You could be forgiven for thinking that the result, of the biggest democratic vote in UK, was some kind of abomination or fluke. Those representing the remain campaign, much of the establishment and large parts of the media, have represented the remarkable result of June 23rd 2016 as the result of dreadful lies, guerilla tactics, racism, stupidity and gullibility.
Instead of looking for real and positive reasons the response has been to allocate blame and split the population into sections. Northern, Older, Nostalgists, Racists, Bigots, Ignorant, Working Class etc. In fact the decision to leave the EU, and that is what was voted for, was pretty easy to see coming and the result of many factors and reasons. Here are a few of the elements that combined to ensure that Leave won.
1: The Question
This is the most basic element of a referendum. Unlike other elections no subtlety is allowed. With the influence of the electoral commission the simplest and most understandable question is formulated with only two possible replies.
In the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum Prime Minister David Cameron, questionably, allowed the positive answer YES to be given to his opposition. But YES & NO are powerful simple answers that can be used as easy themes in every area of the campaign. Logo, branding, leaflets, quotes, soundbites and much more. Both words are, or can be, loaded with emotion as well as being simple, memorable and effective. An obvious alternative for the EU Referendum would have been IN or OUT.
The question for the Brexit vote, and its answers, had a little more nuance. The commission settled on the words Remain & Leave. This was a boost to leave supporters and campaigners. The word remain has very few positive connotations and is often included in phrases such as “human remains” or “all that remains”. Thus to remain is quite passive thing to do “might as well remain then…” To leave something however is an active choice and often what you do to solve a problem. Also to leave something often means heading to something new, different, positive and exciting.
2. The Timing
The leave campaign was gifted a threefold advantage by the timing of the referendum. By waiting more than 40 years from our last referendum and not holding any further democratic exercise in relation to the EU, regardless of the mission creep of Brussels, signing the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty and that of Lisbon together with going back on a promise of a referendum over the EU constitution, whilst allowing people to watch how other nations votes were treated. This provided huge ammunition, for the Leave side, to remove the status quo from the table and ensure that many older voters would be resolute in not being deceived for a second time.
Secondly, Cameron’s decision to run the referendum so soon after the 2015 election victory was fatally flawed. He probably assumed that the same tactics as had worked previously, in the referendum regarding proportional representation (AV), would work again. This was a huge error, AV was a large constitutional change that the majority could see no need for, especially during a financial crisis, as we had just arranged our first genuine coalition government for over 50 years. In the case of the EU referendum many believed they would be correcting a constitutional mistake from 40 years before, Cameron and henchman Osborne were not as popular as they should have been due to a series of policy, and economic, errors and a scandal involving perceived complicity in tax reduction schemes.
Finally the specific timing of polling day. June 23rd 2016, was a great choice for leavers. It meant that both the main campaign and polling day were in the summer. They coincided with Euro 2016 and celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. In addition, the forthcoming Olympic games served as a reminder of London 2012. It would be hard to imagine a greater combination of events to ensure voters being in a confident, feel good and positive mindset.
3. Campaign Slogans, Logos, Branding and Marketing.
The slogans and logo elements of a campaign can be vitally important. Simple, clear, emotional and gripping will defeat compromised, varied and uninspiring every time. By losing out on the wording of the question Remain also lost ground in the graphic and marketing elements as well. The Leave campaigns simply told their supporters to do what it said on the tin. Vote Leave! Leave.EU etc. This is a simple instruction and does not confuse or risk mixed messages in any way. Stronger IN, Britain Stronger IN, Labour IN etc. These do not even contain the word that will be on the ballot paper. The Union Jack colouring was not bad and sought to include the patriotic but it was drowned in the sea of differing IN and Remain messages, logo’s ,slogans and other media motifs.
The Leave slogan of “Take back control” was a complete masterpiece. It was simple, believable, repeatable, memorable and had nothing to do with any party or previous group. The fact that it is now used as a stick to beat, those tasked with delivering Brexit, or deride those who voted Leave, is a huge compliment and testament to its power. Other branding/logos from the Leave supporters were also hugely effective. The Leave.EU website and digital campaign/platform also served to simply state what was wanted.
