Brexit is winning the referendum campaign: what should Remain do?

I have been following British politics remotely for the last two weeks from Cuba, where I was on holiday, and where internet access is limited, even in international hotels. The EU referendum campaign seemed to be going well for Remain. A rash of polls after a bit of a famine showed them winning by about a 10% margin. But as I arrived home yesterday I was in for a bit of a shock.

First (hat-tip to – an excellent source of news on polling) any swing to remain shown by those polls was illusory. It came from the fact that most of the new polls were phone polls while those before them (showing a neck-and-neck result) were online polls; the online polls hadn’t budged. One of the curiosities of the campaign from the start is that phone polls have shown a distinct bias to remain (or online polls to Brexit, if you prefer). Then came yesterday’s shocker from ICM/The Guardian, which showed a 10% lead for remain being morphed into one for Brexit for 4%. And that was a phone poll.

Interestingly the evidence from ICM’s online polls (and a new online poll today) suggests that this movement is more to do with the phone bias disappearing than with a wider swing in sentiment. But since optimists like me had assumed that phone polls were more reliable, that is no comfort whatsoever. My best guess is that Brexit now have a lead. That is more than worrying.

Why? Well it’s nothing to do with my social circles, including those on social media, who continue to convince themselves that Remain is the only intellectually viable option, and pour scorn on the antics of the Brexit campaign. Unfortunately this is not the decisive battleground, and all the that sneering is probably not helping to convince the small numbers of Leave sympathisers and don’t knows that lurk in those circles. Brexit seems to have a decisive lead among the working classes, especially its ethnically white members, and in places outside London and its hinterland, and Scotland.

The Leave campaign seems to be well targeted here. Its early appeals to the intellect, around parliamentary sovereignty and an appeal to British history, have fallen flat – but the campaign has majored on two undeniable facts. First is that the taxpayer makes cash contributions to the EU; the £350 million a week repeated relentlessly by the campaign is a lie, but how much of a lie remains arguable – it is before an agreed discount (the “rebate”), and spending by the EU within Britain on farm subsidies and the like, which it is said could or should be spent on different things. This enables the campaign to suggest many alternative ways this money could be spent, with the NHS top of the bill, to appeal to working class voters. It makes no difference that most Brexit politicians are enthusiastic supporters of austerity cuts, or that they assure farmers that the spending by the EU would be replaced by similar spending by the UK government. The first rule of political argument is that you never have time to explain.

The second undeniable fact used by Leave is that membership of the EU includes freedom of movement, which allows people from other EU countries the right to live and work in Britain. That implies that leaving the EU would allow Britain to restrict immigration from other EU countries. Since immigration is popularly blamed for a wide variety of social ills, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, as well as high property prices and rents, and stretched public services, this is a powerful argument indeed. Cleverly today Leave campaigners proposed an “Australian style” points system to limit immigration. This moves the campaign from histrionic hand-waving to a seemingly sensible policy proposal from a government-in-waiting – just what Remain campaigners say that Leave couldn’t do. Even more cleverly, Leave campaigners are able to weave in fears about illegal immigration (some Albanians were caught trying to cross the Channel this week) and the refugee crisis in south Europe, even though these have nothing to do with Brexit, and might even be made worse by it. That libertarian Tories are signing up to an immigration policy based on bureaucratic central planning is one of the many paradoxes in the campaign.

So what should the Remain side do to neutralise this effective campaign? I can see two possible approaches. One is “no more Mr Nice Guy”, and the other is “keep calm and carry on” – in other words by copying Leave’s tactics or playing their opposite. Playing both strategies at once is possible too, but risky.

How might Remain copy Leave’s tactics? They need to start with some undeniable facts. What might these be? The most powerful is that all Britain’s trading relationships will have to be renegotiated by politicians and civil servants that have largely forgotten how to do it, and who would be overwhelmed by the task. This is bound to disrupt trade and investment for the short term, and it would surely create permanent damage too. Remain have tried to use this fact by way of warnings from authoritative figures and financial estimates of the impact on working families from economists. This has to be taken down market with visual images of redundancy notices and pay cuts – as well has trying to create more direct images of the scale of disruption involved (the number of treaties that would have to be negotiated, how long it would take, by how many negotiators, etc.). Remain have been accused of running a negative scare campaign – this strategy would mean living up to that description.

But would that be playing into Leave’s hands? The alternative is to keep pumping out the vaguely positive and reassuring images, to try and show that all sensible people support Remain, and let the sheer wildness of the Leave campaign sow the seeds of doubt, and allow them to play on the minds of Brexit inclined voters, so they then fail to turn out, or even change their minds.

This blog does not presume to advise on this choice. I am not in close to or in sympathy with the decisive group of voters; my advice on Lib Dem electoral strategy, notably in the European elections of 2014, was well received but wide of the mark.  These are scary times for those of us who feel that a British vote for Brexit would be a catastrophic result for the country, and a betrayal for what it has stood for since so many of our ancestors died on European fields 100 years ago.

2 thoughts on “Brexit is winning the referendum campaign: what should Remain do?”

  1. I think Osborne bears a lot of the blame in that the unrelenting flood of dire warnings/visions of apocalyptic meltdown in the event of Leave has probably had the opposite effect and reminded many (particularly, as you say, working class voters (the ‘Guardian’ had 62% of C2s on ‘Leave’ earlier in the week) just HOW much they detest Cameron and Osborne. (I don’t really think they have any high regard for Johnson either, seeing him as yet another posh boy but more of a buffoon than a ‘real’ politician. The driving force is Farage and his band with their never-ending, relentless focus on ONE issue (immigration, immigration and immigration) which is turning the tide (and is well in line with British history for well over a hundred years (Griffin, Tyndall, Powell, Jordan, Moseley, (Joseph) Chamberlain etc.) As with most things (the outcome of both the 2010 and 2015 general elections), it would not surprise me in the least if Cameron had well and truly ‘blown it’ and could be out of office within a month.
    Personally, my response would be to be as nasty as it is possible to get and point out again and again how much the Leave side issue calls for “closer ties with the Commonwealth”. Obviously, any trade deals India, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana etc. might do with a post-EU Britain (England, most likely) are going to demand (as are countries like China (about to lay off 1.5 million steel and coal workers)) concessions on immigration in return. Those who are hoping to say “Good-bye (riddance)” to Gregor, Jan and Renate need to be told that (with 45,000 non-UK EU people employed in the NHS alone), it is going to be a case of “Welcome, Ismail, Ahmed and Sanji!” instead. It is about the only level at which you will get through to the pro-Brexit lot. You might as well try and have a rational, evidence-based constructive dialogue with most of them as with followers of Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France, Pegida in Germany, Orban in Hungary, the ÖVP in Austria etc. etc.

    1. Interesting idea – but I’m not sure if exploiting the many holes in the Brexit argument will work, as it is still responding to their agenda and they are masters at neutralising argument about specifics. Having said which, asking how they are going to enforce a points system on EU migrants when the border with Ireland will be open might be an interesting point to make! I would rather make the economic scare stories more concrete. “100 trade deals to renegotiate takes 500 experts. Britain has only 25 . Britain needs trade for jobs and investment. How long will your job last?” Or something like that (numbers based on Miriam GD’s FT article. They don’t have to be accurate, just arguable).

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