The EU referendum: do voters understand what they’re voting on?

The UK’s EU referendum is now less than a week away. We’re each going to individually vote on something that could dramatically affect the future of our lives and even the structure of society the UK, so it’s a potentially important one. Recent sick tragedies have added to the mess that is the provably wrong claims from the Leave camp, and the responses that seem largely ineffective, and possibly not much less biased, from the Remain camp.

Clear-cut facts seem in short supply within the public consciousness; and yet surely one of the assumptions behind the validity of a direct-democracy referendum is that those who are enfranchised to participate in the decision have something akin to “perfect knowledge” about what they are to vote on. Or at least pretty-good knowledge, if we want to grant some leniency.

If one knows almost nothing, or, worse yet, holds false beliefs around the issues to be balloted on, then to choose the option most in-line to the priorities of the voter themself, irrespective of what they are, becomes a matter of chance, a dangerous reliance on instinct, or a matter of fallible heuristics. Logically, one might assume then that the voters with the most true knowledge about the relevant issues would be in a position to make “better” decisions.

So, do we, the British population have a decent knowledge of the key issues that apparently govern the EU battleground? Battles are being fought between camps on  economics, immigration, legislative power and democratic credentials.There have been various polls on this issue, trying to establish the knowledge of the electorate. Below I have chosen one from Ipsos Mori, who asked various subsections of the eligible voting population to give their views on several “EU facts”.

One of the subsections they divided on was the self-reported response as to whether the respondent was thinking to vote for Leave, Remain or was currently undecided. This opens up the possibility I wanted to investigate: is one side more well informed about the relevant facts than the other? One might – arguably – then risk a claim that this is the side that may be executing more effectively with regard to “data driven decision making”, being technically more “qualified” to participate in decisions relating to matters of this domain.

This is admittedly arguable for several reasons. Firstly, the precise choice of the questions may not be an accurate reflection of the points of highest relevance to this decision. Ipsos Mori could not ask about every possible EU fact, so there is a possible selection bias here. However, they did ask questions on most of the topics that each side specifically campaigns on, so it seems in line with what the campaigners think are the priorities driving people’s decisions.

Another question is, with the confusing contradictory mess of the claims being put out there, is it really safe to say there is a “correct” answer? For some potential questions, my view is no: establishing a true net economic value of the EU seems beyond us at the moment for instance. However, Ipsos Mori did at least work with an external “fact checking charity”, Full Fact, to try and establish a set of questions and respective answers that could be held as independently true.

Unfortunately, Ipsos seem to have decided to release the detailed results of the survey (which is nice) in a 500+ page PDF (which is not). So to get to the bottom of my question, it seemed appropriate to extract and visualise some of this data.

Let’s get to it!

Economics

Please tell me whether you think the following statement is true or false: The UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back

Most of the respondents were correct to imagine that the UK pays more in to the EU budget than it receives back (directly back is what is implied, I believe, more on this later). 90% of Leave fans believed this, although only just over half of Remain and Undecideds chose the correct option. Both of those were more uncertain, although a quarter of Remain campaigners incorrectly though we received back more than we put in.

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: TRUE

Sheet 1

There is a widely-known argument that the financial benefits of being in the EU are nonetheless  net-positive due to things like the increase ease of business, investment and so on. The StrongerIn campaign writes:

And we get out more than we put in. Our annual contribution is equivalent to £340 for each household and yet the CBI says that all the trade, investment, jobs and lower prices that come from our economic partnership with Europe is worth £3000 per year to every household.

The whole financial aspect of the decision is one heavily campaigned on, very selectively, by the different sides to the point where they seem to contradict each other directly (not rare). It’s possible in the resulting confusion that some respondents may have included those non-direct factors, which could make the statement true.  It might have been helpful if the question had made it very clear that it was about direct transfers of money with no external factors.

Winner: Leave

What proportion of Child Benefit claims awarded in the UK do you think children living outside the UK in other countries in the European Economic Area (EEA)?

