Andrey Kulikov
Editor at Europe Insight

Referendums and campaigns

Why the anticipated victory of the Remain camp in the EU referendum didn't happen

In the article I published before the UK referendum on leaving the EU, I argued the balance of powers among parliamentary members and the government was such that the outcome was predictable. My prediction turned out to be wrong and I will now attempt to answer two questions in this article. First, was there any justification for basing an analysis on elites (in this case, parliamentary members) when prognosticating the results of the referendum? And, second, why was my prediction mistaken?


Sara Hobolt, formerly from Oxford University, explains, the names of candidates or parties are absent on referendum ballots (as distinguished from election ballots) – and citizens express their opinion about a problem they may not understand. This creates a situation where the voter seeks some guidelines that will help him or her to understand the question and take what appears to be a conscious decision. Thus it becomes of increased importance for parties to wage campaigns during the run-up to the referendum.

Researchers are of the unanimous opinion that the more monolithic the political class (so not only the ruling power but also the opposition, including non-parliamentary), the more guaranteed the result. A schism in the elite creates the conditions for an unexpected outcome. Where there is disagreement between parties, there is a high probability that a voter will vote on a single issue on this basis of his or her own opinion rather than out of solidarity with a party or for tactical considerations.

Thus, there is no doubt regarding the position of political parties as an indicator. And so using it as a hypothesis appeared justified. Moreover, it was also important from the outset to determine the degree of cohesion in the elites and their level of voter support.

In order to establish this, I – the same as the other researchers mentioned in my prediction – did not use public opinion surveys because of their reputation for ambiguity. Instead I used data on the alignment of forces within the elite (government and MPs) and the experience of previous referendums.

So, first of all, the sources used for information on elite positions were the BBC and ConservativeHome, the main online platform for the Conservative Party. It is obvious there that the ratio of those supporting the UK’s membership in the EU to the Eurosceptics was approximately 3:1 in parliament and 4:1 in government.

Although via the links one can now only find data on the situation for 22 June, I note that the relationship there persisted throughout the entire campaign. And thus one cannot say this was a sudden “last moment” alignment.

Secondly, analysis of recent referendums had revealed a pattern and made it possible to verify a hypothesis on the decisive role played by elites, to compare how politicians’ positions translate into some expected result. Moreover, the experience of referendums in the United Kingdom in 2011 and 2014 gives weight to the idea that pro-EU supporters will outnumber their rivals decisively.

In addition, the June referendum in Switzerland is a convenient example for analysis. The large number of multifaceted questions (five) and the parties’ varying positions also confirmed the thesis regarding the crucial role played by the government and politicians.

Thirdly, and finally, it was important to understand how strong the ties between voters and parties were and establish whether there had been a growth of eurosceptic moods.

General elections were held in the UK only in May 2015. The Conservative Party won (11.3m votes) followed by the Labour Party (9.4m) and the Scottish National Party – in third place by number of seats (1.5m). However, the elections also showed serious growth for the Eurosceptics in UKIP, who received nearly 4m votes but did not make it into parliament (with an exception of Douglas Carswell).

The local elections held throughout the country in early May, a mere month and a half before the referendum and at the very moment when politicians were waging their campaigns full on, presented another, exceptional, opportunity to see the strength of anti-European sentiments.

Here, for instance, are the data for England. One can see from a glance that the Conservatives and Labour lost seats while the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Liberal Democrats, to the contrary, gained seats.

All the same, there had been no great upheaval. The growth of the eurosceptic UKIP was perfectly balanced by the distinctly pro-European Liberal Democrats. The total figures regarding the number of seats and controlled councils did not change or only changed a little bit. The local elections did not reflect mass displeasure with the elites overall or pro-European parties in particular.

Thus the conclusion was made that despite the rather sweeping eurosceptical sentiments, the referendum would have to be the indisputable triumph of those advocating for the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union.


And now the most interesting part: figuring out why the prediction failed.

But I will begin with a short review of why the British themselves think the Eurosceptics won:

  • People’s widespread dissatisfaction with politicians (Jim Pickard of the Financial Times, Sara Hobolt from the London School of Economics);
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to campaign together with Prime Minister David Cameron (Politico) and generally sabotaged the campaign (BBC);
  • Mistaken bet on the economy when the population was concerned about immigration (Guardian);
  • Complex – wrong leaders, wrong campaigns, wrong focus, lack of support in the tabloids, dissatisfaction with the prime minister, the opposition’s insufficient strength, disillusionment with the EU and the role of older people (Centre for European ReformBBC).

Here, part of the explanations place the method of elite analysis under suspicion, indicating the general dissatisfaction people have with the establishment as a whole or with certain leading politicians in particular. However, these suppositions were not, for some reason, corroborated in the 2015 general elections or the 2016 local elections.

Instead of broad lack of trust, it would be more appropriate to speak of dissatisfaction or lack of confidence specifically in connection with the issue of a united Europe. Then this referendum is the same in spirit as a whole series of past plebiscites: Denmark 1992, Ireland 2001, France and Holland 2005. One can also add to this list the cancelled referendum in Ireland that was supposed to take place in 2005 or 2006.

In each of these cases, the political elites had a favourable opinion towards change but the population clearly said “no”. And overall, according to the results of those referendums, many of which were “re-played”, the idea was less about trust in elites and more about unwillingness to accept something “by default” or to agree to the “partial loss of sovereignty”.

These interpretations and precedents are very important for prognosis. So it was necessary not to analyse all the referendums but to identify those specifically relating to the pan-European constitutional problem.

But there is nothing to be found here which answers the question of how such a gulf could emerge so suddenly between politicians and voters in this particular referendum. It is all the more strange considering the fact that in the United Kingdom the ties between voters and their MPs are traditionally strong while the latter, in turn, are actively engaged in their constituencies.

It is no secret that in an electoral campaign candidates are using every form of communication with the voter in order to convince him – meetings, canvassing, distribution of brochures and leaflets, telephone calls, social networking sites, and so on. One could hardly have assumed that voters would defiantly vote against the requests of their individual representatives on a fundamental issue. And the requests of the overwhelming majority of MPs and ministers were going to have to guarantee the sure victory of supporters of the status quo.

Thus, taking into account the ties between politicians and voters in the United Kingdom, the only explanation that can be suggested here is that there was a failure in the local campaigns of each and every one of the pro-European politicians.

From the beginning of the year, the Universities of Nottingham and Kent maintained records on local events dedicated to the referendum. By early June, the researchers calculated that both camps had held over 3.5 thousand events and the pro-European politicians had significantly outstripped their competitors.

However, the majority of events were held in the capital. “In British politics, you often hear the complaint that few people like to travel outside of London and our data supports this view,” wrote Matthew Goodwin, head of the group.

The visual aids they provide in map form show that intensive activity was undertaken only in those individual English constituencies that were considered key. In the rest of the constituencies there was little or even no activity. And even if the pro-European politicians campaigns went all out in the final weeks, that would hardly have altered the moods left to drift for the previous five months in any fundamental way. (For comparison, see the map of referendum results.)

In conclusion, the prediction did not take two factors into account: the experience of referendums specifically on European constitutional issues, where citizen’s initial Euroscepticism is seen, and the particular characteristics of campaigns on the local level, where MPs simply did not consider it necessary to put all of their efforts into defending their point of view.

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