Britain goes to the polls tonight (Australian time) for its second referendum on membership of the European Union (formerly the EEC). The first one, in 1975, recorded a comfortable 67.2% vote to stay; the one certainty tonight is that, this time, it will be much closer.

Back in 1975, most of the opposition to Europe came from the left. The Conservatives (then in opposition) supported continued membership, while the Labour Party was divided — most ministers supported a “yes” vote, but the majority of Labour’s conference was opposed. The strongest votes to leave came from safe Labour areas, and particularly from Scotland. The strong Tory areas of south-eastern England voted overwhelmingly to stay.

Then, the trade unions were the strongest opponents of membership, while the tabloid press supported staying in. Now, all of those positions are reversed.

And that’s symptomatic of the big shift in European politics over the last 40 years. Then, anti-establishment populism was almost entirely a left-wing force. Memories of the Second World War were too fresh for the far right to command much popular support.

Things now look very different. The view from the right sees a new progressive establishment, embodied in the EU and its institutions, opposed by masses of ordinary citizens wanting to reclaim their national identity. The view from the left sees a movement that has forgotten the dreadful lessons of fascism and is once again turning to violence, anti-intellectualism and the scapegoating of minorities.

[Brexit campaign picks up pace with Sun endorsement]

So it’s in this new political environment that Britain again has to choose for or against participation in the European project. Most of the arguments are ostensibly economic, but underlying them is a cultural, almost tribal divide, not unlike the one on show in the US presidential election.

The case in favor of “remain” was put well last week by the Economist:

“If Britain leaves the EU, it is likely to end up poorer, less open and less innovative. Far from reclaiming its global outlook, it will become less influential and more parochial. And without Britain, all of Europe would be worse off.”

Whether that argument will sway the electorate is still uncertain. A fortnight ago, the polls had shifted to mostly showing a narrow majority for “leave”. Since then, there appears to have been a movement back — possibly influenced by the assassination last week of pro-EU MP Jo Cox.

The two sides now appear to be neck and neck (Wikipedia has a useful summary of the polls).

The betting markets, however, don’t seem to be in much doubt; Sportsbet this morning was offering three-to-one against a “leave” victory. And the sharemarket, which had a bad couple of weeks due to fears of economic chaos in the event of a “Brexit”, has recovered ground solidly this week.

It’s normal for referendum campaigns to show a late movement towards a “no” vote. But it’s unclear whether that can be counted on this time, since the status quo option, unusually, is what “the politicians” are backing. As I put it earlier this month, “It’s the supporters of change, for once, who can present themselves as representing grassroots opinion and hostility to the establishment.”

[Boris Johnson started EU-bashing before it was cool]

Polls close at 10pm local time, which is 7am Friday in eastern Australia. Results will come in while sensible Britons are asleep, but at an ideal time for Australians to watch.

Those who have followed past British elections will be familiar with the frustration centralised counting; instead of getting progress results in each seat, as in Australia, results come in seat-by-seat only when each seat is declared.

Tomorrow will be like that but worse, in a couple of ways. Counting will take place in 382 “voting areas”, basically local government areas, with results in each announced when they are completed. But whereas constituencies are all similar in population, local government areas vary widely, so there will be large variations in how long counting takes.

[Running for the Brexit? A short history of the UK’s testy relationship with the EU]

Election results, moreover, are made comprehensible by having a standard of comparison; you can quickly see which parties are gaining or losing ground. But we don’t have that for the referendum (no one thinks the 1975 results would be any guide), so it will be difficult to tell who is really ahead until well into the count.

In the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, which posed the same problem on a smaller scale, it was possible to use the Nationalist vote from the previous election as a reasonable proxy for pro-independence sentiment. There’s nothing so straightforward available this time, but the strength of last year’s vote for the UK Independence Party will give some indication — you can see it from the Guardian‘s interactive map.

Reuters has a good guide to when to expect particular results to come in and how to match them against expectations (note its times are all GMT, which is ten hours behind eastern Australia). Basically, the first results will arrive around 10am our time, with the big cities reporting mostly between 1pm and 2pm, and everything expected to wrap up by about 4pm.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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