I’ve never taken part in a focus group but I can imagine the experience would be quite fun. In my mind they start with cheery if slightly patronising bonhomie, followed by intense scrutiny of a particular product or colour or political slogan. Cup of tea. Free vouchers. The slightly smug feeling that you might have said something significant. And off into the street again.
Last year a number of ordinary people took part in focus groups about the referendum question as the Electoral Commission tried to work out whether the question proposed by the government “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” was sufficiently intelligible.
The resulting report, published in September 2015, reveals that few stones were left unturned. Group participants were quizzed as to the exact implications of the words yes and no, what stay or remain meant to them, even the real significance of the word ‘member’. Would it not be better to say ‘be’? And how about EU rather than ‘European Union’?
In the event the Electoral Commission concluded that we should not have a yes/no question and, as most of us now know because the central recommendation was accepted by the government, went with ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ and ‘Leave the European Union’. And so began the process of unravelling.
For the most part, the report is sufficiently obsessive to be left well alone. It is merely depressing to see that the deep divide that now afflicts the nation was apparent even then.
3.42 Some others felt that the phrase ‘member of the European Union’ could convey positive feelings of inclusivity and therefore that the phrase was not neutral…
3.43 In contrast, a couple of participants suggested that ‘leave’ as the last part of the question could result in a ‘recency’ effect, encouraging people to vote for the UK to leave the EU.
But there is an interesting series of paragraphs on page 26 entitled “What will the outcome of the vote be either way?” The paragraphs are shocking to read now because many of the 1600 respondents had clearly expressed doubt in 2015 as to how helpful the proposed question was really going to be.
3.72 Participants were not clear about what the terms of membership would be for the United Kingdom if there was a majority ‘yes’ or a majority ‘no’ vote. As one person put it: ‘If you’re not a member of the European Union, what would you be then?’ (mini-depth, Norwich, female, 25-44 years)
3.73 Participants wanted to know whether a majority vote to remain a member of the European Union would mean: continuation of current terms of membership; continued membership with different terms of membership; or continued membership and adoption of the Euro.
3.74 Similarly, participants wanted to know whether a majority vote to leave the European Union would mean: entire separation from the European Union; renegotiated terms of membership; some kind of partial membership; or a relationship with European Union with trade agreements similar to other European countries that are not part of the European Union.
3.75 Participants indicated they wanted answers to the following questions:
Will a majority ‘yes/ remain/ stay’ vote mean:
• Continuation of current terms of membership?
• Continued membership with different terms of membership?
Will a majority ‘no/ leave’ vote mean:
• Entire separation from the European Union?
• Renegotiated terms of membership?
• ‘What’s the consequences of saying no? What’s the next option if you say no? Is it partial membership?’ (Mini-group, London, 45-59 years, BC1)
• A relationship with the European Union with trade agreements similar to other European countries that are not part of the European Union?
The Electoral Commission maintain in an earlier paragraph (1.18) that its job was merely to advise on the intelligibility of the question and “does not extend to suggesting alterations that would change the substance of the question or introduce new factors which might alter the nature of the debate.”
With the power of retrospect I wonder how the commissioners feel now? Surely a complete lack of clarity as to what happens as a result of the vote constitutes lack of “intelligibility”? If we were to hold referenda on, for example, the monarchy, would it be sufficient just to say “I do want the Queen/ I do not want the Queen.” Would such a choice be deemed “intelligible” – given the lack of clear identification of an alternative?
The 25-44 year old female from Norwich quoted in the report had it absolutely right when she said ‘If you’re not a member of the European Union, what would you be then?’ Her words should have rung massive alarm bells with the Electoral Commission that the question was simply not intelligible. As the report says “Participants were not clear…”
Unfortunately for all of us this ordinary person was ignored. The Commission was far too preoccupied by precise definitions of small words as to not to be able to really see this ordinary person or the bigger picture. They should have thrown it back to the government at that time to come up with a question that gave some indication as to the future. They didn’t. So it was unintelligible then. And definitely still unintelligible now.