Thursday 17th January 2013 | 20:00
The Knowledge: EU and me, always?
The grey vote may be crucial in any referendum on the EU, writes Mark Gettleson
WORDS: MARK GETTLESON
Talk of an EU referendum seems set to continue to dog our political discussion for years to come, following the Prime Minister's speech on Friday. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments has been Ed Miliband's flat rejection of the notion, giving David Cameron a clear opportunity to show UKIP waverers that their only chance of a referendum lies with lending their vote to the Conservatives.
The lead-up to the speech has also seen a plethora of commentators declare that, if and when push came to shove, the British would vote to remain in the EU. Indeed, the considerable lead the 'out' lobby built up in the course of the last year appears to be narrowing. This may a reflect recent lack of Eurogeddon stories that flooded frontpages through 2011 and 2012, as well as our begrudging fondness for the status quo, especially when the alternative is hazy.
Europhiles should not, however, get ahead of themselves. Firstly, the idea of remaining in the EU on negotiated terms is consistently polling far better than a simple in or out. But it takes two to tango and most noises from Brussels, Berlin and, indeed, from his deputy, suggest that the Prime Minister would be wise not to overestimate his chances of success.
Of even more importance, however, is the question at the heart of all psephology: who is going to bother showing up? There is little accurate data on modelling turnout, but one trend is clear – older people vote in far higher numbers, as seen in the General Election when voters over 65 had a 76% turnout rate compared to 65% overall. Moreover, as turnout falls, as seen to varying degrees in every other election, the drop-off is predominantly with younger voters, a phenomenon exacerbated by the fact postal voters, who skew strongly towards pensioners, are far more likely to always participate.
European elections have tended to show fairly woeful participation rates. A ComRes poll last week found that 73% respondents gave themselves a five to 10 likelihood of voting in 2014, contrasting strongly with the 35% turnout actually seen in 2009. Even amongst those giving themselves a nine or 10 scores, 43%, seem engaged in wishful thinking. A similar YouGov poll found only 14% of respondents ‘not voting’.
This Europe referendum, if it comes, is unlikely to be on the same day as a general election, as it would add a distinct unpredictability to that contest. But whatever the optimistic turnout polls project, it is likely to see comparatively low and therefore elderly participation. So what do pensioners think about leaving the EU? They seem keen on the idea, with 53% to 26% of over 65s telling YouGov they would vote to leave, compared to 42% to 36% of the general population. The ComRes poll that finds the public as a whole would choose to renegotiate our relationship with the EU rather than leave by 11 points, finds older voters disagreeing by four points. Similar results are found by the strength of UKIP among these voters in the latest YouGov poll.
There seems a distinct possibility that the voting public in any referendum not held on general election day will be profoundly more Eurosceptic than the country as a whole.