People feel left in the dark by the EU referendum debate

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 7th March 2016

With less than four months to go before the referendum, the signs are that the EU debate just isn’t reaching the public.

Today we publish polling by BMG Research showing that just one in six people feel well informed about the upcoming EU referendum.

The polling shows that just 12% feel ‘well informed’, while a further 4% of the public feel ‘very well informed’ about the June vote. In contrast, nearly half (46%) feel poorly or very poorly informed about the vote. And this falls to 38% among those who say they will definitely vote in the referendum, rising to 61% among those who say they probably will not vote – suggesting there is a link between how much people feel they know about the referendum debate and how likely they are to vote.

Released on International Women’s Day, the BMG polling also shows a huge gender gap – men are twice as likely to feel well informed than women (21% vs 10%).

There’s a generational divide too – over double the number of 55-64 year olds feel well informed (21%) about the referendum compared to 18-24 year olds (10%), suggesting that young people will be less likely to vote on polling day.

Today we’re launching our own programme of work on the EU vote, A Better Referendum – because we think these findings highlight the need for a deeper and more informative debate around the referendum.

We’re making 5 recommendations for the EU referendum campaign:

  1. The Remain and Leave campaigns to commit to taking part in televised debates on the EU referendum
  2. The campaigns to make voter registration a key plank of their plans
  3. The campaigns to support initiatives aimed at giving citizens a chance to debate the issues in more depth, for example by providing speakers for local debates
  4. The campaigns to commit to a ‘Ceasefire Week’, where both sides only put out the positive cases for their arguments
  5. Media organisations, relevant public bodies and non-governmental organisations to commit to providing balanced coverage of the debate, including clear and comprehensible facts on Britain’s relationship with the EU

Today’s numbers should serve as a wake-up call to politicians, parties, public bodies and everyone involved in the referendum to do all they can to boost public knowledge and engagement in this crucial vote. People want a real, informed debate about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, so let’s give it to them.

We saw in Scotland during the independence referendum what can happen when people feel informed about an important decision and empowered to take part. People are crying out for the full information they need to get to grips with the EU referendum debate, and for the space to have those discussions.

The campaigns have a responsibility to listen to voters and engage with them, as well as broadcast their views. And in a close referendum, turnout will be key – so it’s in the campaigns’ interest to provide a platform for a rich and stimulating debate.

And the media have a part to play in creating the conditions for a good referendum debate. Let’s hear about the issues at stake and not just about the personalities and in-fighting.

Our five recommendations could help open up a real conversation among the public about the issues surrounding Britain’s membership of the European Union. There are simple things which can be done to bring this referendum to life, from TV debates to grassroots events and a ‘Ceasefire Week’.

We know that there is a clear link between how well informed people feel and their likelihood to vote. So let’s take the conversation beyond Westminster and Fleet Street to communities across the UK.

As part of our ‘A Better Referendum’ programme being launched today, we’re releasing extensive monthly BMG polling on the EU, including regular questions on:

  • How informed people feel about the referendum
  • Which campaigns voters have heard from (and how)
  • What percentage of people the public think are likely to vote (wisdom of crowds)
  • How negative/positive both sides are seen in their campaigning

We’ll also be providing commentary on the vote (including technical aspects of the referendum) throughout the campaign.

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