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25 April 2016

Brexit and the Polls

Posted By: AIB Business

The UK Referendum on EU membership in June will put polling back in the spotlight. Such an important vote, which will likely be decided by a fine margin, is a challenge for pollsters. Margin of error will be no excuse for getting it wrong, writes Damian Loscher from Ipsos MRBI.

The Brexit vote will be an opportunity for UK pollsters to redeem themselves. The universal misfire in 2015, when no polling company gave the Conservatives a chance of winning an overall majority, was a low point for the profession. Much has been done in the interim by the British Polling Council  to identify the source of the problem: only time will tell if the problem has been correctly diagnosed.

Polls are not intended to be predictive. They are measures of public opinion or support at a point in time. Naturally, however, polls taken close to an election or referendum are expected to closely match the final result. More often than not they do.

Certainly, Ipsos MRBI’s pre-election polls have proven to be remarkably predictive of recent election outcomes in Ireland. On the other hand, pre-referendum polls in Ireland have, at best, been indicative of the final outcome. Why? Simply because most voters know weeks, months, even years in advance which party or independent candidate they are going to support in an election, whereas voters often leave it until the last minute to decide how to vote in a referendum. Recent referendums in Ireland on Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of the President  or on Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries are examples of what might be called, perhaps unfairly, “finger in the air” referendums – most voters held no firm views on the issues at the outset  and many only made up their minds on the day.

Brexit Polls Should Prove Reliable

Is Brexit a “finger in the air” referendum because voters have not tuned in to the debate yet? Not at all. Ipsos MORI (UK) has been tracking opinion on EU membership since 1977, so the question has been on the polling agenda for the past 40 years.  More recently, Brexit has been headline news, almost forcing the public to consider the arguments and take a side. For these reasons the polls should be predictive of the outcome, in much the same way as the polls accurately forecast a No to Scottish independence.

Currently, the UK EU Referendum is on a knife-edge. A solid lead for the “stay” side has given way in recent polls to a statistical dead heat.  The momentum is with the “leave” side, but there is plenty of time yet for the wind to change direction.

Emotions are Running High

This in/out EU referendum is emotionally charged. According to Eurobarometer, immigration has risen to the top of the public agenda in Europe and, when we consider that immigration has always been a hot-button topic in the UK, the potential for anger and anxiety to hijack the debate becomes all too apparent.

There is also a context to this referendum that cannot be ignored. The latest Eurobarometer highlights that a majority of countries feel their voices are not heard in Europe, including the UK despite it being one of the larger member states. Independence and national identity are powerful motivators and the Greek crisis of 2012 has undermined the extent to which EU nations feel they are in control of their own destinies.

Expert Opinion Leaning Towards UK Remaining Part of the EU

In terms of predictions, it is clearly too close to call. However, Ipsos MORI (UK) CEO and well-known political commentator Ben Page has offered a perspective, if not an outright prediction. Ben believes that, despite the majority of the media tending to favour Brexit, voters will choose to remain in the EU on 23rd June. As with the Scottish Referendum, he reckons there will be plenty of spills and thrills along the way, including polls showing the “leave” camp ahead, but as we get closer to the date the undecideds will lean towards the status quo as they have done in the past. Betfair agree with Ben, with shorter odds for the UK remaining part of the EU.

That said, nothing can be assumed and, ultimately, turnout may upset Ben’s prediction. “Stay” voters are younger and less likely to show up on the day than the generally older “Brexiters”.

Keep an eye on the polls.


Written by: Damian Loscher, Managing Director, Ipsos MRBI

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