Critiquing the Remain campaign (easy in hindsight…)

July 2, 2016

Clearly everyone’s pining for yet another article on Brexit, so here goes.

The Remain (Stronger In) campaign put in a remarkable shift. Selling an entity as maligned as the EU via a cross-party platform targeting such different communities was bloody challenging to say the least. Assembling 40,000 volunteers and organising 10,000 events was wildly impressive. Their commitment was beyond reproach. Hats off.

But they lost. And annoyingly, a fair few chapters from the campaign 101 handbook appear to have been overlooked.

I write this with the obvious benefit of hindsight, and a caveat: I’m no insider and this is all wild conjecture. And with the knowledge that they probably know the handbook very well indeed, but the campaign was simply too intense and complex to be run by the book, while responsibility for their failure to counter Leave’s emphasis on immigration lay with Labour rather than them.

But still: they lost, and as a pure political campaign, Leave was better. Remain felt like a reactive, spray-and-pray fact delivery mechanism and rebuttal system, rather than a real, targeted political campaign. Perhaps strategists outnumbered genuine campaigners in the Remain camp. While strategists are knowledge and message merchants, campaigners concentrate on targeting and emotional triggers: a prerequisite in a campaign as primal as Brexit/Bremain. Again, wild conjecture, but this could explain why Leave bossed the sound bites (Take back control!) and key campaign frames (Project Fear!)

In a blog post published before the Referendum, the campaigner Chris Rose identified a set of key groups that did not fit within obvious remain or leave clusters but could likely be persuaded to support remain, and were potentially sizeable enough to swing the vote. Utilising values research from CDSM in tandem with Shalom Schwartz’ values model, he wrote the following:

Whoever manages to appeal to values… such as achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction, is likely to swing the decision. In political parlance this means establishing a ‘narrative’ of optimism, the prospects of future success, enjoyment and looking good, whether as a country, a business or individually… The benefits of Euro-railing, enjoyment of foreign holidays, making friends and having a good time doing business with Europe, and the endorsement of celebrities for the same, are likely to have more effect on this than any amount of ‘economic argument’.

With a campaign strategy centred almost purely on the economy, this optimistic narrative was sorely missing, although a fair few celebrities did make an appearance (Golden Balls Becks was terrific). I appreciate that telling an unemployed bricklayer in Huddersfield that Euro-railing is ace would result in a bloody nose rather than a cross in the Remain box, but I live in London where “achievement hedonism, stimulation and self-direction” are rife and the positive narrative could have resonated. I read local papers, listen to local radio and obviously see billboards and the like, but I’m not sure I ever came across a positive Remain message targeted specifically at the likes of me.

On the topic of targeting, beyond media, were people targeted personally? I’m Johnny Foreign and perhaps they knew that, but most of my British friends are archetypal remainers. Not one of them received campaign material from Remain, personally targeted at them via mail, email or social media. Perhaps the campaign assumed their votes were in the bag, but given that turnout was such a major concern, surely that was a tad risky. Maybe they were hard-up and spent their dinero elsewhere. But everyone I know received Vote Leave (and Leave.eu) guff addressed directly at them, meaning they’d gone to the effort of obtaining mailing lists. Again, what the hell do I know, but surely Remain should have done so too, especially given the demographics involved, at least as a last-minute get out the vote effort?

The campaign 101 handbook also tells us that framing is key to campaign success. If your side fails to set the frame, the opponent’s frame should be ignored, and a counter-frame introduced. Responding to an opponent’s frame merely reinforces it. But Remain constantly let Leave set the frame, and then proceeded to reinforce it.

Take Project Fear, a stroke of campaign-framing genius. In just two words, it decimated Remain’s strategy of cajoling sensible Brits into voting remain for fear of the economic unknown. Remain’s response? More figures, usually quoted by men in suits working for organisations known by an acronym, which reinforced Leave’s frame: they were fear mongers. With their strategy decimated by two words, there was no obvious attempt at setting a new strategy, countering with a positive frame, or introducing a different frame to define Leave. They doubled down on the economy and fear, to no effect.

At a more granular level, when faced with the £350 million nonsense, their response was to break it down in detail to prove the figure was actually lower. Again, this merely reinforced the “Europe costs loads” frame. Where was their take on the EU’s cost? The Brickwall video that did the rounds contained an example of a figure that could have offset the £350 million: 10 to1 i.e. the UK gets back £10 for every £1 spent. Does the figure hold up to close scrutiny? Probably not, but sadly that’s not the point, neither does the £350 million. I appreciate that it would have been difficult to ignore it, given its physical prominence on the side of that bloody bus, but some semblance of response beyond dissection would have been nice.

When studying modern political campaigns, one can’t help but be awestruck by their ability to identify and target tiny communities of support. Did Remain narrow target? Again, what the hell do I know, maybe they did, but it didn’t seem like it. One perhaps trite example: Glastonbury took place during referendum week. The Glastonbury demographic clearly sits heavily in the remain camp, and there were surely tens of thousands of votes at play. Apparently there was no effort to reach people with tickets to urge them to get their postal votes sorted. A petty gripe perhaps, but again, if turnout was a concern, surely relatively minor initiatives such as this represented a no brainer.

Remain / Stronger In put in some serious hours. But ultimately they failed. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the deep-rooted antipathy towards the EU built up over decades, the rage felt by huge swathes of the electorate, Leave’s willingness to play the immigration card so forcefully and cynically, and the fact that the sheer assortment in their camp partly neutralised each individual faction. How could Labour credibly campaign in down-and-out communities in the North-East while sharing a stage (metaphorically) with Tories talking about protecting the “markets” and doing the rounds with bankers ? Tricky.

I get all that, but the fact remains: why the clumsy responses to great campaign manoeuvres by Leave; why did they double down on the economy and fear when a quick study of potential voter groups demonstrated that a positive narrative could work; why were key demographics not targeted more directly; and why were get out the vote efforts not more aggressive given that turnout was a concern?

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