The EU referendum debate – the arguments for and against

The EU referendum has been billed as the single most important vote given to the public in a generation. Two official campaigns exist – one urging us to consider ‘Britain stronger in Europe, with the other simply claiming we should ‘Vote Leave’. Videos have been compiled, letters written to newspapers, celebrity endorsements sought, speeches made.

In the month of May 2016 a range of speeches and other, longer statements and letters from both campaigns were made. Ten were collected from the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ website and nine from that of ‘Vote Leave’. They were then  examined statistically to aggregate the key themes that each side is making using cluster analysis – which looks for words that are likely appear at the same time. This gives us a clear idea of the key ideas each side is using, and the way they are assembling their arguments. What do we find?

The Vote Leave campaign has five thematic clusters of ideas. The first is concerned with freedom and democracy – suggesting that both will be enhanced by us leaving the EU, which is often described as an unaccountable and elitist. The second argues against European Court of Justice and its ability to prevent the deportation of criminals. The third cluster of terms is less organised, arguing generally against the Prime Minister in relation to energy and gas prices, and against the security concerns the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign have raised. The fourth cluster of ideas in the Vote Leave campaign are around economics, making arguments about exports and economic growth rates, as well as unemployment, and casting  doubt on ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ predictions about a loss of growth should the country vote to leave. The fifth cluster of ideas brings together arguments about wage pressures resulting from increased immigration and the struggle for families they can lead to. The top five key terms from this cluster, along with their relative weights within it, are shown below.

Figure 1 – Vote Leave, Cluster 5, top 5 terms.

eu blog chart

‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ has data that coheres around four main clusters. The first explores how Britain should remain because to leave would harm the environment and investment in Britain more generally. The second cluster of ideas are around worker’s rights, especially for women, and around the guarantee for more equal pay that the EU ensures. The third cluster of ideas is based on agreements and the co-operation that the EU offers, and the costs of leaving for the economy. Finally, the last cluster is about how the referendum offers a clear choice for the British people with a clear decision ahead of us, based on the fact available, for us to vote to remain.

As such, the debate in May seems to be taking place on rather different footings. The Vote Leave campaign is about freedom and democracy, with Britain Stronger in Europe talking about worker rights. The Vote Leave campaign talks about the EU as being unaccountable and elitist, but with Britain Stronger how it offers us access to co-operation and trade agreements. Vote Leave is arguing against the economic case being made by Britain Stronger, which the latter maintains is compelling, whereas in a wider context Vote Leave is making a case for spending the EU contribution on the NHS instead. Vote Leave is talking about immigration, but Britain Stronger seems largely to be staying away from that issue, suggesting instead that the facts of the debate are clearly in favour of us remaining.

What this suggests is that the Vote Leave campaign is appealing to freedom, democracy and putting an anti-EU message forward, alongside suggesting immigration can be reduced and employment made more secure, if we exit. There are often strong emotions involved in these issues. The Britain Stronger campaign, on the other hand, is trying to mobilise a vote based on economic data and warnings of economic costs should be leave, while at the same time trying to appear more rational and less emotional. Whether Britain Stronger’s lack of engagement with some of the big issues of the Vote Leave campaign – freedom, democracy and immigration – will harm it in the vote itself, remain to be seen, but surely the message to remain in the EU needs to engage with bigger ideas.



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