The UK Referendum on EU Membership: How Much Will Turnout Matter?

Justin Fisher

This week, Professor Justin Fisher writes on the importance of electoral turnout in June’s referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Why does this impact differ from a general election or any other referendum for that matter?

As the UK referendum on EU membership gets closer, the opinion polls will start to matter a whole lot more. Months out from the referendum, the polls have been difficult to interpret, as there are many voters who have yet to make up their mind. There’s a good reason for this. Despite appearances to the contrary, the EU is not an issue that British voters grapple with on a daily basis. At general elections, it rarely, if ever, features in the top ten most important issues identified by voters. True – immigration has become an increasingly prominent issue, but of course, that includes immigration from outside the EU as well as from within. But as June 23rd gets closer, voters’ attention will increasingly turn to the referendum and a clearer picture will emerge as to the likely outcome.

So, if Europe is not an issue that excites British voters in a way that the NHS or the economy does, will this mean that turnout will have an impact on the result? Comparatively, turnout in referendums tends to be rather lower than for national elections. And that is generally true in the UK as well, whether at national or sub-national level. The 1975 referendum on EEC membership was 64.5%, when in the October general election of 1974, turnout was 72.8%. Not a huge difference necessarily, but the last time there was a UK wide referendum (on the electoral system) in 2011, turnout was only 42%. There are two exceptions, however. Referendums in Northern Ireland in 1998 (the Good Friday agreement) and Scotland in 2014 (Scottish Independence) both had very high turnouts – well in excess of participation at national elections. But both referendums were on questions that carried significant political and emotional involvement on both sides. In the case of Europe, where there is emotional involvement, it is heavily skewed toward the Brexit camp.

With this in mind, low turnout has been seen as a potential threat for the Remain camp. It’s argued that the greater commitment will lead Leave voters to be more likely to turnout. Certainly, the 2014 European elections, with a typically low turnout (35.6%), lead to UKIP being the largest party. Moreover, one of the largest opinion splits is generational. Polls tell us that older people are much more in favour of Brexit, and young people much more in favour of Remain. Importantly, older people are much more likely to vote than younger ones. So, if Remain voters are complacent, the Leave side could win. There’s a strong logic to this view and it may well be correct.

But there’s also an alternative view – that a high turnout may benefit the Leave campaign. Why is that a possibility? First, the UKIP vote tends to be proportionally higher in areas where the demographic characteristics are associated with lower turnout. Coupled with that, those who voted UKIP at the 2015 election were more likely to have not voted in the 2010 election compared with supporters of the main GB parties. Of course, UKIP is not the same as the Leave vote. But we do know that the Leave campaign is disproportionately supported by those with from lower social groups and those with lower levels of education –groups that are generally less likely to vote. All in all, there is some evidence to indicate that those who might be most likely to support Brexit are less likely to be habitual voters. A higher turnout, where these voters are mobilized, could therefore be beneficial for the Leave campaign.

Ultimately, I would probably lean towards the view that it would be a lower turnout that would be more beneficial to the Leave campaign. But, clearly, neither side can take the impact of turnout on the result for granted.

 Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science at Brunel University London

If you’re eligible to vote and haven’t yet registered, there’s still time. You can register online here

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