A look at the referendum’s salience
Last Monday, UKIP wandered into another of their controversies over gay rights. Alan Craig, who has in the past called equality campaigners the Gaystapo and described gay marriage as being as bad as the Nazi invasion of Poland, has been selected as a candidate for the London Assembly. Most UKIP supporters are frustrated by the fuss. They don’t believe in a relationship between sexuality and meteorology but really don’t see the views of some of their number about gay rights as an important matter when it comes to deciding how to vote. Hold that thought.
Many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters sigh at the amount of attention gets given to his contacts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Beyond a general wish to see peace established, they are not particularly exercised by the complexities of the factions or the unsavoury views of some of these people. They are much more interested in the social justice that he stands for. Why bother about something relatively peripheral? Hold that thought too.
Let’s turn to the question of the referendum on the EU. For many of the politically committed, particularly in the Leave camp, this is the paramount question of the day. Everything is viewed through this prism. Members of the public who have yet firmly to make up their minds about the referendum are implicitly considered ignorant. Politicians who have yet to commit themselves publicly are regarded as duplicitous. How could anyone not see this as being of vital importance?
Now, return to the two held thoughts. It should not be a revelation, but apparently it is: different people place different degrees of importance on different matters. Some people regard respect for other people’s sexuality as of prime importance. Some people regard it as vital not to associate with those who could be seen as terrorists or anti-Semites. For that matter, some people regard restricting abortion rights as being of touchstone importance and find the contrary view as being not just unfathomable but wicked.
What of the EU? Well, here we have a lot of evidence of just how important the average voter thinks it is, courtesy of the long-running Ipsos MORI monthly issues poll. And as you can see from the table at the top of the thread, it’s hardly a burning concern. When respondents are asked to name up to three important issues facing the country, concern about the EU hasn’t registered with more than 20% of the electorate in more than 10 years.
You sometimes hear diehard Leavers argue that when respondents name immigration as an issue it’s a proxy for the EU. There are two problems with that. First, respondents would be quite capable of naming the EU if that’s what they meant. And secondly, there is no obvious correlation between the salience as an issue over time of immigration and the EU.
So it’s hard to escape the conclusion that most voters just don’t see the EU as the central subject that many right wing political activists do.
Once that is understood, the actions of those politicians who treat the subject as one to be politicked with also become readily understood. They’re not being immoral or dishonest, simply acting logically in order to promote subjects of much greater centrality to their political ideology. Much has been written about Michael Gove apparently agonising about his intellectual belief that Britain should leave the EU and his loyalty to the Cameroon project. Leavers are outraged that he has anything to consider here. But if he genuinely believes that the Cameroon project is more important, why would he not swallow his principles on EU membership in order to do his best to protect it?
So for those that do care passionately about the EU, how should they respond? First, banging on about the EU isn’t going to change many votes. The target-rich environments are the voters who see other subjects as more salient. So this week we have seen David Cameron painting lurid pictures of the Garden of England converted into a Hogarthian slum by migrants if we leave the EU. Leave, of course, have been majoring on the numbers of foreigners coming to Britain for ages. Expect risks to the economy to be conjured up, existential threats to the NHS and increased terrorist dangers to be bandied about.
None of it will really have all that much to do with the pros and cons of EU membership – the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers from outside the EU, for example, has only a tangential connection with EU membership and in any case at present is operating largely outside the nominal EU rules that have some relevance to such matters. It won’t stop a lot of people who really should know better huffing and puffing about it at inordinate length.
I expect I’m supposed to sigh and look severely at the poor quality of political discourse in the referendum. But I don’t. If you believe that membership of the EU is a fundamental matter, this will be disappointing. But if you believe that the question of EU membership is about the best means to an end, this focus on other issues that the voters believe are more important is extremely heartening. So the question now is which side has the more persuasive arguments about these bread and butter subjects. And which side can most resist talking about qualified majority voting and Eurozone consolidation.