Lessons from the Remain campaign

by: Oliver Coppard | on: 29.12.18 | in: Comment | tags: , ,

I was the Field Director for Britain Stronger in Europe in Yorkshire, the Humber and Lincolnshire for six months preceding the referendum in June 2016. Perhaps more so than in any other region, the support for Brexit across my bit of the north drove the final result. I can’t claim to have been involved in the shaping the strategy of the campaign, but I was responsible for delivering it on the ground in some parts of the country most crucial to delivering a result that would have kept us in the EU. For all the people who have been let down, scared and scarred by the result in 2016, I’m truly sorry we didn’t do better.

History is too often written by the winners, and the Remain campaign has come in for a volley of criticism. While I share a lot of those sentiments, I don’t think anyone should underestimate the dynamics that our campaign was asked to manoeuvre around in just a few short months. Over thirty years of smears against the EU and an economy riven by the divided costs of austerity were never going to be easy to overcome. It has also become increasingly clear that the two campaigns were not playing by the same rules. Elements of the Leave campaign don’t seem to have been playing by the rules at all.

Despite the evident challenges, it’s undeniable that our campaign was in many ways a poor one.

As we move closer to March and possibly edge towards a second vote on the final deal, I thought it was worth collecting my thoughts on what we should and could have done differently. A common theme in the media is that Remain supporters haven’t learned the lessons from losing in 2016. This is an attempt to provide some insight into what those lessons might be based on my experience of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign, and what I saw from the other groups and campaigns fighting to keep us in the EU.

Rather than write one overly long blog I’m going to split it up into a few more manageable posts. Amongst other things I want to touch on are our use of data, how and where we tried to engage voters, how we recruited and worked with volunteers, and what our messages were.

I know many of you will have worked on the campaign, and most of you will have been touched by it in some way, so I’d really appreciate your thoughts and comments. If you have any suggestions, if there’s something specific you think I should focus on, or if you have any questions about what we did and why, please do post them below and I’ll do my best to respond. I’d also appreciate you sharing this far and wide in the hope we can start a conversation about what lessons we should learn from the Remain campaign. Until next time.


  • Hi
    We went door to door leafleting and knocking to get support for remain

    a) Colours were important – remain was blue, leave was red. Consequently lots of Labour supporters though that the official Labour policy was to leave – esp those with long memories

    b) The leaflet that we issued was AWFUL. It was a black A3 fold our poster with a man in swimming trunks on a diving board. The message was ‘Don’t take a leap in the dark’. 90% of the image was black

  • Thanks. I’m looking forward to the blog posts.
    My experience for what it’s worth was in Southampton Labour Party. the referendum was a couple of weeks after the local election in which we had worked hard to keep control of the council. No one on the campaign team was interested in mixing up a pro Remain argument with the local election campaign. Which means that local results and issues are generally considered a priority over internation

  • Hi. I find I have more to say than will fit into this space, and if you scroll recklessly the comment disappears. Is there another way. Cheers Ann

  • We were handicapped by years of silence about what the EU was delivering on, to, and for the regions. No signs. No symbols, no information. Labour as guilty as anyone.
    The answers to the question- “ what has the EU done for us?” , didn’t get through to people already switched into siege like mode seeing EU workers as invaders stealing jobs and undercutting wages.
    We didn’t acknowledge the pressures incomers put on housing and services. We didn’t over the last 30 years, develop a get to understand, befriending, integrationist, get to know your neighbours strategy( except in Corby).

  • I coordinated the labour in campaign in Leeds NE, where we got a strong remain majority (expected) and a good turnout, and a hugely enthusiastic campaign team. However we did get challenges on the doorstep from those that likely could have been swayed towards remain but were instead swaying the other way.

    Thoughts on lessons: main lessons were pre referendum in not properly challenging the terms of it, in particular arriving at a specific version of Brexit before the vote, however whilst this is all quite neat in retrospect we couldn’t necessarily have anticipated the level of lying, the influence of Russia and the additional funds etc. One of the biggest barriers was the level of misinformation from leave which Remain couldn’t look to replicate (nor should it have).

    I’m not sure selling the positives of the EU more actively would have worked pre referendum without that process starting well in advance of it – it has taken the leave result to make those positive messages seem relevant to people again. So many of the lessons are historical – Labour should have pushed for the govt to use the immigration controls within EU law as a way of calling the Tory’s out on their lies re this, and we didn’t. Ultimately however we should have tried to block the referendum from happening, or to enforce a supermajority, and tried to get the referendum bill if it were to proceed amended to be very specific about what sort of Brexit was in scope (ie in the leave campaign there was “never any question of leaving the customs union” until of course there was. This could have been ruled out early, or the leavers bluff called). Ultimately Cameron bears to most blame for this, but we could have done more too.

    From the doorstep though (and again this is not from a heavy leave area but in talking to undecideds within our predominantly remain constituency) it was the NHS funding claim and the case that Corbyn (in his honeymoon period) was actually pro Brexit too that were raised most often in face of the labour remain argument. On the former, Gisela Stuart being allowed to have her face and Labour red colours on pro leave leaflets stating the NHS lie should have been a sackable offence – she should have had the whip removed for that as by letting it fly we allowed it to look more legitimate than it was. On the latter, we needed and need to not have lexiters anywhere near the party leadership and it’s my firm belief that Corbyn’s inaction and Seamus Milnes interference was responsible for tipping the balance in leaves favour. Labour members and all campaigners need to take responsibility for the impact of their actions upon real human beings and not hide behind ideological bubbles whilst they play games and wreck lives as Brexit is now doing and any so called Lexit would do also – this applies to local parties as well as MPs. The Tory’s will always do that, labour shouldn’t and those that do (including our current leader and his spin doctor) bring the whole left into disrepute.

    Ultimately for referendum no 2 should we get one, we can and should sell the benefits and the values of the EU as a positive community that makes the UK stronger and 2.5 yrs after the referendum people are much more willing hear that message – I’m not sure that in 2016 they would have been. We also need absolute and unequivocal support from the labour leadership to cancel Brexit otherwise a labour led campaign will do more harm than good – in that case we should join a cross party campaign. But in reality we need that unequivocal support. And we need Seamus Milne removed from any influence on the campaign, or the party.

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