“It’s the economy, stupid” has been the default position for electoral campaigns for seemingly forever. It was fundamentally the basis on which Remain campaigned. It appears to be the reason why the Tories are confident that a Corbyn-led Labour party cannot win, not just because of Corbyn himself but because it will be easy to point at how Labour will ruin the economy. But is this truism always true? During our post-referendum summer languor, it may be worth looking at what the Remain campaign did or did not do to see if there are some lessons for future electoral campaigns.
My list of five things which went wrong with the Remain case.
1. Show. Don’t Tell.
That the EU and Britain’s membership of it was a good thing was taken as a given. But if you want to win an argument you can’t simply assert what you need to prove. In its understandable desire to set out the possible/likely negative consequences of departure, the Remain side never really appeared to argue confidently for a pro-EU case. It moved between saying that the EU wasn’t working and needed reform (the Bloomberg speech) to saying that all depended on the renegotiation (but not involving anyone outside a very small group into what such a renegotiation should seek to achieve) to overselling the result to ignoring it completely to arguing that the EU as is was better than the alternative but only by focusing on the ghastliness of the alternatives. This incoherence fatally undermined the Remain case. No wonder London was the only part of England and Wales to vote convincingly for Remain. It already knew the case. It was the rest of the country which needed convincing. But you can’t convince if you don’t really know or believe your own case.
2. Know your weaknesses. Address them.
It was obvious that immigration was going to be a concern for a significant group of voters. Remain should have thought long and hard long before the campaign started about how they were going to answer their critics and make a positive case for free movement (and there is one – beyond saying that it is necessary for membership of the single market). They didn’t. And when they did accept that free movement was necessary, it was presented as a bitter pill which had to be swallowed. Not an obviously winning argument. Describing free movement as “a price to be paid” without considering who paid the price, who got the benefits and whether both costs and benefits were fairly distributed is an odd position for politicians, particularly Labour politicians, to be in. If the fairness of a policy’s outcome is not Labour’s raison d’être then, what, really is Labour for? Remain were blind-sided by immigration. They should not have been.
3. Treat your voters as intelligent adults.
Basic stuff really in a democracy. But too often forgotten. People may be ignorant, stupid, perverse, chippy, bitter, deluded, selfish, self-interested, smug, silly or as wise as Solomon. But they can tell when they’re being patronised or ignored. Too many on the Remain side said that each vote – and, therefore, each voter – counted and then proceeded to treat too many of them as morons. The gap between the two was where the Leave vote came from.
4. Tone is everything.
How you say something matters as much as what you say. You can make people listen to and even accept a difficult decision or an unpleasant truth if you do so honestly and intelligently, if you treat your audience as adults. The tone of the Remain campaign seemed to show a tin ear for Britain. Hectoring voters rarely works.
5. The “pull” factor needs to be more attractive than the “push” one.
The result was a vote against the EU, against the elite which it seemed to represent, against the apparent consequences of globalisation, against an internationalism which, despite its good intentions, seemed to ignore the ordinary person (and much else besides). The fact that the alternative may be unclear – what does Brexit mean? – or incoherent or that it may/will make things worse for voters, including the most ardent Leavers, is not necessarily enough. Anger and resentment can be powerful drivers for action, more powerful even than fear.
Does any of this matter? After all, Remain lost. Yes, it does.
All of the above criticisms can be made in reverse and, in some cases, with even more force, of the Leave side. And since the government is now in favour of Brexit, it will need to think intelligently about and explain to us:
(1) what Britain’s future strategy for the EU and the rest of the world is to be – something which has not really been done in the last few decades;
(2) how we get from here to there;
(3) how the government is going to address the gap between the overall desire of the majority and the needs and desires of the Remain minority, who – though this should not need saying – are a key part of the country and its future;
(4) how to present all of this and the trade-offs which will be needed (not least between being open for business and people and having a sensible immigration policy) honestly and intelligently to the voters; and,
(5) finally and most importantly, that they will do so in a tone and style which shows a Britain outside the EU at its best, both to all of those in Britain, whether citizens or not, and to the world. This is something which has not – shamefully – always been done on the Leave side. Dishonest scapegoating of the other needs to stop. The manner of one’s departure – and how one behaves after it – matter just as much as the fact of it, something which has too often been forgotten by some.
More importantly, the Tories should not assume that the next election is in the bag, whatever the polls may now say.
If voters feel that the status quo in 2020 (whatever that status turns out to be) is still working against them or not for them, if voters see a Tory party which is not presenting a positive case for election, if voters see a party which is not addressing its concerns, if they do not see a party explaining honestly why the voters cannot have their cake and eat it, then the anger and resentment (whether at the terms of Brexit or at how the ordinary people are still ignored) may be enough to propel voters to vote against the Tories, no matter how competent they may be on the economy and no matter how useless Corbyn/Labour may be.
All the aspects of Corbyn which repel some may be irrelevant to voters if they hear someone talking about a country where the ordinary person is ignored or patronised by Westminster, ripped off by privatised railway companies putting up fares and providing no trains, or by banks still gouging customers, by those at the top claiming to be worth sums beyond the dreams of avarice, by property prices in the stratosphere, by long waits for operations etc.
Maybe the most important lesson of the referendum is this: if enough people are annoyed with the status quo, they will vote against it even if that means voting for something pretty rubbish. The “push” factor can overwhelm any consideration of the “pull” factor. Having done it once in the referendum, it would be wise to assume that voters might get a taste for it. Just because the official Opposition appears to be missing in action doesn’t mean that voters won’t make their own minds up. If Project Fear did not work in the referendum, why assume that it will work in an election campaign against Labour? Something for the Tories to ponder as they look at the polls.