Organisations such as MigrationWatch, and the obvious media outlets that like to cause drama with such figures, have stated that the UK is paying a pile of expensive-sounding child benefits to children that live outside the UK, in the EU. It’s true that this, in accordance with the current law, is happening. But what proportion of child benefit is actually going abroad like that? Is it a worrying amount? (if one could set a mark as to when it would be worrying…).

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: 0.3%

Sheet 1

OK, we’re all way out here! Only 11% of both the Leave and Remain camps got this right. Leave were more likely to estimate stupendously high amounts. Almost half of Leave though it was at least 13%, which would overstate reality by 43x  (and 20% though it was nearly a third, a whole two orders of magnitude higher than real life.).

That’s not to say the Remainers were correct,  over half still over-estimated it to various degrees, and c. 10% understated it.

Winner: Remain.

In 2014, international investment into the UK was £1,034bn. To the best of your knowledge, what share of this total amount do you think comes from businesses based in the following countries or regions?

Part of the Remain case for remaining in the EU is the supposed positive effects it has on investment in the UK. A letter from a bunch of business folk publicised by the SrongerIn campaign says:

…almost three-quarters of foreign investors cite access to the EU’s single market as a key reason for their investment in Britain.

The Vote Leave campaign disagrees on the significance:

Trade, investment and jobs will benefit if we Vote Leave… Today the USA is a more important source of investment in the UK than the EU is.

This “share of investment” is not the only metric of significance to this discussion, but it is relevant. Does the UK get a lot of investment from EU, or is it mere pennies? How well do we know where investment comes from today?

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: The EU provided 48% of international investment into the UK in 2014.

Sheet 2

All groups very much underestimate the percentage of international investment that comes from the EU. The Leavers at the most extreme, with a median response of 28% vs the Remainers 35%. In both cases this seems largely down to wildly overestimating the amount of investment that comes from China.

Winner: Remain

 

To the best of your knowledge, what share of this budget do you think was spent on staff, administration and maintenance of buildings?

We accept that for the EU to exist, it has to have a budget, that has to be paid for by those within it (and arguably a few of those outside of it, but that’s a different story). But is it spent in way likely to make effective impact, or does the majority of it go on bureaucratic administration tasks and staff costs?

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: 6%

Sheet 2

Ha, way out, on both sides. Leave people are most inaccurate, thinking that the proportion of EU budget going on admin, staff and buildings as actually 5x larger than it is. Remain aren’t that much better though, estimating it to be over 3x reality.

Winner: Remain

Please identify the top 3 contributors to the EU budget in 2014

Respondents were then given a list of 10 countries and asked to identify which were the top 3, in descending order, in terms of contribution to the EU budget – i.e. what was the direct financial cost of the EU to them.

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: 

  1. Germany
  2. France
  3. Italy

Top:

Sheet 4

Second most:

Sheet 4

Third most:

Sheet 4

Well, both Leave and Remain did better than half marks when stating which country made the highest contribution to the EU budget – Germany. But identifying #2 and #3 were trickier; no subpopulation got even half marks on identifying the correct answer.

Of course, probably the most relevant datapoint driving people’s voting decisions is where voters think the UK sits in the ranking of budget pay-ins. It isn’t actually in the top 3 (it is in fourth place, after Italy). However most respondents clearly thought it did feature in the top 3 contributors. Leave were particularly bad for this, with nearly a third thinking it was the single top contributor, and around 90% convinced it was in the top 3. The figures for Remain don’t show a huge pile of knowledge though – 17% and 80% respectively.

Winner: Remain

Please identity the three which received the most from the EU in 2014.

The above covers putting money into the budget, but part of what the EU does is give money back to countries directly, for example to support farming or development of the more deprived areas of a country. So, same 10 countries, can we identify those the top three in terms of receiving money directly from the EU budget?

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: 

  1. Poland
  2. France
  3. Spain

Top:Sheet 4

Second most:Sheet 4

Third most:Sheet 4

Hmm, we’re even worse at understanding the money flowing back into EU countries! Around half of all populations got that Poland receives the most, OK. But after that the uncertainty was huge, with no more than 1 in 5 people of any sub-population coalescing around any answer, right or not.

