A few days ago during the inevitable Political Betting dissection of the too-ings and fro-ings of another day in the EU referendum campaign the fact that this race really might be a close one began to sink in.
I am a moderate Leaver – the sort who accepts that there are weaknesses in some of the arguments put forward by the Leave campaign, but for various reasons sees that our future and Europe’s might be better apart. I can therefore also be realistic over problems that having several competing Leave camps has created – not least the apparent fall-out between Vote Leave and Nigel Farage this week over TV debates. And realistic too about the prospect of asking people to vote on what often amounts to a hunch, a gut instinct, a pride, a hope and a trust in the ingenuity of an independent British future.
Remain, meanwhile, are not arguing amongst themselves, they have the Prime Minister and HM Government on their side, with the vast supplies of resources and patronage that has brought in the run up to the campaign proper. The leaderships of many supranational bodies, respected captains of industry and well thought of celebrities are also for In. Even the President of the United States visited to suggest we should stay. They also have the benefit of trying to sell the status quo, which is generally seen in the UK as the easiest position to explain in a referendum. And yet the polling averages suggest that the two campaigns are almost tied. Stepping back from the daily bunfights, the name calling and the last media cycle, one has to wonder: why are Remain not walking this referendum?
The Remain campaign are leading with what they think is the strongest message, but one which might prove to be the wrong message for the referendum. Economics, the pounds in people’s pockets and in their pay packets, might trump almost everything else in general elections, when increasingly we’re choosing the people who will be deciding often difficult tax and spending plans. All the more so when the country is struggling to fund it’s commitments – winning 2015 was therefore about framing Conservative economic competence and ‘finishing the job’.
But, for two reasons it might not work this time; firstly, figures can be disputed, and Leave, for all their faults, have done a great job of casting doubt on the figures released in the past 3 weeks. Economics is no science, and the inclusion of longer-term forecasts is also dangerous when the public are a little bit too used to a Chancellor not meeting his deficit reduction targets. Economic forecasts two or three years ahead can rarely be relied upon for important decisions, and the public, probably quite rightly, seem to consider estimates for 2030 with a healthy degree of scepticism.
Secondly, leading so strongly with an economics-based argument almost looks like Remain are avoiding discussions of sovereignty and immigration. Again, to give credit where it is due, the Leave campaign have very successfully focused their campaign on these issues. And for many people, especially the C1, D and E demographic groups, the daily reality of immigration is more likely to be witnessed as a form of real or (sometimes media driven) perceived economic competition in the job market and real or perceived competition for access to public services.
Remain might struggle to win over voters if they are overplay economics not only because people don’t believe the economic arguments and figures, but also because some of us might consider from experience that the gains of improved sovereignty or a reduction in the immigration figures could be more personally significant.
Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the relative positioning and lead messages of the two campaigns also allows for an entirely divergent group of people to tend towards Leave: those willing to accept there might be an economic cost, and even buy into the figures and forecasts provided by the Treasury, Bank of England and IMF, but consider this to be a “price worth paying”. When Arron Banks suggests similar he is laughed at, but as easy as it might seem to dismiss this argument out of hand when it comes from a wealthy individual and prominent donor to UKIP, personal experience suggests that this concept might resonate with a group who will worry the Remain campaign far, far more: pensioners. Many of whom will remember a Britain before EU membership.
So if long-term economic forecasts are not trusted by a large proportion of the public, if some consider the economic implications of immigration and sovereignty more personally significant to their pocket, and if some groups, like pensioners, are even happy to accept that there might be a real economic cost but that it is worth leaving the EU anyway, how is the savvy punter to get the best odds?
The obvious position to take is an outright bet on Leave – which is still only a little over an implied 30% likelihood on Betfair. The 9/4 odds offered by Ladbrokes on Leave are matched by their odds for David Cameron ceasing to be Prime Minister in 2016; and as I hazard that a Leave vote would be followed by a resignation, this makes sense. The 16/1 odds from Ladbrokes on a UK general election in 2016, surely a possibility in the event of a Leave vote, might however be attractive to those of us willing to take a bit more of a risk.