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Rigging the question?

Posted by Richard Sunday, February 06, 2005

According to The Business today, the government’s choice of question for the EU constitution referendum has delivered a 28-point swing to the "yes" camp, precipitating – we are told – a "major row", despite the phrasing receiving generally favourable comment when it was published just over a week ago.

The finding apparently derives from two parallel ICM opinion polls – the detailed results of which are to be published tomorrow - which show a marked difference in response to the EU constitution, depending on the question asked.

The poll using the governments phrasing has found support and opposition to the constitution level-pegged at 39 percent each. But a second ICM poll conducted at the same time found that using a slightly different wording gave a 54-26 percent lead to the "no" side.

The governments question is: Should the UK approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union? The other ICM question was: If there were a referendum tomorrow, would you vote for Britain to sign up to the EU Constitution or not?

It is suggested by some (unnamed) critics that the government's question favours a "yes" vote because it only asks voters whether they approve rather than whether they should approve or not approve. And it also implies that the constitution would only apply to remote European Union institutions, rather than to Europe including Britain.

The Business cites Neil O'Brien, of the "Vote No" campaign, saying that the government's question is intended to frame the debate and to reinforce the governments claim that the constitution will limit the powers of the EU.

Meanwhile, Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok, has tabled 13 parliamentary questions to discover whether the government conducted polling research to ensure its question was phrased for maximum political gain.

Whether the ICM polls can be trusted, however, remains to be seen, especially after last week's rogue ICM poll which put the split at 39-41 percent in favour of approving the constitution.

One cannot help feeling that this is something of an ersatz row, with the "Yes-noes" getting excited about something of very little importance. At the moment, the bulk of the public has not engaged on the issue and, by the time the referendum campaign is fully underway, it will be better understood and wording variations may make little if any difference.

Nevertheless, the Electoral Commission is taking some flak for allowing the government's question, after admitting it is inaccurate. The commission had stressed that it was important to refer to the name of the treaty in the referendum question, yet the proposed question is a modification of the treaty title, rather than the exact title, which is a Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe.