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…