country and their childs school place and wifes expensive medical treatment etc.
      Re “matched with resultant salary inflation.” Pay in the information technology sector should be a lot higher. We should not be running a one way race to 3rd world wages, or highly skilled people on the minimum wage. Indeed operating with higher wages the IT sector was significantly cash positive for UK PLC for many years, selling our skills and services abroad, selling importantly on quality and innovation and NOT lowest price. Now we are a laughing stock where we have obvious dive in quality as so many instances prove, banks computers crashing big time etc.
      Part of the problem is the last few years the quality of the folk running the IT biz in the UK have dived, many similar problems to those described by Dominic in the political class, too much emphasis on presentation, public school contacts, and far too little on substance, track record of delivery, etc, far too many orgainsations run by salespeople with no real projects experience, or only success cost cutting by importing foreign workers and displacing Brits (as many of Camerons advisers have made their name) and so on.
      Our education system is not that bad, it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as, for instance, India where bribing tutors to pass exams etc is still routine, and indeed Brit graduates tend to be able to think for themselves a lot more and not just pass glorified memory tests. We should not be treating Indian degrees as equivalent to British ones when looking at visa entry requirements either.
      Re “a massive spike in wages as companies fail to fill positions onshore” would on balance be good for the British economy, it would help the genuine British businesses operating without mass tax avoidance, licence fee avoidance, and immigration scams, would improve the quality of our output and improve the quality and innovation we produced and the prices we could command on the market for our products and services. Making it worthwhile to hire and train British workers is a good thing.


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  5. Interesting. Was thinking exactly the same on immigration re. what ‘out’ campaign should say. The CBI recently fled the Scottish Indy debate too when its members starting deserting, so clearly plenty to be done there. Would say also however that BfB is not of relevance when it comes to the offical ‘out’ campaign. Their official statement is they’re “absolutely not about leaving the EU”. The official campaign also can’t be led from the right, given euroscepticism’s already excessive right-bias. So that rules out any of BfB’s organisers taking a lead. If the ‘out’ side wants to win.


    • I am not so sure.
      The European issue is slightly different to the immigration issue, but they are both important.
      There is a big vacuum in the political and chattering classes for someone to verbalise what the majority of legal, decent, honest citizens think when they are not talking through political correctness like walking through treacle.
      I am in a multinational, multi ethnic, very diverse, etc. family but I like most people can see immigration is indeed completely out of control.
      I could sketch some sensible immigration policies on the back of a fag packet, which if adopted by one of the mainstream parties would win a landslide election. It’s sad in the extreme that the political journalistic bubble cannot take the hint from the European elections and admit that on this topic the majority of the voters are in fact correct.
      Talking tough while keeping the floodgates open impresses nobody.
      Enforcing rules harshly on Brits while being a soft touch on immigrants does not help.
      And so on.


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  7. The point about small business is most apposite. I recently met a small business man whose company did 38% of its business with the EU but he was convinced Britain would be better outside. It’s a powerful message if it can be made convincingly.


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  9. Absolutely spot on with the reasons why swing voters aren’t responding to the Tories. Have heard those ‘most were alienated with the ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’, we have the proof, the Tories didn’t win’ line. Absurd logic. Nobody was solely voting on immigration, people never do. Labour worked that one out donkey’s ago.
    According to Mark Harper when it comes to non-EU ‘we have dealt with that now’, he said on the Daily Politics a few weeks ago. Really? ‘Cause the majority have always been non-EU, the numbers are sky high, there’s zero in their Immigration Act about reducing the numbers coming in, only very unlikely to have a hope of making it past the Human Rights Act measures to deal with them once here. So that’s it, that’s their ‘when we say we’re going to reduce immigration we actually mean it’ Tory immigration policy.
    In my opinion the problem the Tories have got is that they believe that we are all mentally retarded, yes, developing policy around this probably will not have such great appeal.


    • The fundamental problem with immigration policy is 1) most MPs – and almost everybody in Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet – do not agree with swing voters on the issue but 2) dare not say so, therefore 3) they keep lying and pretending and hoping the public won’t twig, meanwhile 4) the public does twig they’re being lied to and hates them all even more – and 5) the MPs avert their gaze from this fact and come up with new lies, hence 6) there is a vicious circle. Provided all three parties continue with this, people will vote mainly on other issues and this fact encourages the media to mis-analyse the situation.

      A system that is a) rational, b) humane, and c) supported by most of the public is also incompatible with membership of the EU and ECHR and our current system of judicial review.

      Best wishes


      • Re “most MPs – and almost everybody in Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet – do not agree with swing voters on the issue” then political candidate selection needs to change radically.

        And its not just swing voters, the politicians do not reflect the majority view of the population on immigration.

        Its a mockery to call this democracy when the elite are ignoring the people so massively on the biggest issue to the voters.


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  13. Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your website is very helpful.

    Many thanks for sharing!


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