Brexit: why was it such a surprise?

Posted on June 25, 2016

Over the past few week I have been sending out notes to friends abroad on the way the Referendum campaign has been shaping up. They weren’t very long, detailed  or analytical because I’ve spent a lot of time on street stalls, handing out leaflets, delivering posters and leaflets, canvassing households, and ‘knocking up’ known ‘Remain’ supporters on the day. As it happens, work, social, and family commitments have taken me all over the country.  In the six weeks immediately before the  referendum I was in Rochdale, Oldham, Salford, Manchester, Bristol, West Devon, Breckland (Norfolk), Bromsgrove (Worcestershire) and Sheffield, as well as London. I’ve spoken to hundreds of people and listened carefully to what they said. I’ve also asked friends and relatives across the country what they have been picking up. Even my 93 year old mum who lives in a rather twee village in David Cameron’s constituency. You know what …  what I heard in person and what they reported  back to me, all pointed in one direction; a decisive ‘Leave’ victory.  And indeed of all those areas that I visited, only Manchester, Bristol and London voted ‘Remain’.

So on 12 June I wrote out to my group of friends setting out my conclusions.  Its not exactly polished  commentary because as I signed off to them, ‘I’m off out campaigning now.’ But this is what I said:

”My sense is that we will vote to ‘Leave’. Ten reasons are as follows:

  1. The EU is a fairly hard sell. It is a big impersonal org not something cuddly.
  2. A lot of people don’t understand what they get from the EU – quite a few do of course, but not enough.
  3. The Establishment in the UK and globally has lined up behind ‘Remain’. Obama, Archbishop of Canterbury, IMF, all the political parties, the trade unions, UK business leaders, foreign business leaders,  all the leading bankers, you name it. If you want to take a kick at the elite/establishment/1%, here is your chance!
  4. The EU isn’t perfect – what human-created org is, but its not too difficult to pick holes if you try, and some people are trying! (incl on the left; ‘what about Greece; look what they did to them’. etc)
  5. Cameron is the front man. A lot of people don’t like him, esp young and on the left.  So why make him happy by voting for something he wants.
  6. A lot of young people won’t vote. Current predictions are … 45% of young people will vote (of those registered, not a v high proportion!) and 72% of over 60’s will vote. Most olders  have a rosy view of the past when everything was ‘better’,  ie before the EU. [The point I didn’t spell out explicitly here was that younger voters are more ‘pro-Remain’ and older voters more ‘pro- Leave’. I assumed my audience knew this. The predicted young people turnout rate was  pretty accurate, actually 50%]
  7. There is a real fear of immigration and  there are plenty of right wing demagogues playing that tune very hard… Trump, Le Pen; Farage/Johnson/Gove in UK; others all over the EU. The right is on the march as a reaction to globalisation  and it isn’t pretty. In the UK its manifesting in this referendum.
  8. The Labour party has a leader who opposed the EU the last time we had a referendum – in 1975 and according to polls most Labour supporters don’t know whether Labour is for ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. The air waves have been dominated by ‘blue on blue’ (ie Tory Party) action, so they still don’t know Labour is for ‘Remain’ because their leader isn’t v vocal/visible. Labour voters will decide it, and a lot of them are the ones who have suffered most from globalisation and are attentive to UKIP’s racist tunes.
  9. All the press except ‘Guardian’ and ‘Mirror’ are almost hysterically hostile and quite happy to peddle all kinds of lies/misinformation/fantasies. Murdoch sees it as a defining moment… can the  mainstream print media still ‘best’ a government in these days of social media/the online stuff? We are about to find out; but he is putting a huge amount into proving his point.
  10. The polls have shown a steady tide towards ‘Leave’ since Xmas …. it is very hard to turn that kind of trend round in the last 10 days. Possible .. but highly unlikely.

Conclusion. It could be close, ( so-called ‘shy Remainers’ turn out for the status quo on the day – actually what happened in the Scottish Referendum in 2014) but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if it was a landslide for ‘Leave’. All the signs are that way as I see them.”

One big thing happened between that post and the Referendum itself on 23 June; the assassination of Jo Cox MP. I did wonder if that terrible act by a right wing extremist would make people sit up, take a deep breath and ask themselves…  ‘Are we really  comfortable with this kind of discourse  and  the poison it unleashes into the body politic?’ I did wonder if it might be one of those moments where decent people looked at themselves and said…. ‘We can’t allow this to go on’ and would fall on the ‘Remain’  side of the fence. In fact I think it did have some effect of that kind,  and the result was closer than it otherwise might have been; but  it was not enough.

So the question I am puzzling over is… How come the pollsters, the bookies, the markets, the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns, (I found the TV pictures of ‘Remain’ big wigs swilling champagne – that I had paid for – in party mode in the Royal Festival Hall  before the first results came in, utterly nauseating), Bloomberg and such like trackers, and even the private polls for City-types that Nigel Farage referred to after the poll closed, when he said he thought that ‘Remain’ had ‘edged it’  as he put it, (before ‘unconceding’ a few hour later), got it so wrong? A gap of 1.3 million between the two  sides isn’t close. Perhaps, once again, nobody in the Establishment was actually listening to what people were saying.  No wonder so many voters are cross.