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January 18, 2003

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Who are the Euro Waverers?

Roger Mortimore and Simon Atkinson

Despite the lead which opponents of the single currency have in the polls, the most striking feature of opinion surveys over the last few years is the high number of people who claim that they are open to persuasion: the euro waverers. Numbering almost half the population (45%), this group is much larger than either the numbers of definite supporters or opponents of the single currency. And yet this group continues to be under-researched and misunderstood. It is against this background that we decided to commission MORI to do a detailed profile of the swing voters.
Based on exclusive opinion polling, MORI’s Roger Mortimore and Simon Atkinson build up a detailed picture of this group – with new information on their political complexion, earnings, personal financial circumstances, travelling history and newspaper reading habits. Crucially, they explore how likely the waverers are to turn out on polling day. To secure a victory – whether in 2003 or 2004 the “yes” camp will need to win over the majority of them. The findings of this survey make fascinating reading.
First, they demonstrate clearly that the euro referendum can be won: if all those opposed to the euro but prepared to change their mind are added to those already in favour, they make up 61% of the public. Pointing out that Europe is a complex and low salience issue on which people look to expert opinion, they conclude that the headline figures tell us very little about what will happen in an actual campaign: “the referendum result will not primarily depend on the balance of opinion when the campaign begins, but on the persuasiveness with which the two sides put their case”.
Second, they find that the most important variable for the result of a referendum will be the turnout. If all wavering opponents of the euro could be swung in its favour, 61% would support it, but if we consider only those absolutely certain to vote, swinging every waverer in favour would bring the “yes” total to only 55%. If the turnout is as low as 50% the “no” side will win by default, but if the turnout is 70%, it will help the “yes” side since a greater percentage of the stay at-homes would be eurosceptic. This means that the euro must become a high salience issue. Labour’s electoral strategy in the last two elections – based on arguing that the issue is less important than public services – must be reversed.
Third, they show that the “yes” side will need to have a very targeted campaign strategy – with different personalities, media and messages appealing to each group. Assuming that the “yes” campaign manages to secure the people who are currently in favour of the single currency, there will be two key target groups: “civic waverers” who are against the single currency but could be persuaded to vote yes, and “apathetic waverers” who support the single currency but are not sure that they will vote.
There are 2.8 million “civic waverers”, who have doubts about the single currency but could be persuaded to vote yes if they thought it was in the country’s economic interest. These voters are politically active, they tend to be women who are middle aged (35-55), middle class (ABC1s) and highly affluent. They tend to have at least two cars, a mortgage, and no children who live at home. They read the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph and are very gloomy about the economy. Politically, they are satisfied with Blair, but dissatisfied with the government. Interestingly, they hold Iain Duncan Smith in “unusually low regard” with only 15% satisfied with his performance.
The other key group are the 3.6 million “apathetic waverers” – people who are in favour of the single currency but unsure that they will vote in a referendum. Members of this group are the polar opposite of the civic waverers. They are very young (under 35) and politically inactive – many are too young even to have voted before. They tend to be male and single. They are either young professionals or students, and unlike the civic waverers, most have visited the continent of Europe in the last few years. Most do not read a daily paper, and if they do it is likely to be a “red-top” tabloid. Politically they register very high levels of support for Labour, the current government, and Tony Blair himself.
The fourth lesson is that people’s general economic and political outlook will be more important than their view of the euro. This poll suggests a strong correlation between economic optimism and support for the euro – with the most optimistic being the keenest on euro membership. There is also evidence that all the groups apart from the firm “no” voters are open to persuasion, and are broadly supportive of Tony Blair personally or the government generally. The key will be to build up – and maintain – levels of trust. One interesting variable is the fall out from the situation in Iraq which, depending on how it is perceived, could either significantly boost or damage both the Prime Minister’s and the government’s standing.
The fifth lesson is that the battleground for the campaign will be the broadcast media rather than the newspapers. Nineteen per cent of the adult population (8 million people) read no newspaper regularly and say that their mind might be changed on the euro. The non-readers are only a little less likely than average to say that they would be absolutely certain to vote in a referendum – and many more of them are waverers. The challenge will be to find an effective avenue of communication to swing their opinions – through agenda-setting in broadcast news, poster advertising or leaflet drops.
Finally, there is evidence that concerted campaigning can make a difference. The poll found that trade unionists are substantially more favourable to joining the euro than the average voter – 48% favour joining compare to 46% who are against. This figure is not sufficiently explained by the demographic, political and educational profile of trade union members and might be related to the fact that many unions have campaigned on the single currency in a concerted way over the last few years.
The backdrop to this poll is a hardening media and political consensus that, in June 2003, the euro referendum will be shunted off into the distant future as it was after the 1997 and 2001 elections. Some pro-Europeans, concerned by the stubbornness of the headline figures of public support for the euro, are arguing that there is no need to rush, while the sceptics are sighing with relief that their arguments will not be put to the test of public opinion.
There seems to be a consensus that the status quo is not too bad. On many variables we seem to be outperforming the Germans and other eurozone countries: our political influence has not disappeared; no major investors have upped sticks to move to the eurozone. In spite of the overblown rhetoric about exclusion from the currency, the heavens have yet to fall in.
What many seem to forget is that the status quo is based on a firm signal by the Prime Minister that he will join the single currency when the economic conditions are right. Leaders of other European countries, and many companies, have taken this assurance at face value, and have witnessed the growing convergence between the British and eurozone economies as a sign that Britain will join. This is not to say that there have been no costs from exclusion: the British share of foreign investment into Europe fell from an average of 28.9% in the 20 years prior to the launch of the euro to 16.7% last year. Furthermore UNCTAD estimates it will dry up to as little as 5.1% this year. The political costs have been real as well – a revival of the Franco German axis, and a failure to win support on reforming the Common Agricultural Policy.
But the status quo will come to a clear end by 6 June 2003 when the Government must decide. Research by the NIESR, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the OECD and South Bank University suggests that the five tests have already been met, so businesses and politicians across Europe will interpret a decision not to join as either weakness or evidence of a lack of commitment to the European Union. More warm words will not disguise the stark fact that Britain could be left alone outside the single currency if, as the polls suggest, Denmark and Sweden vote to join. More damagingly we could even find ourselves leapfrogged by the ten new member states – Cyprus and Malta already meet the Maastricht convergence criteria, while Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary are close. With the European Union writing a new constitution, setting its role on the world stage and welcoming ten new members, there could not be a worse time for Britain to be marginalised and bereft of support on the crucial issues. And with the international economy in a fragile state, a dramatic swing of investment away from Britain and into the eurozone could be very painful.
These figures suggest that a referendum can be won with a concerted effort and an effective strategy – but only if the government starts to build up momentum. The option to wait-and-see will always be attractive in the short term as the political risks of failing to win a referendum are imminent, while the risks of exclusion will only materialise in the future. But the danger is not merely that the present Government seem like lesser players in the history books – it is that Britain will be a lesser country that pays a heavy political and economic price for its isolation.

Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre and a member of the Executive Council of Britain in Europe.

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