Some other elements used were also effective and wise. The use of red for the main leave colour, implying that this was not a Tory campaign but at least in part a labour one. The use of a ballot box as a simple logo was direct. Use this! Overall the images left in the mind from the campaign ,and those that are instantly recognisable, were all Leave supporting.
4. Personality Campaign
Despite protestations, from both sides, that the EU Ref was too important to descend into personality politics, it inevitably did. Here the Vote Leave campaign played a winning hand with elan. The combination of Johnson, Gove, Stuart and Leadsom was almost unplayable at times. Remain targeted Johnson at the big debates and failed almost completely. The skills learnt from Lynton Crosby over two mayoral campaign ensured that no blunder or blow up happened. Indeed the ending of the final BBC debate, with Boris summing up the positive case for Leave, was many people’s moment of the campaign.
By sending Micheal Gove to face Fysal Islam, and BBC’s Question Time, Leave showed excellent tactics. Despite his obvious early nerves Gove came across as passionate, intelligent and far more personally likeable than he had been perceived. Although now notorious, his “had enough of experts” line was perfect and the way in Mr Islam attacked him for it ensured the audience lent toward him. Gove pulled off the same trick with a tricky Question Time format.
Flanking these two Tory giants with Labour’s Gisela Stuart was another excellent demonstration of the skills of Leave. She was portrayed, and may well be, eminently sensible and totally convinced of her ground. In addition she often looked like the grown up when others resorted to squabbling and Punch and Judy. The underpinning, of the Leave image, with Labour, feminine and immigrant tones without overkill was nicely done.
5. The Pincer Movement.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the vote going Leave’s way involved what originally seemed their greatest weakness. Initially the fact that Nigel Farage, Ukip, George Galloway and other controversial characters were seen as a major weakness. When trying to form a consensus large enough to win a 50/50 question the initial perception was that many of these people would alienate voters. Thus Vote Leave sought to distance itself and seek the official nomination and funds for the campaign. However the other groupings and especially UKIP & Leave.EU had been campaigning for such a referendum for up to 25 years. They were not simply going to disappear now that their moment had come.
This apparent clash turned into a huge asset. Leave in effect had two large, well staffed, well-funded, highly skilled and totally committed, campaigns. Each could aim at the sections of the populations they thought they could convince. Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage fronted one side with Mathew Elliot and Dominic Cummings running the official campaign for which the public faces were mainly Johnson, Gove and Stuart.
Some basic figures from the 2015 general election give an idea of the obvious possibilities that Leave capitalised on. UKIP collected just short of 4 million votes of which approx 99% could be counted on to vote leave. A good rule of thumb was that the Conservative vote of 11 million could produce a maximum of 60-40% in favour of Leave. The Labour vote would be likely to be split in reverse of the Tory party, with the Lib Dems would be 80% in favour of remain. Put simply this means that it is likely that the race was 50/50, or better, for leave right from the start.
The pincer movement simply involves maximizing the UKIP friendly vote in Labour areas whilst motivating and reassuring those who claimed a more liberal motive from across all parties and voting districts. Many might not vote for UKIP to run the country but more and more had flocked to them in European and other elections over the past few years. Thus Banks and Ukip’s people’s army simply did what they do best. An additional effect was the recapture of those who had not voted previously or given up voting. Estimates of up two and a half million who had never voted or not since the 1980’s and who overwhelmingly voted to leave indicate a decisive addition to the electorate.
Whilst the UKIP arm of the pincer was doing its thing, Vote Leave was busy giving everyone who had sympathy, with Leave, a reason to actively support it. Gone was the loony fringe element. The “Take back control” slogan gave everyone a non controversial reason to support the cause. The idea of speaking up for others who had no vote, of helping the EU by making it face its errors, of re asserting the freedoms that Britons had fought and died for, of helping those on lower wages and of both putting right a previous wrong and preventing another. These were just some of the themes that were able to be finessed by Vote Leave. Thus when the remain group attempted to lump them together and use “Farage’s Britain” people were confident in their own choice and the reasons for it.
