Politicians, not business and celebrities are the most important messengers in a referendum campaign.
As the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign launched with a host of personalities from the world of business and entertainment including Lord Stuart Rose, Baroness Karen Brady and June Sarpong, a new ComRes report: “Winning votes and alienating people”suggests that the endorsement of politicians is what counts the most towards the final referendum result.
Referendum campaigns are mainly driven by politicians and the media. For business to have a real impact at the EU referendum in the UK they therefore need to influence those key actors, rather than necessarily taking centre-stage themselves.
Referendums and general elections are not just a different shade of the same colour. In elections, the subject of the vote is the politicians and parties themselves. Endorsements from outsiders who can corroborate their credibility are therefore seen as key. Business leaders in particular are sought after to add their names to letters to newspapers in the hope it highlights a party’s economic strength.
But in referendums, where it is a particular proposal that is subject to the vote, it is the endorsements of politicians and the political affiliations that come with them who are most crucial in determining the outcome.
Politicians and Partisanship
We know that partisanship tends to determine ideology rather than vice versa. Conservative voters support Labour policy if told it is being proposed by the Conservatives, while they will not necessarily support Conservative policy if they don’t know which party is proposing it.
Historical precedent suggests the same is true at referendums. In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, the main three parties officially campaigned for membership, while only Labour’s left wing and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales campaigned for the “out” side. Come polling day, the public broadly then voted along party lines. Support for membership was highest in Conservative heartlands, where the only competition at General Election tended to be the Liberals, who were also campaigning to remain. In Labour heartlands, such as London, Manchester, Scotland and Wales, there was still often majority support, but by levels considerably lower than in Conservative areas of the country - reflecting the divisions among Labour’s MPs and leadership.
This was also the case in the 2005 French and Spanish referendums. In Spain, there was cross-party support for the Treaty and the referendum passed with overwhelming public support too. In France however, where the referendum became more a vote on Jacques Chirac and the government found themselves outflanked, with opposition to the Treaty coming from both the left and the right. Again, come polling day voting broke largely down party lines, with UMP voters voting for the Treaty, but opposed by the far right Front National as well as the Parti Communiste and Les Verts from the left. Parti Socialiste voters, as were their politicians, divided, 59% voting for the constitution and 41% against. The Parti Socialiste split is particularly significant as ideologically they could have voted for the Treaty, but instead largely followed the party leadership in opposing it.
Had the Scottish Labour hierarchy – or at least a number of senior figures - supported independence in 2014 they may have been able to take enough voters with them to make a difference to the result. Scottish independence was defeated in 2014 in part because the Labour and Conservative parties jointly opposed it, which provided just too large a coalition of voters for the SNP to overcome, whatever damage it did to Labour’s longer term electoral prospects in Scotland.
The media is of course a key medium for communication during an election campaign. Their importance is perhaps heightened at referendums. In general elections voters tend to have a broad understanding – or even deeply held beliefs - of the parties on key issues. Indeed, many voters vote the same way every time, lessening the impact the media can have.
At referendums however, the electorate tends to be starting with a lower knowledge base, with voters starting from scratch, being asked about something new. This leads the media to have slightly more scope to shape the debate.
However, the nature of the press coverage tends to be far more important than official editorial endorsements. It is after all, central to the electorate’s understanding of the debate at hand. Whereas the Guardian and Independent tended to run articles both for and against the Alternative Vote, those newspapers which opposed the change tended to do so more vociferously. This led to the tenor of the debate tending be more lopsided than the balance of official endorsements would suggest.
Business’ role in a referendum can be to help shape the narrative, giving credence to – or undermining – the arguments being made by politicians or being had in the media. However, business support alone has only a marginal impact on voters themselves and the final result.
Business overwhelmingly backed the EEC in 1975. A poll of 653 Chief Executives conducted by The Economist a month before the election showed that 95% supported staying in. However, the effect of this support was most prevalent in the funding it provided the pro-Europeans. The “Keep Britain in Europe” camp raised almost £1.5 million (about £13.5 million in today’s money) and ten times the amount raised by the anti-EEC camp (and which mostly came from state funds). There is some concern among EU supporters that changes to campaign laws mean that businesses will be far less willing to give large sums of money to the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, minimising a key advantage.
Any organisation wanting to make a significant impact may want to focus attention behind the scenes. Public endorsements can help to shape a narrative but ultimately when it comes to influencing the result, it is the media and politicians that deliver blocks of voters. These non-political actors can provide vital efforts in persuading popular politicians and media outlets to come out for their side.