When the Guardian invited young women to focus groups in Brighton this week, we asked them to bring an object that summed up the EU referendum campaign. One turned up with a loudhailer: “I feel like both sides are just shouting!” she told us.
These focus groups – which we will write more about soon – are part of an attempt to understand as much as we can about how voters are thinking about the huge decision we will make on 23 June.
The woman’s reaction echoes the mood of many voters, who feel pummelled by conflicting statistics and, after weeks of high-volume campaigning, remain unsure of what difference, if any, a vote to leave the European Union will make to their daily lives.
The campaigns are also talking to voters. A strategist for Britain Stronger InEurope said there was one word that cropped up repeatedly: confusion. “You can hear it 20 times or more in the first five minutes,” he said.
By this point, they had hoped the campaign’s central message – that, as Cameron colourfully put it this week, leaving the EU would “put a bomb under the economy” – would have been absorbed by the public.
It’s certainly not for want of trying: the government spent £9m of taxpayers’ cash on sending a sombre leaflet to every household in the country extolling the benefits of the EU; the airwaves have been filled with a clamour of voices – led by Cameron and George Osborne, but with a star-studded line-up of backing singers, from Barack Obama to Christine Lagarde – spelling out the risks of leaving.
As the Guardian’s joint political editors since the beginning of March – Anushka came to the Guardian from Sky, Heather was formerly economics editor of the Observer – we share a similar approach to politics, which, we hope, involves trying to make sure voices from outside Westminster inform our coverage as much as possible.
Journalists have faced a barrage of facts, including two fat, prediction-packed Treasury reports from the Stronger In camp. We have been corralled into airport hangars and rooftops, DIY warehouses and TV “spin rooms”, to watch their campaigners, led by the prime minister, hammer home their message.
Vote Leave’s events tend to be scrappier, noisier and less strictly controlled. Our deputy, Rowena Mason, found herself watching Boris Johnson auctioning a cow last week. The former mayor of London also visited an underwear factory and tried to explain Britain’s relationship with the EU through an extended metaphor about ill-fitting knickers.
But Johnson’s more rough-and-tumble approach is little better at satisfying the public’s desire for hard facts. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the polls suggest a nail-bitingly close result – and the reaction of many to the daily onslaught has been not just confusion but mistrust.
The remain campaign all but acknowledged that fact when it launched a television ad this week that featured not a single politician and began with the message: “Politicians arguing. Claim and counterclaims. Statistic after statistic after statistic. Enough.”
And yet, there is more of this to come. Even while acknowledging that the public has been turned off by the referendum campaigns (an audience member in last week’s televised debate raised a laugh by asking the prime minister which would come first in the event of Brexit: world war three or recession) with the race so close and so little time left, both sides now have little option but to pull out all the stops – including launching scathing attacks on their own colleagues.
We can expect more of what we saw on Wednesday night, when Osborne claimed the Vote Leave campaign, run by his close friend Michael Gove, had been hijacked by Nigel Farage.
During the heat of combat, clawing their way to victory is politicians’ only concern. The prime minister made that clear to reporters when we joined him on a plane headed to the G7 summit in Japan. When asked what margin would settle the EU question, Cameron said the rules of a referendum were clear: a simple majority was enough.
But the chipper caucus of Scottish National party MPs in Westminster is a constant reminder to both Labour and the Tories of the risks of winning the referendum but losing the public’s trust in the process. The union might have been saved in 2014, but the Labour party was all but wiped out in the subsequent general election for backing what was regarded as a Westminster conspiracy to see off Scottish independence.
Cameron’s political legacy was always going to be at stake in this referendum. But he has also put his integrity on the line by flirting with the idea of campaigning for Brexit just months before arguing so vociferously for the other side that he’s now using speeches to warn of DIY recessions and the spectre of war.
For Johnson, too, the stakes could not be higher. He is alleged to have prepared two columns for the Telegraph at the start of the campaign, one making his passionate case for out, the other (never seen) for in. He said he would not be debating with the prime minister in public but then demanded a face-to-face battle.
Jeremy Corbyn has refused to join in with the outbreak of cross-party love-ins, instead continuing to exploit Conservative divisions, and warn of the risks to jobs and workers’ rights of a “Tory Brexit”.
But by backing remain – albeit less vociferously than some in his own party would like – he risks alienating some former Labour voters who opted for Ukip in 2015 because they felt Labour MPs were failing to represent their concerns, not least on immigration.
Right now, both sides simply want to win. Asked about the potential backlash in the case of a narrow victory, one senior remain campaigner said: “That’s not my problem. My job is to help get us over the line.” For the out campaign, too, there is a feeling of desperation as they step up the rhetoric on the subject that always lands a blow: immigration.
But as in Scotland, where the electoral aftershocks of the independence referendum are still being felt, both Labour and the Tories – plus all of us reporters following the campaign trail – will wake up to a new political landscape on 24 June.
Meanwhile, many voters are still struggling to make up their minds. One woman, travelling on a train from London to Leeds, settled again on that oft-heard word to sum up her feelings: confusion. “Farage starts going on, and I think ‘yeah’,” she said. “Then Cameron comes back and it’s conflicting. But we don’t know what will really happen either way.”
Should she be swayed by immigration? Or the economy? By her friends or her children? By the prime minister? Or the former London mayor? She’s still not sure.