Nick Palmer says both sides in the referendum have got to stop sounding so gloomy

Nick Palmer says both sides in the referendum have got to stop sounding so gloomy


Positive messages might swing votes

It’s been widely observed that the referendum campaign is a contest between negatives. Vote Remain because leaving would reduce the country to smouldering ashes, or Vote Leave because remaining would doom us to surrender to Brussels bureaucrats forever. The impression given is that we have a choice of extremely bearish scenarios, with little hope either way.

It is generally accepted by professionals that the outcome will be decided by people who have no strong prior views on the EU (or, in some cases, even a clear picture of what it does or how it does it). What will they decide as they eye the alternative slavering bears?

The risk for Leave is that they think “It all sounds scary, but my life today is sort of OK, so I’ll vote to stay where we are”. This presumed reaction is why the betting markets are shrugging off the toss-up polls. However, the risk for Remain is that they think “It all sounds confusing, so as I’ve no strong views I think I’ll sit it out.” Since people who really feel strongly are on balance pro-Leave, the danger is surely larger for Remain.

Why are the campaigns so negative? Several reasons:

Remain is being largely run by the Conservative leadership, who are not very keen on the EU in the first place and have spent years trying to persuade backbenchers that they will make it, er, less bad.

Leave has rival, contradictory visions (EEA and “fully out”), both of which have snags: it seems safer to focus on the perceived flaws of the status quo.

British politics is predominantly negative anyway. Every General Election is fought predominantly on the perceived horrors of the other side.

Nonetheless, Remain need to do something to counter this, or they will lose. In particular, they will lose the predominantly favourable Labour voters. At present, the argument seems a sordid squabble between rival right-wingers. Do we trust Cameron and Osborne, or Boris and Farage? The obvious answer: “neither”.

Remain needs two separate new threads to their campaign to add to Project Fear – and there isn’t any reason why they need to be in perfect harmony (if Leave can have mutually exclusive alternatives, so can Remain).

First, they need to give air time in the broadcasts and debates to someone who actually likes the EU. A positive theme is needed for a section of the population who will otherwise sit it out. The core theme of this should be “It’s the first project to work constructively together across our continent for a thousand years, and it would be mad for Britain not to want to play a part in shaping it.”

This means giving Alan Johnson a prominent role. He’s making plenty of speeches but they aren’t being reported. There is a major pro-Europe Corbyn speech in the pipeline, but Johnson is crucial too: he will reach voters beyond the party faithful. Put him in the broadcasts.

Second, Cameron needs to muster a positive case for sceptics. “Yes, there are things we find frustrating about the EU. But it isn’t going away, it’s on our doorstep. It already has many advantages for us, and we need to be in there making it better.”

Just stop sounding so damn gloomy – or you’ll lose.

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010

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