There is a power differential at the heart of the decision we will make in the referendum on 23 June, and it’s not just between Westminster and Brussels.
By Guy Brandon, 20 June 2016
The UK’s membership of the EU will be decided on Thursday. The Campaigns for and against have been lengthy, misleading and often unpleasant. Spin, misinformation and even outright lies have been staple tactics for both sides.
A referendum is characterised as the government asking the people to make a decision. And yet the people are not equipped to do so. In Sunday evening’s Question Time a member of the audience commented, ‘I have found the campaigns confusing. I don’t know how I am going to vote. Both sides should feel ashamed of how they have behaved.’ David Cameron admitted that many people were confused, and that he hadn’t done enough to win over floating voters.
The referendum campaigns have been carried out on the grounds of narrow self-interest, typically articulated in economic terms – something that should be an instant warning flag for Christians. We are being asked to make a decision based on the perceived financial benefits to ourselves. However, the information we require to make even than reductionist decision has been carefully filtered, spun and packaged for the ends of those who are presenting it to us. There are many vested interests in the outcome of the referendum. A Leave verdict would quite possibly put Boris Johnson in No. 10 Downing Street. Big businesses (which are more vocal about their position) benefit from freedom of movement and lower wages, but smaller ones without a national voice tend to suffer from over-regulation. The Murdoch press is pro-Brexit, as are several other papers.
Whilst there are many undecided voters, there are few impartial people or organisations amongst those who communicate with them – or withhold information for their own benefit.
There is nothing that illustrates this so well than the news that hedge funds will be conducting their own exit polls on 23 June. In the General Election in May 2015, the BBC, Sky News and ITN ran a joint exit poll, asking 20,000 people how they had voted to gain an early indication of the outcome. This will not happen for the referendum: the lack of precedent means it is impossible to look at changes in voting intention in key areas and interpret them as a swing towards one or other party. The first the public will hear about the outcome is when the results are counted.
But hedge funds and investment banks are reportedly commissioning their own polls in an attempt to learn the outcome a few hours earlier than everyone else and profit by buying or selling Sterling, since the value of the pound against the dollar is expected to fall heavily in the event of Brexit and rise on a Remain verdict. (Thus, incidentally, the earliest indications of the referendum’s outcome may come towards the end of the day as large financial institutions place their bets on Sterling on the basis of unfolding information from their private exit polls.)
I was called at the weekend by a polling agency. The questions asked included a number about the referendum directly and indirectly: likelihood of whether I would vote (scale of 1 to 10); how I would vote; when I thought the referendum was taking place (presumably to strain out people who were more enthusiastic than informed); which issue I would make my decision on (the economy, immigration, welfare, jobs – I replied ‘none of the above’); whether I voted in the last General Election; how I voted in the last election. But they also asked my age; where in the country I lived; whether I owned my own house (outright, with a mortgage, rented, social housing); whether I had a degree. The survey was carried out by ComRes on behalf of the government. Clearly, the detailed information collected will be used to tailor the campaign to best effect in its final days, crafting the message to ensure it resonates best with the most critical audiences.
One of the most coherent responses to the referendum has come from comedian David Mitchell, who has argued that was it incredibly selfish and irresponsible for Cameron to have called the referendum in the first place. He quotes Richard Dawkins’ similar sentiment: ‘It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. You could make a case for having plebiscites on certain issues – I could imagine somebody arguing for one on fox hunting, for example – but not on something as involved as the European Union. This should be a matter for parliament.’
The fact there is a referendum at all indicates a failure of leadership. The tone of the campaign suggests something far worse. Referenda are the most direct form of democracy we have, and every vote counts – more than ever for this one, where the polls currently suggest the outcome will be close to 50:50. They are sold to us on the basis that they hand the power to us, as if they are a way of respecting the British public.
This has categorically not been the case. Information is power, and – quite aside from the complex nature of the debate – the scope and style of the In and Out campaigns mean that we, the people who will make the decision, have enough of neither.