What can we learn from UK’s Brexit referendum for our own election campaign?
First, and foremost, don’t pay any attention to most polls or to the betting odds. They were just as wrong with this referendum as they were in predicting the last UK general election, where David Cameron won easily and was then able to govern in his own right.
These “predictors” missed what Richard Nixon used to call “the silent majority”, the great mass of the electorate that are rarely polled accurately, rarely let their views known, yet determine electoral outcomes.
While it was quite clear that London (and most major cities) would vote to “remain”, it was never clear how the rest of the UK would vote, except perhaps Scotland. The youth vote was also constrained, with limited turnout.
Second, baseless exaggerations don’t cut it. Most felt that the dire predictions of economic “disaster” were opportunistic and exaggerated, even though they certainly could be valid.
It also didn’t seem to matter who made them, or what standing they are perceived to have enjoyed. For example, the likes of the Bank of England’s Mark Carney, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, even the US President Barack Obama, and various current and ex-UK political leaders issuing almost disaster economic warnings, might matter to the City, but they may be virtually unknown in regional UK or, even if known, to be dispensed with as largely irrelevant.
While most would have believed that the vote would turn on the unquestioned, negative, economic impact of an exit, the silent majority can, and did, harbour very strong anti-immigration, anti-Brussels views that would determine their vote.
So, the prospect of further hordes of Turks and Syrians, and others, flooding their shores, was a “fear” to vote on.
Interesting, isn’t it, when London has been almost over-run by Russian oligarchs and wealthy Arabs, dramatically inflating property values, and driving out many average UK families – too late to shut the stable door?
But, I suspect it was more than all this. It is important to recall just why the EU was established in the first place. There were two main reasons. First, there was an overwhelming desire to minimise the risk of another European war. Second, there was a desire to build a larger economic zone, a “common market”, characterised by the free flow of trade, capital and people, to the benefit of all participants.
This, the EU largely did, but with unnervingly, and increasingly, complicated regulations and impositions on sovereignty. As the risk of war faded, membership of the EU soon became much more about “money”, than about anything else.
So, against this background, it wasn’t so surprising that a push by London, the “top end of town”, backed up by mostly young financial “yuppies”, to “Remain”, soon started to grate with the rest of the UK, dominated by many who remembered just how hard it was to fight for Britain in the past. They had done the hard yards, and simply don’t accept the inequality.
They had made the sacrifices. It was really all their hard work and suffering that they were not prepared to now have to give up for simply “more money”, or to now have accept “hordes” of refugees, who would so easily enjoy what their sacrifices had created.
What lessons for us? It may be that our “silent majority” use this election to register a protest vote, to record their disappointment, if not disgust, with the three majors – the Coalition, the ALP, and the Greens – by voting for independents and minor parties.
My greatest fear is that we end up with a minority Turnbull government in the Lower House, with the likes of Pauline Hanson in the Senate, with Nick Xenophon effectively holding the balance of power in both Houses.
Don’t say it can’t happen! But, let’s hope it doesn’t for the sake of stable government.
Authors: John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School, Australian National University