[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.