EU referendum – Small Margins and Big Consequences

Tribes Research 30th March 2017
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With all the furore surrounding the EU referendum result, the resignation of the Prime Minister and the civil war in the Labour Party, it is surprising that there is very little comment about the small margin of the Leave victory.

The difference between the Leave and Remain votes was almost 1.3 million. That is a lot of people but it is only 3.8% of the total number voting, meaning a shift of less than 2% towards Remain would have kept the UK in the EU. An important decision with big consequences was decided by a very small margin. In an interview on the Sunday after the vote, Iain Duncan Smith, from the Leave camp, claimed the vote was “a very clear mandate”. I disagree, it is a slim majority and it is clear that some of the claims during the campaign were of dubious accuracy. If people knew then what they know now, less than a week after the vote, would the result have been different.

During the campaign there was a lot of controversy over the Leave campaign’s claim that £350 million a week in additional funds would be made available to the NHS if the UK left the EU. Within hours of victory leading Leave campaigners were back-tracking on this ‘commitment’. Would enough people have voted differently if they had known that the extra funds for the NHS were not guaranteed?

To get an indication of public sentiment a few days after the referendum we asked our Tribe Village panellists:

  1. “How did you vote in the EU referendum”, and
  2. “If you could vote today, how would you vote”

The results showed a shift from a majority for Leave to a majority for Remain.

eu referendum voting
(1) Source: Tribe Village panel surveyed on June 26-27

Participants that changed their voting were asked why and some of the responses given for those switching from Leave to Remain were:

  • “Because of all the lies that were told to make me choose leave
  • “Learning the truth about leaving”
  • “The chaos that is ensuing”
  • “Because they lied about saving the NHS which is the reason I voted leave”

The sample was sourced from an online only panel and the data has not been weighted to be representative of the population, so we are not claiming that the result would change if the referendum was re-run today. What we have shown is that when the difference between winning and losing is so small, a change in voting intentions of a small proportion of the population can make a huge difference, especially when the decision is of such importance to the future prosperity of the UK for certain, and possibly the rest of the EU.

It is too late now but it would surely be more sensible to require a greater margin in a referendum vote to change the status quo as a change away from that is always a step into the unknown. Could a requirement to achieve at least 55% of the vote to change the status quo ever be feasible? And, if you agree and were in the Remain camp and live in Scotland, would you accept such a condition for the inevitable Scottish Independence referendum?

Posted by: Kevin Goldberg