How one word may have swung the EU vote

A simplification obviously, and compounded by a number of other influencing factors, but here, from a psychological not a political perspective, is my breakdown of what those were and why they were important. Some of the same issues would have applied had the vote gone the other way.


  1. A referendum is an extraordinary thing because many more people than usual tend to vote which means there’s likely to be a significant number of novice voters, people less experienced at the whole rather intimidating process, than usual.

Why is this important?

Because when something is important AND you’re not familiar with the process AND you feel a bit daunted, you’re less likely to be confident about your actions. Suddenly being alone in the booth with just a ballot paper and a pencil can cause people question their judgement or make a mistake in applying it.

  1. The average reading age in the UK is around 10 years[1]. This is well documented and a number of popular news outlets tailor their language and messages to accommodate that. The Electoral Commission[2], in advising on the way the EU Referendum ballot paper was worded, took an element of that into consideration and simplified the wording through tests with focus groups.

Why is this important?

Because despite quite extensive work to maximise accessibility of the ballot paper, a quick check of readability (Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease) places it at 12th grade, or around age 16 years, making it accessible by only around 37.2% of the population. Changing one word – from Remain to Stay – increases that to 42.5% and reduced the grade to 11 (or 14/15 years). The Electoral Commission chose not to do this because of feedback that equated Stay with a command.

  1. Unlike a local or general election, there are no names on the ballot sheet.

 Why is this important?

Because given the situational demands of unfamiliarity and complex wording, there needs to be a recognisable cue to maximise certainty. Names can be learned and then recognised so that reliance on reading is reduced as people just look through a list for the name they know. An absence of such cues increases uncertainty and also therefore dependence on other mechanisms such as something understandable or a visual cue like an icon. The EU referendum campaign employed a range of images and slogans with the same colours appearing on both sides so that none would have made a recognisable logo to assist people in finding their preferred voting box.

  1. The ordering of the questions placed the Leave option second.

Why is this important?

For two reasons, only one of which the Electoral Commission addressed and which may, given the shortness of the list, be less relevant than the other. In any list of items to remember, there is often a Recency[3] effect whereby the last item is more likely to be remembered than earlier ones. However, there is also a Primacy effect such that the earliest items are also more likely to be remembered, creating a dip in the middle where much is forgotten. In a two-question ballot, neither could really be said to come into play. The other effect though, is very likely. When people are unsure, they often choose the second of any two options and in this particular context not only was Remain a more difficult word to process (as shown by the effect on readability of its substitution by the word Stay), but the easier word Leave appeared in the second option. This raises the possibility that a significant number of people, caught in the situational demand of what they were doing but struggling to process the wording, may have placed their cross in the box adjacent to the sentence they most understood.

  1. The media whose output is tailored to the average reading age are the most popular in the country due to the skills of the journalists who maintain that level of maximum readability.

Why is that important?

Because both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are ex and current journalists who have these skills and appeared to apply them expertly to create the kind of concise messages that appeal to the readership of popular media outlets. These tend to be emotionally rather than factually driven and are often aligned with key target concerns. In this case immigration, the NHS, and jobs.

  1. Finally, legislation that requires the advertising of goods and services to be ‘legal and decent, honest and truthful’ does not apply to politics or political campaigning[4]

Why is that important?

Because this is how the issues raised in 5 above were possible, why they can’t be challenged, and why dishonesty and manipulation were able to take the place of clear and accurate information on both sides. Decisional capacity[5] is founded on being given the best possible information towards making a choice. Where that is lacking, any choice is unsafe. It applies to all hospital and similar procedures where the outcome has implications for the patient and there are risks and benefits to weigh up. An election – a contract between the information giver and the recipient –  is no different in reality, except that the outcome affects more than the one individual decision-maker.

The questions on the EU referendum ballot paper required people to condense a multitude of arguments, each in itself of huge complexity and presented, if people were not inclined or able to engage in their own research, as simple matters linked to emotive and high profile domestic issues. Those arguments were not bound by standards requiring them to be ‘legal, decent, honest, and truthful’. They were also less easy to read than they should have been to accommodate the large numbers of the UK populace whose literacy does not reach beyond the 11-12 year level. Further, the positioning of the questions was such that the most readable came second and was therefore potentially subject to second option bias that has been shown to kick in under conditions of uncertainty.

