This EU referendum campaign is an oddity. Leaving the EU is a risk, remaining in the EU is a risk – risk everywhere. The referendum touches on fundamental issues of
sovereignty, community, history. At the same time, much of the electorate is starting from a position of not having long-held views about either side of the campaign (unlike at a general election) and only a handful see themselves as knowing huge amounts about the EU. How campaign teams choose to communicate with the public – informing, persuading, manipulating – is therefore all the more crucial.
On the economy, Cameron and Osborne say “the shock of walking out of Europe would tip the economy into reverse”, while Boris Johnson sees “no evidence whatever there will be a recession” and argues that the euro is “the real long-term threat to security and stability”. The Britain Stronger in Europe website prominently displays recent Treasury analysis, according to which the cost of Brexit every year to UK families will be £4,300. The VoteLeave website and tour bus counters that Brexit means the UK will stop sending £350m per week to Brussels – money that could then be spent on the NHS. On national security, two former directors-general of MI5 and MI6 argue that leaving the EU would make the UK less safe, another argues it may make the UK more safe. The Leavers accuse the Remainers of conducting ‘Project Fear’ – and vice versa.
In one of the most entertaining exposés of political writing, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S Thompson remarked that “politics has its own language, which is often so complex that it borders on being a code, and the main trick in political journalism is learning how to translate”. With hard facts being hard to come by, or rather, when any ‘fact’ is challenged by a competing ‘fact’; when the language of fear and risk pervades the referendum discourse; that “trick” is no easy feat to perform.
Knowing me, knowing you
As ABBA once said, “breaking up is never easy” and few people seem to have any illusions about how much is at stake in this month’s referendum. ComRes’s researchshows that more than four in five Britons think that the referendum is an important moment in the history of the UK (85%). Indeed, more than half of Britons seeeconomic risk in either eventuality, although leaving is seen as the riskier option.
Unsurprisingly, then, the British public remain divided over whether they would be personally better off if Britain left the EU or remained part of it (29% think they would be better off v 33% worse). Around two in five (38%) say they don’t know how the referendum outcome would personally affect them. This insecurity is all the more important as the proportion of Britons saying that the economy is one of the three most important factors influencing their decision on how to vote has increased 17 points since February (from 38% to 55%), seeing it jump from third to first on the list of most important issues. There is also a wider pattern of public indecision with regard to other core issues of this referendum campaign, such as national security or the delivery of public services.
Knowing what we don’t know is half the battle
With the British electorate either heavily divided or insecure on many core issues, what Tim Harford in a recent FT piece called “the rise of ‘statistical bullshit’ — the casual slinging around of numbers not because they are true, or false, but to sell a message” - seems to have left its mark on a fearful campaign season. Both the£4,300 per year and £350m per week figures cited earlier easily qualify.
Three weeks from the ballot, the public remains under- or misinformed. Crucially, more than a third of Britons (37%) say that they do not know very much or know nothing at all about the issues around the UK’s membership of the EU.
In fact, when tested, on some aspects of the EU that level of knowledge is even lower. Three quarters of Britons (73%) mistakenly believe that there are 29 countries in the European Union. Three in five (61%) incorrectly state that most British laws have to be approved by the European Parliament. And only three in ten (30%) correctly acknowledge that the EU has an official anthem.
The problem is not one of a shortage of statistics but rather their use by campaigns. For example, VoteLeave know that every time the Remain campaign dispute their £350m a week figure all it does is remind voters that the UK sends a large sum of money to the EU (regardless of what the actual figure is).
With three weeks to go, there is plenty of time for enlightened, fact-based debate, but that does not necessarily win you an election.