EU Referendum: Five Reasons Why U.K. Might Be Heading For Brexit

A European Union flag and a Union Jack fly in Brussels January 29. Britain's pro-EU types have a fight on their hands. Yves Herman/Reuters

Tuesday saw the publication of proposed new terms for the U.K.-EU relationship ahead of Britain's referendum on membership in the union. And with Prime Minister David Cameron all but confirming he will campaign for the country to remain, the intensity of the "Brexit" debate has cranked up a notch.

The polls tell contradictory stories; a YouGov survey at the weekend showed a growing lead for those who want to leave, while a ComRes poll in the Daily Mail conducted around the same time found the opposite trend. Those who support Britain's continued membership hope that, with the public largely undecided, high-profile backing from Cameron, business leaders and other senior politicians will win the day.

Here are five reasons why they could be wrong.

Feckless youth

One of the clearest divides in the Brexit debate is between young and old. According to the pollster YouGov, voters under 30 support remaining in the EU by nearly two-to-one, while those over 50 are more likely to favor exiting. But while Britain's youth might be strong advocates of liberal lefty "clicktivism," they tend to be less likely to vote. Just 43 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 54 percent of 25-34-year-olds voted in Britain's last general election, where the turnout was 66 percent overall. In Scotland's 2014 referendum on independence from the U.K., where overall turnout was staggeringly high at 85 percent, just 69 percent of 16-34-year-olds voted, compared to 92 percent of the over-55s. With a referendum potentially coming as early as June, there isn't much time to persuade youngsters to hit the ballot box.

The politics of fear

It could be argued that the Leave side has all the best rallying cries. "Things like the national self-assertion argument… they do have power," says Rob Ford, of Manchester University's politics faculty. "The Remain arguments are often a little bit bloodless."

Ford draws a comparison with the Scottish referendum of 2014. In that vote, the pro-U.K. side was slammed for running a "project fear" campaign focused on economic doom and gloom, while the pro-independence side built up a powerful case based on national identity and culture. So what, you might say, the bloodless side won that one, with Scotland voting to stay part of Britain. That's true, but the momentum built up by the independence campaign went on to deliver the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP) 56 out of Scotland's 59 seats in Britain's subsequent general election. The question of independence hasn't gone away since. Similarly, even if the Remain camp wins this battle, if they appeal only to the coldly rational side of voters, they might not win the war.

Taking back control

"What the Remain campaign is most worried about I think is the potential salience of immigration in the referendum… They are not comfortable talking about immigration," says Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future. While Britain's relationship with the union per se tends to rank fairly low on voters' list of priorities (27 percent of voters told YouGov it was one of the three most important issues facing Britain in December), immigration is right up there; 63 percent said it was important in the same poll. The Leave campaign tends to claim that leaving the EU will bring net migration into Britain down by letting the U.K. re-assert control over its borders, while the Remain camp tend to ignore the issue. The refugee crisis is still ongoing and is likely to get worse as the weather warms, so public concern on this isn't going away.

Opinion is volatile

"Most people," says Katwala, "have paid very very little attention so far. It's very volatile because this is pretty uninformed opinion." Katwala says the polls will continue to fluctuate because, while there may be small, hardcore sets of well-informed voters at either end of the spectrum, most people have little interest in the debate and haven't paid much attention up until now. That's a warning for both camps, really, but it might worry the pro-EU crowd as it means opinion could be vulnerable to changes in the daily news agenda. And the headlines haven't been great for Europe in recent weeks.

Labour isn't working

Britain's opposition Labour party has in recent decades been significantly more pro-European than the Conservatives, but it now, in Jeremy Corbyn, has a leader who has flirted with Euroscepticism. He has said that, "The EU is too beholden to corporate interests," and suffers from a "democratic deficit." It took him until September to confirm that the party would campaign for in (Labour's pro-EU campaign is led by the former government minister Alan Johnson). The party also has a squeamishness about working with the Conservatives, as many senior figures think its willingness to do so in the Scottish referendum hastened its subsequent decline in Scotland. Labour will campaign for Remain, but it may not do so with the force it might have done under Blair and other recent leaders.