Public affairs

The battle for the nation’s vote

How did the Remain campaign get it so wrong? Did it rest on its laurels or rely too much on hyperbole?

Peter Bone is excited. ‘We know how to run ground campaigns! I never worry about the opposition; we’re just maximising the grassroots.’

It is two days before the historic European Union In/Out referendum and the arch-Eurosceptic Conservative MP for Wellingborough in Northamptonshire is increasingly confident there will be a Brexit.

He says people’s anger at immigration, which was at its second highest recorded net figure of 333,000 last year, is the most repeated issue on the doorstep. That favours a Leave campaign arguing the upshot of EU membership has been an influx on Eastern Europeans putting a strain on everything from the NHS to jobs.

Bone was right. Despite the bookies having Remain as a heavy favourite throughout the campaign, Leave won by nearly 1.3 million votes.

Clearly, the Remain campaign, backed by the power of Government, failed. It’s all too easy to be wise about a campaign’s problems in retrospect, so CorpComms Magazine spoke to communicators, journalists and politicians from both camps in the final few days of the battle to assess what they felt was going right or wrong for the Remainers and the Brexiteers.

The politicians’ view  MPs backing Remain were growing increasingly nervous at their prospects. Although the polls were constantly moving, Leave was more often in the lead than not. Leave’s push on immigration had focused on Turkey, arguing its possible accession to the EU could result in up to 80 million mainly Muslim people having visa-free access to the UK.

Remain thought this was a preposterous notion and tinged with Islamophobia, but David Cameron had made the similarly startling claim that a Brexit could see the EU ripped apart by war. In May, Cameron had warned: ‘Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

The EU, after all, was the result of a dream to make sure that countries co-operated and to make sure that the two World Wars never became parts of a trilogy. Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond felt he had seen these type of scare tactics before during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Scotland had come unexpectedly close to a ‘Yes’ to independence vote when he was First Minister in power. He has always accused the No campaign of being relentlessly negative, focusing on what Scotland would not have by remaining as part of the United Kingdom, such as being stripped of the right to use the pound.

Salmond says: ‘My view as a keen Remain supporter is that every single mistake that could be made, the Prime Minister as de facto leader, has made. If you have two negative campaigns then the most negative campaign will win: the fear of Turkish hordes coming in is more realistic than World War III, though neither will happen. I don’t know what the Prime Minister’s been playing at, it’s one of the most incompetent campaigns I’ve ever seen.’

Prominent Remainer Wes Streeting, the fast-rising Labour MP for Ilford North in London, was growing increasingly despondent. He always felt his side was at a disadvantage, because Leave ‘has the simplest messages, Remain the better arguments’. It is far simpler to state that there are, for example, too many immigrants, than to explain how their work might be beneficial to the UK economy.

But he was concerned that the problems were deeper than the difficulties of portraying nuance. He was furious that Cameron had spent years deriding the EU and then had gone as far as to say that he would have wanted to be out had he not achieved certain concessions in negotiations this year, such as a promise to exempt the UK from the bloc’s ambitions for ‘ever greater union’.

‘We’ve been hamstrung by two things,’ argues Streeting. ‘The Prime Minister underestimated the effect his Eurosceptic message over the past six years and in the lead up to the negotiations would have and [Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn was unable to carry a message, with clumsiness over issues like immigration.’

The Labour leader has long been critical of the EU and during his election campaign last year was not clear that he would even support the Remain camp. His campaigning was viewed as half-hearted, even stating that his passion for remaining was at ‘seven or seven-and-a-half’ out 10.

The Prime Minister underestimated the effect his Eurosceptic message over the past six years and in the lead up to the negotiations would have and Jeremy Corbyn was unable to carry a message

Corbyn was pushed to tackle fears in Labour’s heartlands over immigration, but instead conceded there could be no upper limit on EU migrants while the UK retained its membership. There have since been claims that party headquarters even barred local Labour branches from mentioning immigration on their leaflets. He shocked his MPs, nearly all of whom are strongly pro-EU, by focusing more on less pressing issues, such as press intrusion.

‘I sat behind Jeremy Corbyn for his six questions at the last Prime Minister’s questions, and I couldn’t tell you what they were,’ says Streeting, who thinks the Remain campaign erred by placing the increasingly distrusted political class at the centre of the campaign.

‘We should have pushed people like Carolyn Fairburn [the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry] and [Trade Union Congress general secretary] Frances O’Grady, because people wanted to hear independent voices. The Referendum has shown that confidence in politics is at rock bottom.’

Streeting’s Labour colleague transport select committee chair Louise Ellman agrees that negative campaigning has ‘built distrust across all people of authority’, but lays the blame at Brexiteers.

The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign’s main problem, she says, was bombarding the electorate with statistics, which ranged from claiming that one in ten UK jobs was linked to EU trade to London School of Economics research that showed access to the single market meant lower prices that saved families £350 a year each.

Ellman says: ‘The Remain campaign has spoken about figures and that’s not always meaningful to people, that doesn’t get to the heart of their real concerns.’

But Leave campaigners were concerned by their own statistics. Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative Party’s powerful 1922 committee, is a staunch Brexiteer, but even he was frustrated that his colleagues were arguing that the UK hands over £20 billion a year to the EU budget. This is the gross figure, but is actually only £10 billion once rebates have been factored in.

