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Trends in Referendum Voting Intentions: the EU and Income Tax

Thanks to our friends in the north, referendums have been on the minds of many people over recent months. While there is currently no realistic prospect of Wales facing a referendum on independence in the short to medium term, there are other referendums that we may well be facing at some time in the next few years. The Silk Commission recommended that partial control of income tax powers be devolved to the National Assembly – but only after an affirmative vote in a referendum on the matter. Meanwhile, UK-wide debates about the European Union, the Prime Minister’s proposal for a 2017 referendum, and the continuing advances of UKIP, mean that there is every prospect of a referendum on British membership of the EU occurring at some point after the next general election.

Because both these referendums remain realistic possibilities, since the launch last December of the Welsh Political Barometer our polls have regularly been asking questions about voting intentions on these two issues. There have also been a few other polls, going back to February last year, that have asked about such matters. What have these polls been showing? Are any significant trends evident?

First, income tax devolution. YouGov first asked about this in a poll for ITV-Wales in February 2013. They used the following question: “If there was a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales powers to raise or to lower the levels of income tax in Wales, how would you vote?”. That has been the same question formulation used in all other surveys, except for one carried out by Beaufort last December; the latter asked a slightly different question: “The UK Government says it will pass a law to enable a referendum to be held on whether the Welsh Government should be able to vary rates of income tax up or down in Wales. If such a referendum were held tomorrow, how would you vote?”

The following table shows the levels of support for Yes and No (as well as the level of ‘Don’t Know’/Wouldn’t Vote responses) in all polls up to and including September’s Barometer. (Full details on the sample sizes can be found in the Opinion Polls section of the blog).

Wales, Income Tax Referendum Polls

Poll % Yes % No % DK/NV % ‘No’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 2013 39 34 27 -5
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 2013 35 38 26 3
Western Mail/Beaufort, December 2013 32 30 38 -2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 2014 31 42 28 11
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 2014 33 39 28 6
Walesonline/YouGov, June 2014 34 41 25 7
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 2014 32 42 26 10
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 2014 38 39 24 1

There is no very clear trend in the figures here. But if there is any trend at all, it would seem to have been – up until the last Barometer poll, at least – a move away from support for income-tax powers. The only two polls to show Yes in the lead in the putative referendum were both conducted in 2013; those conducted in 2014, up until September’s Barometer poll, all had leads for No of six points or greater. The turnaround in the most recent poll could have simply been due to random sampling variation. However, it seems plausible to think that the findings may well have been affected by the prevailing public debate about the Scottish referendum, and the suggestions of greater powers over tax for Scotland that were very prominent in the news at the time when the fieldwork for this poll was being conducted. This may well have encouraged some people in Wales to see income tax devolution here as more possible or more desirable.

What about the EU? Here, all the polls carried out have used the same, simple question: “If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, how would you vote?” The findings for all the polls conducted are contained in the table below.

Wales, EU Referendum Polls

Poll % Remain % Leave % DK/ NV % ‘remain’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 2013 42 35 22 7
Western Mail/Beaufort, June 2013 29 37 35 -8
WGC/YouGov, July 2013 39 40 21 -1
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 2013 38 40 22 -2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 2014 44 33 23 11
Walesonline/YouGov, June 2014 41 38 22 3
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 2014 41 36 24 5
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 2014 43 37 20 6

Once again, the table does not show a very obvious trend. But it is possibly of some significance that the only three polls to show a plurality in favour of leaving the EU were all conducted in 2013; the four polls that have asked the question in 2014 have all shown the balance of opinion (fairly narrowly) in favour of the UK remaining within the EU. Some may consider this puzzling, given the strong showing of UKIP in May’s European elections and recent Welsh polls. I don’t think there is actually any contradiction. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, not all of UKIP’s supporters agree with their policy on the EU. Moreover, their success may well have prompted some counter-reaction amongst others in the electorate. Overall, the polls are consistent with the broad picture that GB-wide studies have tended to show – that on EU membership, the Scottish electorate is most supportive of continued membership, and the English most inclined to lean towards leaving the EU; the Welsh tend to be located somewhere in the middle.

In general, neither of these sets of polls show a very clear or decisive lead for either side with regard to these potential referendums. Nor do we see any very clear trends. This is a rather different picture than was seen prior to the 2011 referendum: every poll conducted on the issue of greater law-making powers put the Yes side ahead, with the gap generally growing over time.

Frankly, if I were a leading politician in Wales contemplating an income-tax referendum, these poll findings would make me very nervous. There is strong international evidence, as I discussed in my previous blog post and which the experience of the Scottish referendum did nothing to dispel, that constitutional referendums tend to favour the status quo. If in doubt, people are more likely in the end to plump for no change, for what they have and are familiar with, than they are to vote to alter things. To be confident of success when proposing change, you would want to have significant and fairly stable leads in the polls. The polling evidence here does not show that an income tax referendum would be wholly unwinnable; it does, though, suggest that a No vote in any such ballot would currently start the campaign as favourite.

In an EU referendum, Wales would only provide around 5% of the votes; our stance on the EU could only plausibly tip the balance, therefore, if the vote was extremely tight across the rest of the UK. Much would depend on the campaign, and the political context in which it was set. We can know little about such things at present. What we do know is that opinion on EU membership at present in Wales is quite evenly divided.

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