EU referendum #1

I have no interest in trying to predict the outcome of the EU referendum. I’ve never really seen the point in hoping to know the result is advance. Sure! Campaign planners need guidance on where to put resources. And speculation can be entertaining. But, personally, I’ve always felt that we’d know the actual result soon enough, so why get in a frenzy trying to discover the result in advance. For the most part, there’s nothing any of us can do with that information. Unless you’re a gambler, there’s no great advantage in picking the winner.

In the case of the EU referendum, you’d do as well with a coin-toss, I suspect, as with all the arcane information-gathering and data-juggling methodologies of every pollster there is. And for a simple reason – people.

More accurately, people’s attitudes. Polling works, more or less, because there is invariably a recognisable pattern to the range of attitudes. On any given question, there will be a few fanatics at either end of the spectrum while a sizeable chunk of the middle will be occupied by people who, effectively, don’t exist – because they either have no view, or have no intention of acting on whatever view they have.

Mostly, it’s something close to the standard distribution, or bell curve.

But the distribution of attitudes in relation to the EU is very far from normal. The distribution is heavily weighted towards the anti-EU end of the spectrum of attitudes. There are a lot (note the unscientific term) of people who are fervently opposed to the whole EU project. All the fanatics are at that end of the see-saw. The other end of the see-saw is empty. There are no pro-EU fanatics. Or, at least, they exist in numbers small enough to compete with hens’ teeth as a metaphor for rarity.

On the one side you have a wee army of union flag-waving British nationalists sporting tattooed declarations of devotion to an imaginary land called “Brittian”, alternating between teary-eyed but faltering renditions of ‘Jerusalem’ and chest-puffing, jaw-jutting, right-hand-on-left-tit tributes to a nonagenarian aristocrat in a million-pound hat; with passing mention of some long-dead general whose success in terms of Scot-crushing may have been somewhat over-stated.

On the other side there’s a bespectacled, grey-haired, book-toting academic in a stained and wrinkled suit with matching face who might have Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ on her phone, but she isn’t sure how to work the music-player app.

In between, there’s an amorphous mass of people characterised variously by ennui, inertia, ignorance and intellectual indolence. Not bad people. Not bad people at all. Just ordinary folk who aren’t particularly enthused by the whole thing. People who, if they think of the EU at all, perceive it as something remote, detached and more than slightly alien. People who just don’t see how any of it has anything to do with them. Or why they should have anything to with it. Whatever it is.

Not all, of course. Some will gladly give you the dubious benefit of opinions derived from a personal political philosophy constructed entirely from Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines. They will, for example, regale anyone foolish enough to ask with assertions about how undemocratic the EU is. (Each assertion customarily suffixed with a declaratory “FACT!”.) And how “they” are destroying “our” democracy. Ask them anything about the institutions, structures and processes of the EU and they will proudly declare themselves untainted by any such knowledge.

And they will be just as ignorant of what they passionately believe to be the superior democracy that they label “ours”. You can try pointing to the concerns of authoritative figures such as the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord (I kid you not!) Judge, who said in a recent letter to The Times,

Lawmaking by secondary legislation has become habitual. Every year statutory instruments covering something like 12,000 printed pages come into force. Some extend to major issues of policy: some give ministers power to dispense with primary legislation. Virtually every page creates laws or duties, powers or prohibitions. They are by no means confined to matters of administration.

But it is unlikely that any regard will be paid. The ‘true believer’ will stubbornly insist that “our” system is better than “their” system despite knowing nothing of either.

Will they vote, however? Or is their political activism confined to parroting the stuff fed to them by those at the rabidly anti-EU end of the spectrum? Theirs is more of a resigned contempt than a burning hatred such as might move them to get off their arse and go to the polls.

And our lone advocate of EU membership is not without her supporters. There’s a portion of that amorphous mass-in-the-middle which is at least vaguely aware of the role of the EU in securing and guaranteeing many of the social provisions that we take for granted – like paid holidays and parental leave. They are sort-of aware that the EU does stuff in relation to civil rights, workers’ rights, consumer protection and the like. Some even know a bit about the role of the EU in maintaining peace in Europe – relative, at least, to the bloody conflicts that consumed the continent prior to the EU coming into existence.

But they tend to take these things for granted. They don’t see them as being threatened by “Brexit”. Despite the UK Government’s quite open hostility to workers’ rights, human rights, trade unions and a great deal more, they imagine these things to be secure. They feel no sense of urgency about voting to protect these things.

And even those who recognise that the EU does some good are nonetheless plagued by its behaviour towards Greece and its failings in relation to the “immigration crisis”. Their support for the EU is, at best, conditional. Wavering. Uncertain. Tenuous. Non-committal.

That’s the problem for the pollsters. How do they account for this ‘abnormal’ distribution? It’s easy to see how, especially where respondents are self-selecting, the results will be skewed towards the anti-EU extreme due to the lack of any counterbalancing pro-EU extreme. How do they weight the data so as to take account of this odd distribution of attitudes? I don’t pretend to know. To be honest, I can’t pretend to care. I am much more concerned about the implications for our democracy.

Democracy works best with high levels of popular engagement and voter participation. That, I hope, is sufficiently well recognised and accepted to require no supporting argument. What is, perhaps, less well appreciated is the extent to which democracy fails as voter turnout falls. At a certain point, it ceases to be democracy at all. And that is the situation which, potentially at least, confronts us with the EU referendum.

Under normal circumstances, the extremes tend to cancel one another out. Where there is a normal distribution, the far ends of the distribution become, in electoral terms, irrelevant. More so when voter turnout is high. Even where they do not cancel each other, the extremes are effectively swamped by the sheer mass of ‘moderates’.

With the EU referendum, democracy faces something akin to a ‘perfect storm’. There is only one extreme – the anti-EU mob. This is not balanced by any pro-EU extreme. So, in the absence of a sufficiently large mass of ‘moderates’ the extreme will prevail. Bear in mind that extremists will always vote. They are, by definition, extremely highly motivated.

If, for the most worthy of purposes, I may indulge in a little “Project Fear” of my own, I would say that, by failing to vote, you are empowering extremists. If you do not vote in the EU referendum then you are abandoning democracy to forces that do not necessarily respect democracy.

Sympathise with the plight of the pollsters as you may. The real issue here is turnout. And if that turnout is not high enough, everybody loses.

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