Monday, April 11, 2016

The government EU leaflet

Having had my twitter feed full of protests about the government leaflet about the EU for days, it was somewhat anticlimactic to find the actual thing waiting for me on returning from Newcastle this evening.

Given the enormous importance of this issue, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the government providing people with information about the issue, and explaining where they stand. The leaflet does not, contrary to some rather disingenuous selective clips from the leave side, break any promises: the government had said that they would not issue any leaflet like this during the four weeks prior to the referendum but we are not within that period. They never promised to be neutral during the referendum, and there is precedent for what they have done.

It is quite clear what parts of the leaflet are fact and which are opinion: on the basis of my initial look at the leaflet all the facts are correct and all the opinions are reasonable whether I agree with them or not.

The £9 million cost of the leaflet is a tiny proportion of the benefits and costs both sides argue might come out of the decision to leave or stay within Europe and if you are going to have a referendum there should be an informed debate.

There is one figure which has been challenged which is the proportion of "rest of EU" exports which go to Britain. As I understand the situation, if you treat each country in the EU separately and includes exports between different EU countries, which seems entirely reasonable to me, then the figure of "under 8%" of EU exports coming to Britain is correct. If you treat all the rest of the EU other than Britain as one country, and ignore inter-EU trade except with Britain, that figure would be 14%. As Pollstation EU Referendum site says

"This is one of those points that could be debated endlessly without adequate resolution – the EU is both a single market “trade bloc” and a collection of 28 individual countries."
"To provide a voter a balanced perspective it would be best to present both figures, and help them to understand the difference – particularly when they are being used to argue how important or unimportant the UK is to the EU."

Jonathan Portes of NIESR was good enough to provide his view on the matter saying that both are valid calculations providing you make it clear how you are making the calculations.  He added that “the government leaflet should have made absolutely clear what it was doing given that this is a complex area and it didn’t. But it’s not flat wrong.”  He goes on to say he prefers the use of exports as a share of GDP as an indication of relative bargaining power. In which case its 3% for the EU and 13% for the UK."

In the proper context of the point actually being made in the leaflet, which is comparing the share of EU exports going to the UK with the 44% of British exports which go to the EU, the argument the government is making about our relative bargaining position still stands up whether you compare that 44% with the 8% the government leaflet quotes, the 14% on an alternative basis which "Leave" critics prefer, or go for the 13% of GDP to 3% that Jonathan Portes suggests.

Yes, you could make a valid case for any of those comparisons but on any of them the government's argument would still be valid so I suggest it is not worth getting too hung up on this one.

But having said everything above, there is one major issue on which the people who objected to this leaflet do, I'm afraid, have a point. While I think it was absolutely right to send it, in the interests of balance it would have been more appropriate to send it out between the designation of the official "leave" campaign in a few days' time and the start of the restricted period, and to send it as part of a mailing in which the "leave" campaign was given a chance to include an equivalent leaflet.

I don't think the failure to do that has invalidated the referendum because there are still months for people on both sides to put the argument including the four week restricted period when the campaigning opportunities will have to be balanced, and I think the British people are perfectly capable of making up their own minds without being unduly influenced. But it would have saved such an awful lot of aggravation and anger from those who will understandably see this as unfair.


Jim said...

I have been very quiet about said leaflet so far, for good reason. All those people making protests and petitions about it are not really thinking straight. Surprise, Surprise UKIP and GO (main petition signers) don't do strategy.

See had they just said nothing, then my bet is a good few million people would have missed it/ ignored it / put it to one side to "read later" and never got around to it. That type of thing.

But, following the UKIP outrage, well, everyone is going to read it to "see what all the fuss is about"

As for the Leave campaign getting a leaflet, well If its one from Vote leave, Leave.EU or GO then I disagree. Those organisatons have done enough damage to the credibility of the Leave campaign for one week

Chris Whiteside said...

As I inferred in a comment on a previous post, I think you have a point there!

Jim said...

Ah, yeah just seen it :-)

Jim said...

Though it does confirm to me that we are on the right track, I reached pretty much the same conclusion of the effect of sending a leaflet from those groups to an "un decided" voter, as an "un-decided" voter did.

You can't begin to imagine how soul destroying it is, We know we can win, we know HOW, we can win, but every time we start to make any sort of dent at all, Our own side come along and bash it back out again 3 fold.

You must see why there are rumors of sabotage.

Chris Whiteside said...

There are times when you almost wonder if both sides are trying to lose ...

Chris Whiteside said...

I tend to think that sending it out in the way they did has probably been a slight net benefit to "leave" because the outrage from the Brexit camp has probably had more impact than the persuasive power of the leaflet.

However, sending out one from each side would probably have had a net "remain" impact if I'm right in thinking that a lot of the material from all the leave campaigns, particularly Leave.EU and GO but sometimes the others as well, is anything like as off-putting to the majority of voters as it is to me.

There are a lot of people who are very passionate about Europe, and very outspoken about it, but in normal times I doubt that they are more than 10% of the electorate. The proportion of the British electorate as a whole which is POTENTIALLY sympathetic to Brexit views may well be a majority, and the referendum campaign has certainly reached some of those people, but to get to an actual majority both sides have not just to speak people's language e.g. talk about things like jobs, prices, security, but also have clear arguments which people can relate about why they are right about voting their way will help deliver those things.

The government leaflet will, I suspect, be more effective precisely because it stopped short of making extreme claims, made more of a positive case for the EU than most of what we've seen before and referred to "risks" and "uncertainty" as consequences of a leave vote rather than suggesting the world will end if we vote "leave."

An awful lot of the material from leave campaigns - particularly GO and Leave.EU - has been the sort which the "true believers" like. I know I am hardly a typical voter but I think the "true believer" argumets which strike me as a bit weird will come over even more so to those people who are not politically involved.