Messaging mistakes cost Remain dearly, they must not be repeated

When the Britain Stronger in Europe Field team gathered in Solihull in January 2016 to discover what messages would form the backbone of our campaign to remain in the EU, it was clear from the outset that the prism through which we understood voter’s motivation was a narrow one of economic and physical security. Our watchwords were to be safety and security; Brexit is a risk. Talking about values polls worst, we were told.


Hindsight is easy. In hindsight it’s clear that the Remain campaign’s core message – Britain is Stronger in Europe – was a dud. But coming off the back of the Scottish Independence referendum and successive wins for a Tory party promising economic security, I’m not so sure at the time it was quite that clear.

For forty plus years, the EU has provided a springboard for the UK, anchoring Britain within a successful international social and economic partnership that drove investment in some of our most deprived regions, sustained our farming communities, allowed complex manufacturing chains to work seamlessly and powered innovation. That sounds like an easy sell, right?

Wrong message and wrong structure

The problem wasn’t simply that Britain Stronger in Europe chose the wrong messages, the problem was that the structure of the campaign didn’t allow us to change course once it became all too clear that the message broke on contact with the real world.

As a campaign we never understood how to frame or deliver our messages to a set of people who stubbornly refused to prioritise those things we were telling them were important. Even now, you’ll see Remain supporters screaming into the void about the costs of leaving the EU; the businesses leaving and the investment going elsewhere. I do it too.

But the European Medical Agency leaving London, taking with it 900 jobs, probably doesn’t feel that important to a Leave voter in Lincoln or Grimsby who never knowingly felt the benefit of the EMA being in London in the first place. Freedom of movement will feel less like an opportunity and more like a threat if your most likely holiday destination is Blackpool or Hastings.  

Misunderstanding voters

All too much of politics is built on rational voter theory; the idea that people vote in order to maximise their own personal feelings of satisfaction or gain. We fundamentally misunderstood what was driving voter behaviour, and even when it became clear, we didn’t know how to change course.

Britain Stronger in Europe simply didn’t understand what mattered to the voters that mattered because there was no mechanism, no forum for the daily feedback on the ground to change the messages at the top. 

The EU on our side

Time and again our field teams and our volunteers asked for locally framed messages; overwhelming evidence of the benefits of the EU to specific local communities and groups, arguments in support of freedom of movement and immigration, and a way to show that the EU was on our side.  

I’ll never forget the man on BBC Look North, stood outside the transport interchange in Barnsley built with millions of pounds of support from ERDF funding, saying the EU had done nothing for his town or his community. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t know that, it was ours.

Sovereignty, solidarity, empowerment

In South Yorkshire the EU was there to support and protect our communities in a way that successive Tory governments have never been, and yet we never found the emotive language to talk to former miners or steelworkers about sovereignty, solidarity and the way that the EU invested in and empowered our communities when no one else would.

Even before the onset of big data and targeted online ads, the George W Bush campaign of 2004 famously developed bespoke literature for as few as 300 people, amongst an electorate of 220,000,000. 12 years later the best we could do was generic leaflets targeted at whole regions, sometimes cities, but never anything smaller.   

Even where we did have compelling local messages, in places like Sunderland, we still couldn’t overcome the perception that this was a paternal, Westminster based attempt to maintain the status quo.  

To be fair it wasn’t just a perception; our whole campaign was built on the fallacy that people would be scared of losing what they had. What the Leave campaign understood was that all too many voters weren’t clinging on to what they had, they wanted back what they’d lost.

The signs were there

We know leaving the EU won’t bring back control, or sovereignty, or even fishing rights, but it’s too easy to simply blame losing the referendum on the lies of the Leave campaign. Blaming Leave for us losing is like blaming your car when you run out of petrol. All the signs were there we just chose not to listen. It’s our fault we didn’t recognise that problem and respond.

The question that Remain and ‘people’s vote’ advocates now need to answer if they’re going to win a second referendum is clear; what’s important to Leave voters and how does staying in the EU respond to those wants and needs. So far I’ve seen precious little discussion or even understanding of that question, or how it might translate into a compelling set of messages.

Lead not leave

For what it’s worth my best guess is that Gordon Brown was right and Lead not Leave is a good banner under which to fight. Perhaps Out of the EU, Out of Control. If I knew the answer I’d tell you.

But what I do know is that the people who do know the answer are in the communities we lost up and down the country. They are crying out to tell us why they voted Leave and what they need to hear from a People’s Vote campaign if it’s going to win their support.

If the People’s Vote campaign are going to engage with those communities, they need a structure and a flexibility that we lacked, but more than anything they need a willingness to listen and learn to people that have been ignored for far too long.  

That’s why I was so pleased to see Stella Creasy and others calling for Citizen’s Assemblies, providing a forum for those conversations to take place. Britain Stronger in Europe seemed to think the route to victory didn’t pass through Leave voting communities, I hope the People’s Vote campaign understand success can only be built in collaboration with them.       

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