‘I have kept saying that we need to use the net rather than gross figure, and, finally, they’ve started doing that,’ says Brady, reasoning that even the lesser amount is an eye-watering number.

The Referendum has shown that confidence in politics is at rock bottom

Leave also corrected this fairly quickly – Boris Johnson was making the distinction between ‘gross’ and ‘net’ in May, lessening the opportunity for Remainers to criticise Leave for being disingenuous.

Still, Remainers constantly attacked their opponents for stating that the UK was spending more than £350 million a week on EU membership when the rebate applies straight away.

Jonathan Refoy, director of European corporate affairs at US engineering giant CH2M Hill, says the whole rebate issue could have been made simpler had Leave said: ‘Imagine we take £350 from your wallet every week and we say Look, we’ll give some of that back to you, but we’ll decide what it’s spent on.’

But Mark Gallagher, the founding partner of Pagefield who campaigned for Brexit, says Leave was successful in ‘selling a far more appealing vision’.

He adds: ‘A strong, outward-facing, independent democracy taking its place alongside the other 165 trading nations of the world – and who don’t feel the need to do so through political union. Vote Leave also achieved an important judo throw – taking the weight and tone of arguments from the global elite and essentially posing the question: who do you think you are?’

In particular, he argues that Remain’s bolder claims, such as that on war, went too far and were immediately discounted by an electorate that had been intellectually underestimated. Gallagher says: ‘Remain had a choice: deliver Project Fear with a degree of pragmatism and an even, believable tone – or do what they’ve done for the last two or three months. In choosing the latter, they have undermined their own credibility. And they’ve left the voters with the impression that Remain are insulting their intelligence.’

Peter Bingle, founder of Terrapin Communications, agrees that ‘on the Remain side, there has been the impression that leaving the EU will spark World War Three, that the economy will go bankrupt, which is nonsense and damaged [their] credibility’.

He argues that there was a lack of a ‘strategic overlord’ so that there was not a consistent message, which he says should have been ‘we’re the strongest growing economy in Europe, unemployment is going down, so leave us alone’.

Similarly, he thinks the Leave side would have been even more effective had it flipped that argument and claimed that it was wrong to suggest that the world’s fifth biggest economy could not survive outside the EU.

Lansons co-founder Tony Langham thinks that the Remain campaign had Cameron’s and Chancellor George Osborne’s fingerprints all over it. He points out that there were similarities with their general election campaign last year, which resulted in the first outright Conservative majority in nearly a quarter of a century.

That campaign concentrated heavily on whether the UK could trust then Labour leader Ed Miliband with the economy and the Remain campaign consistently argued that a Brexit would hurt household finances that had only just recovered from the credit crunch.

Langham argues: ‘They’re effectively fighting the same campaign as the general election, banking on people to see sense at the last minute. It is the small ‘c’ conservative choice. At the start of the campaign they thought it would work, but the establishment all seem to be saying vote Remain and there’s probably a reaction against that.

They’re effectively fighting the same campaign as the general election, banking on people to see sense at the last minute. It is the small ‘c’ conservative choice

‘But David Cameron has won two general elections and two referendums [the Scottish referendum and the 2011 vote on changing the UK’s electoral system], four out of four, so he’s confident enough to stick with it.’

Sadly for Cameron, though, his luck ran out and he failed to make it five wins out of five. Langham argues this is probably because of the biggest unexpected stroke of good fortune for Leave: the decision of former London mayor Boris Johnson to campaign for Brexit.

‘They didn’t realise was that they would have this charismatic person, Boris Johnson, on their side, and that has clearly benefitted them.’

Certainly, Johnson’s well-known hunger to succeed Cameron, a rival since they were schoolboys at Eton College, as Prime Minister, added to the media intrigue. Johnson made massive use of his photo opportunities, getting pictured with beer, asparagus and fish.

Jo Tanner, director at iNHouse Communications, is a former adviser to Johnson and argues that the varying television formats added to interest. These included individual hearings for Cameron and his Brexiteering Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, but she is particularly impressed by the number of women used alongside Johnson and his successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan, on ITV and the BBC’s ‘Great Wembley’ debate.

Suddenly the public saw the quality of campaigners beyond these two men. Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives’ leader in Scotland, was largely proclaimed the winner in the BBC free for all, frequently sighing ‘oh, Boris’ whenever he made a questionable claim.

On the Leave side, energy minister Andrea Leadsom emerged as a credible alternative leader to Johnson even as she stood beside him. Tanner says they ‘were able to really make an impact for their sides of the argument and attract some waiverers to their cause’.

But the media itself was no less doubtful of the campaigns being run as the communications experts. David Wooding, political editor at The Sun on Sunday, argues: ‘The problem is that the two sides have been outbidding each other in the hyperbole stakes – as if one is trying to trump each other with the most outrageous lie or scare story. Both arguing black is white, when the truth is somewhere in the middle.’

But the biggest question for Wooding is why Cameron kept arguing that voting Leave would be such a risk, given it was his decision to hold the referendum. ‘Why is he giving us a referendum if leaving is such a dangerous risk?’

Presumably, as he prepares to leave Number 10 having announced his decision to quit when Leave had won, Cameron is asking himself that very same question and working out how he could have fought the credible campaign that might just have clawed back that 1.3 million vote deficit.

This article first appeared in issue 107