Anyone looking at the recent polling on the referendum question would be forgiven for suffering a considerable level of uncertainty over whether the UK will vote to stay in or depart the EU on 23 June. The latest poll – by YouGov for The Times on 18 May – had Remain on 44% and leave on 40%.
That the overall position is close is clear. However, 5 weeks ahead of polling day, it would be fair to assume that many have not yet focused on the question in any detail. Lansons recently commissioned Opinium to poll 500 SME leaders on their views of the referendum question. Overall, the SMEs in our sample favoured remaining in the EU by a noticeable margin – 49% to 41%, with 9% not knowing how they will vote. Underlying this, of the issues that are ranked as most important to all SMEs, freedom of movement and immigration is the highest. This issue speaks to all SMEs, regardless of whether they support staying in or leaving the EU; arguably, to this end, it is the biggest issue that the OUT campaigns could use to push voters into their cohort. On the other hand, the burden of regulation imposed by Brussels – the issue currently most pushed by leave campaigners at SMEs – is far more likely to strike a chord only with those already inclined to vote to depart the EU (rather than those who want to remain). Although it is ranked second in the priorities of those SMEs supporting Brexit, those who are not Brexit supporters do not rate it as one of their top issues at all – favouring instead economic growth and relations with other EU countries after immigration.
A majority of SMEs also thought that Brexit would negatively impact the UK. More than 50% more SMEs thought the UK would be better off if the UK voted to stay than thought it would be better off if the UK voted to leave (36% to 20%). 45% of survey respondents thought share prices would fall if UK voted to leave; and, 44% thought inflation would rise if the UK voted to leave.
If these results are representative, they suggest that the OUT side has some work to do if they are to persuade SMEs to support them. The two sides are relatively tied (albeit that the larger bloc already favours remaining part of the EU). However, the underlying factors all favour the IN camp. The current tactics of the Brexit side are likely at best to reinforce their base, rather than persuade more SMEs to support them: attempts to push the burden of regulation as a leave message are unlikely to have cut-through except with those who already think we should leave. And this likely to be outweighed by the number of people who think we will suffer some form of negative economic impact – something which the IN camp is pushing hard, and daily, with the balance of economic opinion now clearly pointing to some sort of negative economic consequences if the UK votes for Brexit.
All this suggests that, at least as far as SMEs are concerned, the OUT campaign will struggle unless they change their tactics. Freedom of movement and immigration has real cut-through as an issue. If the Brexit campaigners want to move SMEs on this issue, they need to shift the discussion dramatically in this direction. In this regard, the fact that they are, in reality, two, competing, campaigns – Vote Leave and Leave.EU – does not help. They need to bury their differences and push the same messages if they want to deliver the result they seek.