Three weeks to go: polls say UK could leave EU

A house divided: 47% of 18 to 24-year-olds plan to vote, as opposed to 80% of over-65s.

The latest surveys say Britain could be on the verge of quitting the EU. Commentators have learnt the hard way to be wary of opinion polls. Who should really take comfort from the data?

A rush of bets in their favour. Voters saying one of their strongest issues is the top priority. And now a surge in the polls.

With three weeks to go until the UK’s EU referendum, the signs suggest the Leave campaign’s chances of victory are increasing.

Yesterday a new poll gave it a 3% lead. Leave gained 3% in two weeks; Remain lost 4%. More than four in ten voters said immigration was one of their main concerns.

Undecided voters are warming to the anti-EU case. Bookmaker William Hill says it has seen ‘a sudden stream of bets from Exeter to Oldham’ for Leave.

Just two weeks ago, betting market analysis suggested an 82% chance of a Remain vote. Remain led in the poll of polls. Now the two camps have returned to a dead heat; in the last two weeks, three other polls have given Leave the lead.

Polls can be misleading. Last year, they gave no indication of the Conservatives’ victory in the UK general election — two months after a similar surprise in Israel. Nine companies are collecting data and there have been variations far outside the usual 3% margin of error. In mid-May one poll showed Remain leading 55-37; other polls simultaneously put Leave in contention or in the lead.

Remain has tended to win telephone polls; internet results have been closer. Analysts suggest more Remain voters may say they ‘don’t know’ online; poll samples may be skewed; and people could feel pressurised to declare for Remain on the phone.

Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are more likely to vote Remain than Conservative or UKIP supporters. Young, well-educated professionals are more positive about EU membership than older voters, manual workers and those without a degree. Guardian readers are pro-Remain; Express, Sun and Mail readers are pro-Leave.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and – in particular – London are strongholds of the Remain campaign. The East Midlands and coastal areas are most hostile to the EU.

But what does all this mean?

Polls apart

The momentum is with us, say Leavers. Older voters are more likely to turn up on polling day. The pro-EU Labour party is largely anonymous: leader Jeremy Corbyn is reluctant and almost half of Labour supporters told YouGov they do not even know their party’s position. The insurgent campaign is slowly convincing people to take a bold stand.

It is still ours to lose, respond Remainers. Bookmakers make Remain the clear favourite. As a report by the bank Citigroup said last week, polls at this stage tend to overstate the support for change; the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 is proof of this. The latest survey by Opinium has 16% of people still undecided – and the uncertain will not want to risk upsetting the status quo.

You Decide

  1. Would you tell a pollster your true voting intentions?
  2. Who is winning the EU referendum campaign?


  1. Write five questions which this article makes you ask, all beginning with ‘Why…?’ Then share them with a partner and discuss what you think the answers might be.
  2. Choose an interesting question which your partner asked in Activity 1. Research the answer and write a one-page memo, addressed to them, answering their question.

Some People Say...

“The only poll we need is the one on referendum day.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I care what 2,000 people have told a company of pollsters?
The polls give an indication of what people think — albeit a rough one — on a decision which will affect many aspects of your life in years to come. They also reflect the social and economic attitudes of the people who live in the UK and show what British society makes of its relationship with the EU.
But these polls don’t count — why do we pay any attention to them?
Part of the answer is that the media need something to write about — which reflects on the culture of the press and, by implication, the people around you (if you are British). They are also influential: the campaigners will pay a lot of attention to them, because they will help to inform them which tactics and policies are popular and which are not.

Word Watch

The raw score was 43-41 in favour of Remain. The results were adjusted as other questions showed the participants were less conservative than previously.
One of the two main concerns of 41% of voters according to YouGov.
In Opinium’s last poll, undecided voters were leaning towards Remain by 55% to 32%; the figure is now 36-33.
Poll of polls
An average of the last six polls, collated by
The right-wing Likud party won after polls said the centre-left Zionist Union was ahead.
One poll
Published by Ipsos/Mori on May 18th.
Analysts say voters are more likely to feel negatively judged by a phone operator if they say they want to leave.
According to YouGov.
Nine out of ten Guardian readers want to remain; 70% of Express, Mail and Sun readers want to leave.
Corbyn, a socialist, has campaigned against the EU before. Last week he accused the prime minister of using ‘hysterical hype’.
Pre-referendum polls suggested Scotland could go independent. The final result was 55-45 in favour of the union.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.