Remain campaign failed to connect emotionally with voters

Brexit: Fertile ground laid for Leave over years of politicians blaming Brussels

David Cameron gambled on this referendum uniting his party and enabling Britain to move beyond the European question. Photograph: Getty Images

David Cameron gambled on this referendum uniting his party and enabling Britain to move beyond the European question. Photograph: Getty Images

 

It should have been enjoyable for Irish political obsessives to watch this British referendum. It was a massive decision. Big issues of national identity within the UK and of geo-political significance were at stake.

Some of the biggest and most colourful beasts of British politics were in the arena. Ireland had real skin in the game. It was set to be a campaign with lots of heat, energy and drama.

It turned out to be no fun at all. From early on, and even from a distance, it was discomforting to watch. The tone of the campaign on both sides was negative, noisy, macho and angry. In the last weeks it got hateful.

For months in advance, the debate played out in the media mainly as a squabble between upper-class Tory men.

The Remain campaign was led, and badly led, by David Cameron and the official Conservative party machine. Once Boris Johnson declared as the de facto leader of Leave, it got personal for the prime minister and his court, and that distracted them.

The fact that several Conservative cabinet ministers or former ministers, including Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, campaigned so prominently for Leave left Cameron and the Remain campaign hobbled from the outset.

Many months of research showed Cameron was an ineffective, even counter-productive, voice for those in the middle ground on this issue. It took too long for the prime minister to accept that. It wasn’t until recent weeks that he gave way to other voices, most notably voices like Gordon Brown, who could better appeal to non-conservative voters.

The Downing Street campaign was supplemented by the all-party civic society group StrongerIn. It mounted a large, well-resourced and energetic nationwide campaign. It did so with much technical proficiency. It pumped out colourful and effective campaigning material.

It mobilised a highly visible ground campaign although, like most referendums, it was focused primarily at crowd points or high visibility and could only amount a limited door-to-door effort.

It diplomatically managed the relationships between the three main parties, all of which had official positions for Remain. It channelled a steady stream of celebratory or sectoral appeals.

Massive mistakes

However, it made massive mistakes at a strategic level. The Remain campaign showed lots of passion but made no real emotional connection with the electorate.

It could see early in the research that issues of identity and immigration were prime movers of voter sentiment. It failed to craft or articulate a positive confident vision of British identity within the EU.

It discounted talk of immigration, usually responding to it by saying it just was not relevant to the referendum question.It was in the minds of most voters and required a direct response.

The Remain campaign was left with the economic case for staying in the single market and avoiding the economic risk of leaving. It was an important and rational argument but it was dry, and it had less salience for those areas already feeling dislocated from Europe.

The Remain campaign also failed to capitalise sufficiently on some of the advantages gifted to it. The most useful weapon available to the Remain campaign was its most colourful opponent Nigel Farage. His brash and at times xenophobic rhetoric gave him a prominence greater than his political base in the country. His “breaking point” poster depicting queues of Syrian refugees and implying they were on their way to Britain was incendiary.

The Remain campaign had only marginal impact in leveraging antagonism against Farage to the Remain cause.

The risk of a Brexit became very real about 10 days ago. The peak occurred on June 13th, when some polls suggested the Leave side could win the referendum by as much as 10 per cent.

When things start going wrong in a campaign, strategists long for and try to create a “circuit-breaker” – some big event or occurrence which cuts the flow of support to the other side or at least pauses its momentum.

Ten days ago Remain was a campaign badly in need of a circuit breaker. All the momentum was with Leave.

Campaigns suspended

That circuit breaker came in circumstances nobody would have wished for when young Labour MP Jo Cox was stabbed, shot and killed. Both sides immediately suspended campaign activity. Politicians united in grief and condemnation. The campaigning was suspended at a time when Leave was doing best.

When the campaign resumed, the tone was calmer and the Remain campaign got better at getting its message across. There were new, more diverse voices making its case, most notably the new Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.

The improved Remain messaging and the “status quo” effect did stall, and then slightly reverse, the momentum for Leave, but not to the extent the last set of polling suggested. It was too late.

The result, while close, suggests that Leave mounted the most successful campaign. Its message was blunt, stark and easily comprehensible. It boldly asserted the need for Britain, and by implication voters, to “take back control” of their destiny. It appealed to heart and gut rather than head. It played on the sense of political and economic disengagement felt particularly strongly by middle and post-industrialised England.

Yet the victory for Leave was not as a result of its effort in the campaign itself. It owed much more to decades of effort by the British Eurosceptic press.

The Leave campaign also operated in fertile ground because, for too long, British politicians have too easily indulged in blaming Brussels for all their country’s ills and touted an outdated and overstated notion of Britain’s standing in the world.

David Cameron gambled on this referendum uniting his party and enabling Britain to move beyond the European question. It has done neither.

Cameron is on his way out and he leaves behind a Britain which is dangerously divided and an EU in a precarious and fragile state.

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