Any further referenda, held for whatever reason, would do well to

  1. Consider readability in greater detail and adjust the wording accordingly
  2. Place questions side by side and/or randomise the order
  3. Encourage the use of consistent logos to be placed adjacent to the questions as identifiers for people with literacy or decisional difficulties
  4. Discourage the use of journalistic techniques that reflect tabloid persuasive influence strategies at the expense of information relevant to the decision
  5. Change the law to ensure the same standards of honesty to which advertising is held,  apply equally to political statements and campaigns upon which the public is required to make important decisions.


[1] See A Voice explains it clearly and significantly, is a marketing company

[2] Electoral Commission. The full report can be downloaded as a PDF

[3] Recency Effect

[4] ASA position

[5] See

No idea who your MEP is? Never voted for one?

But you’re going to vote Leave because the EU is unelected and doesn’t do what you want. Right, well whose fault is that, then?

I’m guilty of ignorance too. I thought about MEPs today for the first time and I had to look mine up. I’ve never voted for one, never had a clue what they do and that’s my fault. Worse, I find that Farage is one of them and maybe by not engaging, I helped put him there. I hope I get another chance. If we still need MEPs after tomorrow, I’ll be all over mine like a rash and holding them to account.

I’m voting IN so my ignorance doesn’t count in this instance, but if you’re voting Leave and you’re just as guilty, please think again.

The EU Referendum – Four Tories & a UKipper?

I wish this were fiction but it isn’t; tomorrow we decide as a nation whether to stay in the European Union or leave it, and the level of debate has been frankly juvenile. With the exception of a significant number of mostly women politicians, some of whom represent the other home nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the key encounters have consisted of bluster, bluff, and braying bellicosity among a small number of men. Tories on the whole and from the same government, with UKIP tagging along seeming to be having the time of its life. It made me wonder who actually wanted this referendum; what was the driving force and where this sudden surge of nationalism came from. Then I wondered what nationalism I was thinking of. Well not the Scots – by all accounts the main reason they voted to stay in the UK was because leaving would have meant negotiating their own membership of the EU and they are in favour of the EU. Wales? They get a great deal of funding from the EU so probably not the Welsh. What about Northern Ireland, then? They border directly onto Ireland (Eire) which is not part of the UK so it will still be a member of the EU after our vote. That border is presently fluid, the two parties having at last put aside the terrible times of the Troubles and become neighbours, crossing and trading freely across a barely perceptible international line. I doubt they would be happy about having to close that border and return to the restrictive regulations of the past.

So what’s left?

What’s left is England which is protected on all sides by sea or friendly home nations but seems to want to cut itself off. Or at least some do. But it isn’t Labour even though some seem a bit luke warm; nor is it the Lib Dems or the Greens, and certainly not the SNP; they’ve been somewhat steamrollered into this by other forces. Predictably, UKIP is a front runner but it isn’t the main player, that’s the Conservatives oddly fighting both sides of the argument from the same side of the House. But when I condense that down I find just four MPs slugging it out – Cameron and Osborne; Boris and Gove – which makes it look less like a national referendum than a school debating society which got out of hand and in which everyone wants to win but no one is actually invested in the outcome.

Those four will be fine whatever happens; they’re political animals and they know how to survive in that world. Some of their colleagues further down the food chain will probably be casualties – too high profile to go unnoticed but not powerful enough to make their own way if they were on the ‘wrong’ side. But what about the rest of us? If we leave, how long before Scotland has another referendum and subsequently cuts its ties with us? Would Wales seek to ally itself with the Scots? And Northern Ireland – the fears for Northern Ireland are that reinstating that border would revive the worst of the nationalist conflicts from which both sides are just recovering. Maybe they would overcome that and once again become a united Ireland; or perhaps they would join with Wales and Scotland to form a kind of Celtic union. Staying with England would seem to be the least favourable option for any of them and raises the prospect of it becoming a nation bordered on all sides not by sea and home nations but sea and nations to which the English would no longer have easy access.

When the dust settles, it will be business as usual for Cameron, Osborne, Boris, and Gove. But they may only be the boss of England; just one Kingdom united with itself and no Britain to make Great, and all because of four men in a one-party power struggle.

The Literary Pig roots around in the Let Me Tell You a Story back story

@TheLiteraryPig, aka Tracy Fells, was one of the first who agreed to have her work included in Let Me Tell You a Story when it wasn’t much more than a twitch of an idea. In her blog she asks the questions neither of us could even have framed in those early days and hopefully gets some answers. It starts with people facing eviction or criminal prosecution …


Tracy has an extensive catalogue of writing ‘hits’ and read her work regularly at West Sussex Writers. Her contributions include Tantric Twister, Wood, and Phoenix and Marilyn.