A better approach to volunteers would be essential to winning a second referendum

This is the second in a series of reflections on the 2016 referendum campaign from former Field Director of Britain Stronger in Europe for Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard. You can read the first installment here.

On the day of the referendum, 23rd June 2016, Britain Stronger in Europe had around 700 people volunteer for our campaign across the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber; the 5th biggest region in the country, with a population of around 5 million people. Facing an electorate of 3.9 million, we had 1 volunteer for every 5,500 voters.

To put that into context, on the day of the 2015 general election, the Labour Party had over 250 volunteers active across the single constituency of Sheffield Hallam (1 volunteer for every 340 voters).

In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the problems we had in Yorkshire were compounded by national elections that took up most of the time and energy of experienced activists.   

Admittedly it wasn’t the same everywhere. We had a significant number of volunteers in London, but across the UK the official Remain campaign had too few people, in the wrong places, all too often doing the wrong things.

No effective volunteer strategy

The truth is that across the country there wasn’t an effective strategy in place for maximising our volunteers’ impact on voter behaviour. From January 2016 until at least April we mainly asked volunteers to run street stalls and hand out leaflets; the placebos of political campaigning.

The logic was at least understandable. For most of the campaign our field teams had little more than a broad, focus-group based segmentation of our voter pool to work with.

Without any data to build a more targeted or personalised campaign on the ground, across the country we took a reductive approach that simply put activists in high visibility locations, in places where we hoped there would be undecided, persuadable voters.

In focusing most of our efforts in city centres, we failed to mount a serious volunteer led effort in all too many Leave voting communities. In those places, we often had a strong story to tell about the benefits of being in the EU but didn’t have anyone local or authentic to tell it.

In places like South Yorkshire, EU investment was fundamental to the regeneration of those communities dismantled by Thatcher, but time and again we failed to recruit – and in some instances turned away – people willing and able to tell that story to their friends and neighbours.   

Rather than recruit, train or mobilise those activists, Britain Stronger in Europe put its faith in a combination of low turnout, a Labour Party campaign and an effective media and digital strategy – ‘project fear’ – holding down the vote for Brexit in likely Leave voting communities.     

While we therefore failed to mount a serious volunteer led ground campaign in places like Grimsby, Barnsley and Doncaster, even in those places where we did have more volunteers, we didn’t put them to use doing those things we know make a difference to turnout and vote share.   

In places like Harrogate, York and Sheffield, we only attempted a late and somewhat patchy transition to more targeted door to door voter contact, because it wasn’t until the last couple of months that we had the household level data you need to effectively target, find and speak to the voters who were genuinely undecided. Even then the data was less than reliable.    

Door to door, personalised contact is clearly not the only way to change voter behaviour, but it is arguably the most cost-effective way for volunteers to have an impact on the result of an election. Experts in GOTV will tell you that an in-person doorstep conversation can increase turnout by 8%. Francois Hollande’s 2012 campaign have said that their army of volunteer canvassers grew his share of the vote by 3%.

As campaigns rely more and more on digital data rather than the information we would otherwise get from doorstep conversations, perhaps the most important impact that personal contact plays isn’t on turnout or vote share, but as a powerful, visible demonstration of ‘social proof’.

Almost by definition, ‘we’ are stronger in Europe is a much more effective and persuasive message coming from your neighbour than coming from someone outside of your community or group.

Leave’s accusation that we were a campaign dominated by the Westminster elite was all too powerful when our best antidote in both Leave and Remain communities – an army of community led volunteers – were either not invested in, not trusted, or in our case were simply not there.   

There’s no doubt that Britain Stronger In Europe faced a huge challenge in mobilising an activist base in just six months, but I do think it’s fair to say that in 2016 we neglected our ground game and the volunteers needed to deliver it. Let’s not do that again.

If we are in the preliminary stages of a second referendum, there are at least five lessons that the People’s Vote Campaign should learn from Britain Stronger in Europe.           

Recruit and mobilise now

Any second referendum campaign is likely to be as short or shorter than its 2016 predecessor. We had 6 months, which was never going to be enough time to replicate the local infrastructure that has taken political parties years of work to build. Start recruiting and mobilising people now. Once spending restrictions apply, it’s too late.              

People power matters

Don’t simply rely on your digital or media campaign. Invest in volunteer recruitment and mobilisation. If you aren’t prepared to put significant resources into recruiting, managing and inspiring your activists, if you don’t see them as anything more than human billboards or disposable extras in a campaign dominated and dictated by an all-knowing centre, you won’t grow a volunteer base sizable enough to change the dynamics of a campaign from the ground up. Committed, visible activists and are an antidote to apathy and cynicism. 

As far as I could tell, there was little or no volunteer recruitment taking place at the People’s Vote march in late 2018, and even now the People’s Vote Campaign only have a handful of field organisers currently working in the regions. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. 

Go where you need the votes

Work out where you need to win votes – or stop Leave winning votes – and then actively go and find the pockets of enthusiasm in those places. There’s no shortage of people in Lincoln, Wakefield or Barnsley who will put in hours of work to keep Britain in the EU, but you need to actively look for them, invest in them, and trust them.

Be effective, not just busy

There is a wealth of empirical data out there showing the relative impact of different campaign approaches. When you have a volunteer infrastructure in place, don’t waste their time asking them to do things that might make you look busy but will not change the result.

Work out how to most effectively use your volunteers to change the intentions and behaviour of your target voter pool. Provide your activists with the data and tools that allow them to do those things efficiently.

For example, we had no regional phone bank infrastructure in place. That wouldn’t have been hard to fix.         

Respect local knowledge: listen up

Perhaps the most effective ground operation of recent times – the 2012 Obama field team – used the mantra ‘Respect. Empower. Include. Win’. In 2016, all too often we did not respect the knowledge and insight that local people brought to our campaign.

Immigration and sovereignty were issues that our volunteers knew were driving support for Leave, but there was no way for local knowledge to shape the direction of the campaign. Neither our paid field teams or the volunteers themselves were empowered to effectively respond to the local issues or concerns they were hearing about every day. Respect the insight of your volunteers. I’m not as confident as many people that a People’s Vote would reverse the result of 2016, but I do know that a winning campaign can only be built on the back of a significant, effective volunteer base. Any People’s Vote campaign that fails to learn the lessons of the past will be doomed to repeat it.

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