British Conservative prime minister David Cameron now appears to have agreed to the cornerstones of a deal that he hopes will see the British people vote to remain in the European Union. It’s not yet been confirmed, but it’s now looking increasingly likely that the residents of Blighty will get to make that call on 23rd June. Current opinion polls – assuming they are polling more accurately than they did in the 2015 UK General Election – tell us that, regardless of the precise nature of the deal that Cameron ultimately secures, it will be a very close race. The Yes vote generally seems to be just ahead, but there are polls that say the contrary. Come what may, four months out and it is, to use a cliché, still very much all to play for.
Given the closeness of the contest, it is worth asking: what might ultimately prove decisive in deciding the outcome? Academic research on referendums gives us a number of pointers.
On the one hand, it’s clear that decisions like this are not going to be purely about the minutiae of the deal that Cameron and co finally agree on. The majority of British people won’t read the text and a fair few who do will have a tough job in making sense of it – EU legalese is not exactly a rip-roaring read. So what will Brits use as pointers in helping them make their decisions?
Mark Franklin, Cees van der Eijk and Michael Marsh, in one of the seminal pieces on voting behaviour in referendums (see here), argue that the standing of the government of the day is in reality the key thing to watch out for. They argue that “referenda in parliamentary systems” are “subject to a ‘lockstep’ phenomenon” where the actual outcome is “tied to the popularity of the government in power” (Franklin et. al., 1995: 101). They go further, claiming that this remains so even when the subject of the referendum has little to do with the reasons for the government’s (un)popularity. Not so much a case of it being ‘the economy, stupid’, but rather ‘it’s the government, silly!’
So, Franklin and co would expect Cameron to come through. As they rather bluntly note, “popular governments will get votes in favour of referenda that they propose” (1995: 102), meaning that pro-EUers can, given that Cameron’s government is still doing well in the opinion polls, begin to sleep just a little easier at night.
Not everyone, however, completely buys in to Franklin et. al.’s argument. Aleks Szczerbiak and Paul Taggart (see here), in an award-winning conclusion to their special issue of West European Politics on referendums in Europe in 2004, talk of the importance of “cues provided by elites”, but one shouldn’t neglect the underlying trends of the population at large (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 753). Indeed, they clearly end up in a slightly different place to Franklin et. al. when they state that “the outcomes of referendums are neither the exclusive preserve of masses or of elites” (2004: 753).
Szczerbiak and Taggart use evidence from the referendums held across Central and Eastern Europe on EU membership to illustrate this, pointing out, for example, that non-political figures can have small but significant influences on campaigns. And these influences will obviously be all the more significant when the result looks like it’ll be close (Szczerbiak and Taggart, 2004: 767).
Assuming that Szczerbiak and Taggart are right and the behaviour of those outside the political class can have an effect, then it might also be worth noting one other thing about the proposed 23rd June date of the referendum. And for that one needs to look back at a bit of recent history.
In 1970 the then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was all set to be returned to Downing Street in a June election. He had been consistently ahead in the polls and in the run up to polling day there was, despite a little bit of economic turbulence, confidence that the Conservatives under Ted Heath would be successfully defeated.
Yet Labour lost. The reasons for this were much debated at the time, with Wilson himself coming up with a decidedly left-field explanation. The 1970 election took place in the middle of the 1970 football World Cup, staged in Mexico. And, England, as defending champions, were all set to do well. Alf Ramsey’s side came out of their group intact and ended up – as so often seems to be the case – locking horns with Germany. This time in the quarter-final in the sweltering heat of Leon. England looked to be cruising to the semi-final, leading 2-0 with little more than 20 minutes to play.
Alf Ramsey, conscious of the hot and humid conditions, subsequently took off Bobby Charlton to save his (by now aging) legs. Things immediately started to go wrong; Peter Bonetti, the stand in goalkeeper (Gordon Banks, England’s legendary keeper of the 1960s, had been taken ill in the morning) made a couple of now infamous mistakes and before anyone really knew it England were out of the tournament.
So what? Well, the game took place just four days before the UK’s general election. The crushing nature of England’s defeat seemed to be of more significance to many than an election to see which white, middle-class man would lead the country. Indeed, Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, was reported (see here) to be bamboozled by having to deal with questions about whether Alf Ramsay or Peter Bonetti was the bigger national scoundrel (the answer according to this football fan, for the record, is that both of them were to blame!). Wilson himself noted that the national mood seemed to have changed, and the optimism that generally prevailed beforehand was shifting to a much more negative feeling of disgruntlement. A small number of government supporters, so the hypothesis went, subsequently lost enthusiasm for Labour and didn’t vote, whilst others went from giving Labour the benefit of any doubt to having had enough of them. The numbers involved were, again so the theory goes, not particularly large but they may have been large enough to help give momentum to a late swing.
In June 2016 England will be playing in the European Championships. Although England had a truly dismal 2014 World Cup finals (the less said about which the better), the side does appear to have been given a new lease of life. Young players such as Deli Alli, Ross Berkley, John Stones and Jamie Vardy represent a breath of fresh air, and ten wins out of ten (with 31 goals scored and just 3 conceded) in the qualifying group is clear evidence that all need no longer be doom and gloom. England, furthermore, have been drawn in a group from which they should qualify; Russia, Slovakia and Wales all represent challenges, but if England are serious about being a football mover and shaker, then Roy Hodgson’s men really should progress to the knock out stages.
The final group game against Slovakia takes place on 20 June. Just three days before the proposed date of the referendum. As those with longer memories will know, and regardless of events in 1970, football certainly can impact on the national mood; the cases of 1990 and 1996, when England got to the semi-finals of major tournaments, are evidence of that. David Cameron, therefore, needs to hope that Wayne Rooney and co come to the party in France in the summer.
Furthermore, if England don’t qualify out of the group that they’ve been drawn in, the very opposite (in terms of mood) could happen. All of the footballing indicators say that England should achieve that goal, making the feelings of disappointment all the more pronounced if England were to crash out. If Joe Hart proves more Peter Bonetti than Gordon Banks or if Wayne Rooney proves to be more Luther Blissett (google him!) and less Geoff Hurst, then this could have ramifications that are potentially much wider than simply (yet another) calamitous performance in a major football tournament by the English national football team.
Dan Hough is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex where he is Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption.