Let’s not settle for a low #EUref turnout

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 16th June 2016

It’s generally a fool’s game to predict poll turnout. But there are some signs which can give you a clue.

One is how likely people they are to say they’ll vote. Today – with a week to go before the referendum – it’s been revealed that just 62% of Brits say they’ll definitely vote in the EU referendum.

Despite this being in many ways being more important than any General Election – it’s a once-in-a-generation vote that will affect the UK for decades to come – the figure is lower than last year’s General Election turnout of 66%.

But what’s more worrying is that people typically over-state their likelihood to vote in these polls – some say they definitely will and then don’t when it comes to it. So we could actually end up with turnout even lower than 62%.

Look behind the headline though and you see a concerning demographic divide. Just 55% of those from poorer C2DE backgrounds say they’ll definitely vote on June 23rd – compared to 67% of wealthier ABC1 voters.

What that means is that this referendum could be decided by one social group on behalf of another. That surely makes for bad decision-making and bad democracy.

We’ve already seen that just 47% of 18-24 year olds say they’ll vote next week, compared to 80% of over 65s.

Little of this is a surprise. This debate has been largely dominated by a small social group – wealthier, older male politicians, and forthcoming stats from the think tank CoVi entirely bear this out.

This feeds through to how younger people talk about the referendum – the viral website LadBible have just revealed that out of 35,878 comments by 18-24 year olds on EU referendum-related posts, just 241 named individual politicians. They are not into the ‘big beasts’ – they are interested in the issues.

But a low turnout, combined with a tight result and the demographic divide we’re already witnessing, could add to claims about the referendum result being somehow ‘inconclusive’.

Both sides are, in public, ruling out any questioning of the result. ‘This is a once in a generation vote’, said Tory Priti Patel MP at the Telegraph/Huffington Post debate on Tuesday, while Labour’s Liz Kendall stated ‘A win is a win’.

Yet the Press Association’s projection of the outcome of the referendum currently has Remain and Leave tied on 50.0%. A tied result on a low, unequal turnout is a recipe for arguments, particularly as there have already been legal spats surrounding this referendum.

Nobody wants an inconclusive result. But the quality of debate has hardly inspired Scottish-style levels of engagement. The grassroots campaign has been lacking, while at the top all that people have seen is a Westminster parlour game.

Let’s hope, with one week to go, the campaigns do everything they can to get the numbers up so this referendum is genuinely the result of a diverse national conversation. And more importantly, so we don’t spend the next two years arguing about the legitimacy of the result…

If you feel left in the dark on the EU referendum debate, use the new Better Referendum toolkit

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