Focusing on the UK, about 9% of Leavers thought it was somewhere in the top 3 recipients, whereas the Remainers were much more wrong about this, with 22% claiming the UK was in that list.

Winner: Leave

Democracy

Please tell me whether you think the following statement is true or false: The members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are directly elected by the citizens of each member state they represent

MEPs are our representatives in Europe, and yes, they are elected by us. The last election was in 2014, although with a pathetic turnout of 34% it does sound like the majority of Britain didn’t notice. But do we at least know these people for whom we should have voted for 2 years ago exist?

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: Yes

Sheet 1

Umm…not really. At least a little over half of Leave and nearly two thirds of Remain knew that they elect MEPs, but that still leaves a highly significant number of people who either are convinced that MEPs are unelected, or don’t know. The next chance to elect UK MEPs is likely to be in 2019, so let’s hope we can spread the word before then.

Winner: Remain (but not by a lot)

Laws and regulations

Which of the following, if any, are laws or restrictions that are in place, due to be put in place, or are suggested by the EU for implementation in the UK?

Ah, the EU laws craziness! Did you know, Europe bans us from <<insert anything fun>> and makes us do <<insert anything miserable>>? Well, in honesty, it does have some influence on what will later be entered into British law.

Below are a list of a few fun potential legislative bits and pieces. Which ones are actually true and somehow related to the EU? As there are quite a few of them, the answers according to Ipsos Mori are inline.

Sheet 3

Actually, we all did better than I expected. Only 8% of Leavers thought we’d have to rename our sausages as “emulsified high fat offal tubes”, which funnily enough the EU hasn’t made us do. Maybe we should anyway. Sausages aren’t that great for you.

Perhaps more interestingly, most of us don’t realise the restrictions that the EU has influenced us towards – although the list is perhaps “summarising” it a bit. The classic “Bendy Bananas Ban” has been categorised here as true (which only 35% of Leavers thought was the case, vs an even worse 15% of Remainers).

You’ll no doubt will be amazed to hear that the law doesn’t actually read “you can’t have bananas that are too bendy”. But it does actually come from somewhere in terms of real legislation. To be exact (brace yourself for excitement): the COMMISSION IMPLEMENTING REGULATION (EU) No 1333/2011.

It states that:

…subject to the special provisions for each class and the tolerances allowed, the bananas must be…free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers…

But that’s only really for “top class” bananas. Go for a class 2 and you can expect that:

The following defects of the fingers are allowed, provided the bananas retain their essential characteristics as regards quality, keeping quality and presentation:
— defects of shape,
— skin defects due to scraping, rubbing or other causes, provided that the total area affected does not cover more than 4 cm-sq of the surface of the finger.

So if you get an abnormally curved top class banana, the EU has let you down. However one measures that.

Winner: 5:3 to Remain (although there’s an obvious pattern that drives this results: Leave are always more likely to think any law is made by EU, whereas Remain don’t think any law is – so Remain are lucky there are more false statements than true statements really).

To the best of your knowledge, which of these laws or taxes in force in the UK are as a result of EU regulations?

And now for current laws. Again,  the answers according to Ipsos Mori are inline.

Sheet 3

Hmm…we’re less good at knowing the truth of this one, whether Leave or Remain. In fact in some instances the results are strikingly similar between groups. Around 60% of both Leave and Remain know that EU regulations surround the cap in working hours (although actually there are exemptions for certain types of jobs). But only 23% of each side understand that 2 year guarantees are a result of such regulations.

Believing that the national living wage is a result of EU regulations is similarly thought true by 19% of both populations, even though it’s false. All in all, the differences between Leave and Remain are probably lower than the general level of ignorance on this topic.

Nonetheless…

Winner: 5:3 to Leave, by my count, although some questions are super-close.

Which of the following, if any, do you think are areas where only the EU has power to pass rules, and not individual EU countries?

We’ve covered which existing or proposed regulations and laws are influenced by the EU above – but what about topics where on the whole only the EU has the power to legislate?

Answers according to Ipsos Mori are inline.

