Remain must look to more trusted and well-regarded figures to get #EURef over the line

Shortly before polling day in last year’s Marriage Equality referendum one of the Irish national daily newspapers ran an opinion piece by a marketing/messaging expert evaluating the Yes and No campaigns to that point.

Though he had several criticisms of those of us on Yes side and even suggested that the Yes campaign was putting the outcome in unnecessary doubt, the subtext to his article seemed to be: this would have been a whole lot better if he had been running things.

I mention this now just in case anyone thinks that the observations I am about to make here about the poor state of the UK’s In/Out debate are intended in the same – if only they had asked me – vein.

They are not. Having worked on the winning side in several referenda from Lisbon II to Marriage Equality and from the Good Friday Agreement to Seanad Abolition, I know how difficult they can be and how each referendum is different from the other.

We have a particular familiarity with the referendum process in the Republic. This is not due to some fetishist love of them, but rather because we have a written Constitution which can, under Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, only be amended by a referendum.

Ratifying EU Treaties such as Lisbon, Nice and the Fiscal Stability Treaties has required making changes to Article 29 (on International Relations) to facilitate Ireland’s ratification.

We know how it can often seem that the campaign is about almost every issue bar the one on the ballot paper and that forces outside the campaigns are dragging the focus away from the matters at hand.

That said, it is hard to imagine a referendum campaign that has been as bad and confused as this one. Yes, the individual campaigns have made errors and have adopted messaging strategies that seem unfocused and discordant with voters concerns, but these errors go nowhere near explaining the mess that is the UK’s EU referendum.

To borrow a phrase from the late Sir Geoffrey Howe:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

There is a problem with the conduct of the EU referendum campaign because there is a fundamental problem with British politics – namely, the big gaping hole in the centre of it.

There are no big beasts, big ideas or big concepts among the current leadership on either side of the House of Commons. In its place is a political void, populated by bland assemble with no hinterland beyond the confines of Westminster.

It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.

With a few exceptions, the current crop of Conservative, Labour and LibDem political leaders have failed to impress. They have either been absent, like much of the Labour leadership or been insipid like Brexiteer, Chris Grayling or plain wrong like Penny Mordaunt.

The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.

Referendums on complex issues need plenty of advanced planning and strategizing. They also need long lead in periods to allow the froth and irrelevancies to be exposed and blown away. Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted

Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted pre-campaign negotiations with EU counterparts and his assertion that he would have no compunction about recommending “leave” if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, left the scope for meaningful preparation in tatters.

The problem though is that strategy may not mean the same thing to Prime Minister Cameron as it does to others. As Hugo Dixon remarked in Michael Crick’s documentary “Boris v Dave”, strategy is something Cameron thinks will get you through to next Monday.

The result is that Cameron has allowed the rise of UKIP and disquiet among his backbenchers to compel him to hold a referendum which his poor preparation and planning has allowed to descend into a squalid slanging match of petty claim and counter claim with no real debate on the UK’s EU membership.

A stunning indictment of the Prime Minister’s ‘strategy’ is the fact that an Ipsos Mori survey published less than a week ago (and conducted in April and May) shows that the British public is still woefully ill-informed on the facts and realities of the UK’s EU membership.

British people think there are three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there actually are and they massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries.

The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%, but 14% of people think that its 30% and a further 23% think that it’s 13%.

Did no one around Cameron think to survey public attitudes a year or so ago and get a picture of the perceptions and beliefs of the people they were hoping to convince?

If they had; then they could have tackled these wrong perceptions head on and tried to correct some of them long before the campaign proper began.

In failing to prepare and plan, Cameron has encumbered his allies on the Remain side from even before the campaign started. The gross error has been compounded by the way in which the coverage of the campaign has focussed more on the future of the Tory party and the Blue on Blue battles.

The next few days will be crucial for Remain if it is to win – and I still expect it will. It needs to sharpen its message and redouble its efforts – it also needs to realise that it cannot solely depend on the current generation of Westminster denizens to get this over the line, it must look to more trusted and well-regarded figures.

There is some good news for Remain in the Ipsos Mori survey. 51% of those surveyed predict that Remain will win, while less than half of those planning to vote Leave believe they will win.

I mention this as there is some evidence from the U.S. to suggest that asking people who they think will win is a better indicator of the result than just asking them how they will vote.

In less than 10 days we will know either way…

And then the real debate can start.

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  • Chingford Man

    “It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.”

    Is the writer having a laugh? The only “impact” from these discredited has-beens has been to propel Leave into a clear lead. As for Chris Grayling, he was superb on Question Time last week: cool, steady and in control of his facts.

    “it must look to more trusted and well-regarded figures.”

    Such as? They wheeled on Obama to threaten the UK. That didn’t work Then they wheeled on a lot of the international elite to continue the bullying. That didn’t work. Who’s left?

    BTW, people do have a grasp on the issues. Yes, they may overestimate the number of migrants in polls. But at last they have realised that the country cannot cope with an extra 300,000 persons (and possibly many more) turning up every year, with the burden falling disproportionately on the poorest.

  • Croiteir

    I wonder if Micheal Martin is due a trip up- sounds like it. Perhaps he will win us over with his pleading we save the republics economy yet not bother mentioning whether or not he is coming north. If he does pop his head up perhaps someone can ask that question, then he, and his party stalwarts like Mr Mooney, really would have more credibility.

  • John Devane

    100% correct. Brexit is the only sane choice. The EU is unsustainable on its present trajectory. It is hell bent on a political union most never envisaged and incapable of any meaningful reform.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Well there are big ideas around Derek: one such is the Constitutional Reform Group’s Draft Act of Union coming out in July.

    Constitutional Reform Group’s Draft Act of Union

    Ostensibly designed to shoot the SNP fox, it is but a draft. If Brexit comes off it will have to be presented quickly and will undoubtedly transmogrify under pressure from the 4 nations into something very much like federation. You don’t get bigger ideas than radical constitutional reform.

    As to looking to more respected figures: that’s not being very complimentary to Justin Welby!!!

  • chrisjones2

    “more trusted and well-regarded figures”

    Who do you suggest? Sir Ant and Dec? Terry Wogan? Peggy from The Archers? Madonna? Justin Timberlake? Peppa Pig?

    Apparently next week we will have a (hopefully sober) Jean Claude Junker inflicted on us. That will go down well though one suspects that his audience is really elsewhere in the Union as he fears that the contagion will spread

  • scepticacademic

    Alas, I fear the argument may already be lost. Rolling out the likes of Blair, Major and Brown this week has played into the Brexiters’ hands. The Remain campaign has been incompetent and disjointed. There is no simple positive narrative to counter the simplistic ‘take back control’/’stop immigration’ rhetoric from the Out side. There is a definite anti-establishment/populist sentiment among the English electorate at the moment. Call Me Dave may regret letting this genie out of the bottle – and so may the country.

  • scepticacademic

    I disagree with your conclusions on in/out but you are spot on about the Remain campaign’s failings. They have played right into Leave’s hands and their rhetoric that Remain is for the failed old elites, not the common (wo)man.

  • Chingford Man

    Bring on Juncker: a double digit win would be nice.

  • Mary Rader