Sunday, 9 October 2016

The problem with the public

People living in poorer areas of the UK were more likely to vote to leave the EU. This wasn't the strongest predictor of voting Leave, but it was pretty strong.

A question many people, particularly pro-Remainers, are asking is why this should have been the case, given that most economists predicted that leaving the EU would be financially damaging, and given that the EU has been better than the UK government at redistributing funding to poorer areas (and not in the form of soul-destroying benefits handouts, but in the form of large-scale infrastructure investment).

Any suggestion that people were ill-informed in voting to leave the EU will be met with accusations of condescension from pro-Leavers. But some statistics in Andy Beckett's excellent history of early 80s British politics Promised You a Miracle provide an eye-opening illustration of how difficult it can be to deliver information to the public.

In a section on the 1979 Tory government's Right to Buy scheme, which enabled council tenants to buy their homes at a discount of between 33 and 50 per cent, Beckett relates how a 1988 report found that, five years after the scheme had been in place, and had been advertised on TV and via posted information leaflets, 45 per cent of tenants who knew about the scheme didn't understand whether or not they qualified (the vast majority did) and 10 per cent of tenants "were completely unaware of the scheme at all".

This is a scheme that could have saved tenants up to half the cost of buying their home, and 10 per cent of them were unaware that it existed.

In light of that, does it still seem unlikely that a large proportion of people who voted to leave the EU were unaware that trading with it from outside the single market could mean having to adopt many of its rules while relinquishing any say in what those rules would be, for example?

The right balance of representative and participatory democracy is difficult to find. But reducing a question as complex as a country's membership of the EU to a binary choice is certainly looking to have been a horrible misstep.

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