Founder of polling group YouGov makes Brexit referendum prediction

With just three days to go until the United Kingdom decides whether to leave the European Union or remain, Stephan Shakespeare, the founder of YouGov, reveals what the latest polling tells us about the likely outcome of the referendum in an exclusive interview with The National.

Will Remain or Leave win the EU membership referendum in the UK on Thursday?

It is extremely hard to tell. Our latest poll has a one-point lead for Remain, but we’ve been having three or four polls lately and interviewed literally 9,000 people and they are all around a couple of per cent either side of a dead heat. So at the moment we are looking at a dead heat in terms of what people say they are going to do next. However, most people at YouGov, including me, take the view that in most previous referenda across the world, but in particular the Scottish one, which is a model for us, there is a reversion to status quo in the last bit of the campaign. We would expect that going into the final straight if it’s a dead heat or thereabouts we would expect to end towards Remain. But that is pure speculation, there’s no hard evidence for that. There is only looking at previous experience.

How much of your reputation is riding on getting this right given the controversy around the accuracy of the polls before the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 UK general election?

We got Scotland pretty much spot on. For some reason, people remember 10 days out – very briefly – one poll [showing] a one-point lead for the break up of the union. Every other poll after that showed a point-by-point reversion to the status quo. Our eve-of-poll had a six-point lead for the equivalent of “remain” in Scotland and our on-the-day poll was within 1 per cent – so our polling record for Scotland was perfect. We only ever had one thing wrong and that was embarrassing and stupid. The whole industry made the same error. But that is the only time we predicted the wrong outcome in over 50 elections. I agree with you that that’s very big, but since then we got the Corbyn election right. We got the Welsh elections right in May. And we got the [London] mayoral elections bang on as well. So we have a massive history of being spot on or thereabouts and only one poll that was ever off, and that was obviously the huge embarrassment of the general election in 2015. I don’t want to push that under the carpet. We had a massive investigation, and we found out what was wrong and we changed things to deal with that. It’s perfectly possible we’ll get this one wrong because different things go wrong and if we do, it will be very, very painful. But our long-term history in polling is very, very accurate.

What further polls will you be releasing between now and referendum day?

We are polling every single day and we have a final poll for the media finishing on Wednesday and probably being published on Thursday morning. We are doing our damnedest to get it right.

Why should voters trust you more than bookmakers?

Bookies are very different to what pollsters do. Pollsters tell you as best they can what people are saying and thinking today. What bookies and markets do is bet on the outcome at the end. At the beginning of this interview, I said I don’t think that the result we have today will be the final result. If I was putting money on it I would also put money on Remain because I think in the last minute, like Scotland, there will be a bit of a drift back towards Remain. Our last poll is when we are in competition with the bookies, not in our early polls. It also has to be said that the bookies are basically aggregators of polling, they don’t have independent evidence of any kind. If you look at the Corbyn experience, until our poll came out to say he was ahead, Corbyn was the outsider. The bookies had him as the outsider until our polls came out.

Are there any parallels to be drawn between the EU membership referendum in the UK and the presidential elections in the US in terms of what is pressing the emotional buttons of voters?

I think there is an important parallel. Of course we can’t take these things too far, but in both cases there is a challenger, in [Donald] Trump or the Brexiteers if you like, to establishment politics. And they are attracting support from people who feel they have been left out. The ones who perhaps feel they have not advanced as much economically as the rest of society, the ones who feel they have less of a voice and who look to outsiders like Trump and [Nigel] Farage. So yes, those buttons are being pressed by the same type of politics if you like.

Has the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox influenced the likely outcome of this referendum?

We have taken a couple of polls after that tragic event and we don’t see that as having an immediate effect. The swing back to Remain had been coming back before the tragic murder.

Then what has been driving the Remain momentum?

There is some guesswork that the punishment budget of George Osborne, although quite widely condemned as scaremongering, may nevertheless have worried people into switching. The reason one could guess – and it is no more than a guess – is that at the same time the regular tracking question we ask, which is “Do you think Brexit will help or hurt your personal finances?”, took a 10 per cent leap in the last week for those who said they do now consider the prospect of Brexit hurting their personal finances.

Is immigration the big driver for Leave voters?

Yes, the single biggest driver for the Leave vote is concern about immigration. Some of that will be pure xenophobia and racism. A lot of it isn’t that at all. There is also an economic effect to open borders. Some would argue it’s a positive effect because you have more talent coming in and driving the economy. Others say it drives down wages and puts pressure on public services. So immigration is an important issue, but it’s not only a race issue.

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