With the prospect of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) looming in the next few years, you might expect the issue to be exercising voters ahead of May’s election.
On the face of it, however, we do not appear overly concerned about the EU; looking at data aggregated over the whole of 2014, just 2 per cent of voters rank the EU as the most important issue facing the country. Even those who support UKIP, the party whose founding objective was British withdrawal from the EU, have other more important concerns, with only 7 per cent ranking the EU as their most important issue.
Even on our broader measure of voters concerns, covering all issues of importance, the EU ranks only in 13th place with just 9 per cent spontaneously mentioning it as a concern, rising to 20 per cent among UKIP voters but falling to just 5 per cent of Labour supporters.
However, while voters do not view the EU as a very important issue, it will be crucial in the forthcoming campaign, at least in part because of the policy consequences that flow from our membership, particularly the issue of immigration which voters see as significantly more important.
Around 4 in 10 voters (38 per cent) now see immigration as an important issue facing the country (50 per cent among Conservatives and 77 per cent among UKIP supporters), up from 30 per cent in 2010. More tellingly, the proportion of voters reporting that immigration will be a ‘very important issue’ in deciding how they will cast their vote in May has almost doubled from the same point in the last electoral cycle, from 14 per cent in March 2010 to 25 per cent today. So, salience with a policy issue closely affected by EU membership is currently much higher than with the EU itself.
However, if an in/out referendum does take place during the next parliament, there will doubtless be a significant increase in the salience of the EU as an issue among voters.
Indeed, a look back at 40 years of our polling on important issues reveals that spikes in concern about the EU coincide with periods of significant debate about the extent and nature of our relationship with the EU. This includes the early 1990s when Britain was debating signing the Maastricht Treaty, the lead-up to the 1997 election when the Referendum Party stood on an anti-EU agenda and the late 1990s and early 2000s in the lead-up to and implementation of the Euro and the debate over the UK’s membership of the new currency.
Experience from last year’s Scottish independence referendum highlights the extent to which a debate about a key constitutional issue, determining where key decision-making powers lie, can stimulate significant levels of public interest and dominate the political discourse over a long period of time.
And as with the independence referendum, public opinion is likely to swing as any detailed referendum debate gets underway.
Despite public attitudes moving towards an increasingly anti-EU position in the early years of the current parliament (with 54 per cent, of those who expressed a preference, saying they would vote to leave the EU in the event of an immediate referendum in October 2011), opinion has softened somewhat since. Indeed by our October 2014 poll, among those who expressed an opinion, 61 per cent preferred to stay in the EU while the remaining 39 per cent would vote for a ‘Brexit’.
While such findings may provide heart to Europhiles, it is worth considering what public opinion looks like when offered a more nuanced choice of what Britain’s relationship with the EU should be. Under such circumstances, only 17 per cent support leaving the EU while a further 34 per cent would prefer Britain to be part of an economic community with no political links. Meanwhile, 43 per cent of voters support either the relationship remaining unchanged (29 per cent) or a move to closer political and economic integration (14 per cent).
Such analysis may hearten those who would campaign for a ‘Brexit’ in any referendum, that they can win the day if they manage to persuade a sceptical population that Britain is part of an inexorable move to ever closer integration among EU members.
Added to this research that points to the British public being most likely to associate the EU with negative attributes (when asked what the EU ‘means to you personally’ the two most common answers are ‘waste of money’ (33 per cent) and ‘bureaucratic’ (29 per cent), and it’s not difficult to see how a future referendum would certainly not be a foregone conclusion.
So, don’t expect the issue of British membership of the EU to dominate the forthcoming election. But that debate may be just around the corner.
Mark Diffley is director of Ipsos MORI