Sheet 3

Hey, we’re not too shoddy on this one compared to some of the other questions. Both Leave and Remain beat 50% on knowing which domains were EU-regulated, and likewise both sides did even better at knowing which ones were done so domestically.

Again, some of the differences in responses between group were pretty small. The most notable ones were perhaps that Leave were 8 percentage points better at knowing that the EU has the power to rule on fishing industry controls, whereas the Remainers were better at knowing that the EU does not control laws around sentences for crimes committed by non-British nationals by 7 pp.

Winner: 4:2 to Remain (again, differences between groups are very small in some cases).

Immigration

Another hot topic in the debate; an argument that, at the most despicable end of the Leave campaigners boils down to “if we remain in the EU then the UK will be overrun with nasty foreigners who just don’t deserve all the good things we have”. Of course many Leavers are far less obnoxious in their views, and may have more benign concerns around resourcing and space. The Remainers, depending on their views, might pursue the argument that immigration is net benefit to the UK (or at least not net detriment), the more ethical option, or that leaving the EU is not likely to make so much difference anyway.

But are we deriving  our viewpoints with accurate knowledge as to the incidence of migration into the UK?

Out of every 100 residents in the UK, about how many do you think were born in an EU member state other than the UK?

Correct answer according to Ipsos Mori: 5%

Sheet 2

Looks like the median respondent is way out again: all subpopulations over-estimate the percentage dramatically. Leave produces the most out-there answer, thinking one in five UK residents where born in an EU country other than the UK; 400% of the real value.

Remain do better, but still come up with a median answer that is double that of reality.

Winner: Remain

Summary

Horray, we’re done. Did we learn anything? Well, when totting up the scores the final Leave vs Remain results by my slightly rough scoring method above are:

  • Leave: 3
  • Remain: 8

Overall winner: Remain

So, can we go so far as to say that well-informed voters are more likely to make the choice to Remain?  And hence, if we assume a perfect electorate should have perfect knowledge, then is Remain the correct way to swing?

Well, it is surely the case that the Remain voters were more likely to be a bit more accurate as a population in most of the questions above by my measure, but that conclusion is still rather a strong one to draw.

What really shows through here is the general level of ignorance in all populations; whilst it would be nice to say that 100% of Remainers got things right and 100% of Leavers got things wrong and hence Remain is the only decision we could say was based on evidence, the reality was far more mixed. There were plenty of questions where the majority of both groups got it wrong.

This is quite concerning if one has an ambition that the results of a referendum are predicated on voters basing their choice on some semblance of the reality of the present or potential future. In fact, I’ve had Brennan’s book on ‘The Ethics of Voting‘ on my to-read list for a while, and I’m now a little scared to read it in case it makes me decide that Churchill was actually wrong to imagine that democracy was even the least worst form of Government! Perhaps we are simply not yet in a place where it makes sense to hold a referendum on this topic, although there is certainly no stopping it now.

It’s also apparent that there are voters on each side that hold their opinions “despite” what they think they know about certain domains. That is to say: we can infer that nearly 1 in 5 of the Remain voters are committed to remain, despite the fact that they (incorrectly) think the UK pays the highest amount of the EU budget, and/or (incorrectly) think that the proportion of EU born people living in the UK is actually twice as high as it really is. Although the data is not available in a granular enough fashion to perform a per-respondent analysis on it to see if these two subsections of people consist of the same individuals, this does suggest that there are reasons not elucidated in any one of these questions regarding why one might choose to vote stay or go, and hence the conclusion is incomplete.

That said, for those of us currently desiring a Remain verdict, it seems that it would do no harm to try and spread some of the more validated “truths” to the nay-sayers. Given the mess that both sides have created whilst campaigning, it may be debatable how effective that can be amongst the noise; but, if we want to believe in the validity of referendum politics, then we must try to believe that true knowledge has some impact on one’s voting choices.

However, there are yet further psychological forces to counteract even the most ardent advocate of facts driving decisions: given research suggests that we tend to disregard anyone whose opinion disagrees with us, and that we  often make up reasons to explain our behaviour after we’ve executed it (Kahneman writes excellently on this), the war for votes requires something more than simply winning the battle to expound the truth.

 

 

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