6. Bullying, Injustice and the Underdog Spirit.
The attitude of the British people to bullying, negativity and knocking Britain could and should have been obvious. Yet the remain camp had no idea of the effect of many of its actions whether big or small. The government backing Remain, rather than recommending and sitting above the fray. Spending public money on an information leaflet without giving leave the same opportunity. Restrictions placed on Eurosceptic ministers trying to do their normal job. The civil service not being able to assist ministers who were leavers. Letting it be known that they had banned all plans for what would happen if Leave won. These actions, and the resultant publicity, produced both a sense of unfairness in the campaign and a spirit of the underdog in those campaigning for the other side.
The injustice above added to a sense of the establishment stitch up that was gaining traction. Many older voters held a sense of long nursed injustice from the UK entry, into the EU or, Common Market as it was. With at least three major treaties being passed, via the houses of parliament, with no further consultation of the public. Much of the right-wing press, and many others, highlighting the democratic deficit, brazen waste and perceived lunacy of EU directives. The latent sense righting a wrong had fully forty years to build.
To put the tin hat on, this set of errors, the government then proceeded to play the bully. This disaster will happen to you, it will cost you X or Y, think of your grand children etc. The best known trait of the British is standing up to the bully. Whether it’s Phillip II of Spain, General Galteri or more domestic types such as Arthur Scargill or Thatcher’s Poll Tax . You can bet your last £ that if something is attempted to be forced on the British it is likely to be returned with relish.
7. National Confidence.
Although this is difficult to quantify the return of national confidence in GB and the UK could be the thing that actually underpinned the vote to leave.
In the mid, to late, 1970’s when the UK voted to join/remain, in the common market, Britain was the basket case of Europe. Overmanned, over regulated, under defended and generally failing to adapt to a post empire world. The famous quote of the civil service ” our task is the orderly management of decline” together with industrial unrest and national humiliation, at the hands of the IMF, reached its peak with the winter of discontent in 1978. The election of Margaret Thatcher and the tumultuous events of the nineteen eighties turned around much of this pessimism and even those opposed to the severity of her policies do not doubt the turnaround in how the country was perceived.
With the Falklands conflict, the end of the cold war and a huge scale modernisation of every area of British life, the confidence began to return. It is no surprise that Eurosceptic opinion can be seen to crystallize and start to grow from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Despite this turnaround the hangover from our lowest ebb ran deep. The idea of the UK managing things for itself and in a comparable way to other major nations was still doubted by many. This could be seen in microcosm within the farcical attempts to celebrate the new millennium. The arguments, budgetary and otherwise, over the dome and other activities illustrated this perfectly.
Yet a major turning point was only a few years away. July 6th 2005 was the day London was awarded the Olympic games for 2012. Despite the negative remarks, about even bidding, the costs and the usual doom and gloom merchants, Sebastian Coe and his team had negotiated , planned, prepared and delivered perfectly. Although the pessimists were out and about again at various times, over the intervening 7 years, the overwhelming spirit was of making the games work.
The UK managed to surprise many, possibly including itself, in 2012. Despite the usual stresses and strains, of such a huge event, it is fair to say it was a huge triumph. From Danny Boyle’s incredible summary of “These Noisy Isles” to the Paralympics that followed, the nation was shown at its very best. Both in competition and in hospitality. Finally those who said Britain could no longer do such things, that our transport would collapse, that Londoners would not take part, that it would run uncontrollably over budget, that we would be left with huge white elephant venues and other such nonsense were silenced. If you doubt the significance, of this event, simply note the reaction of the public to team GB at this years Rio Olympics. The first post Brexit, global scale, event was looked to, by the nation, as a sign of our ability to improve and perform on the world stage. The reaction could not have been more positive.
The sense of national confidence and of how UK citizens feel about themselves in a wider context could be seen in various ways within the campaign. From the very idea of a UK Independence Party through to Boris Johnson framing the argument in terms of speaking up for others, who could not speak for themselves, allowed a narrative to develop where the everyday individual felt he/she might know better than the bullying, arrogant patronising establishment. Remain then found it very tough to dissuade a confident and determined population who strongly believed that they understood and represented their country and its’ true nature and future, better than the out of touch elite that had spent much of its time knocking or doubting it.
So forget about the nonsense that has been said about the nature of the Leave vote. The truth is that remain did not really stand a chance. A nationally confident public, with passionate (and popular) personalities, a modern, tightly organised and double fronted campaign was fighting an out of touch, elite fronted, divided and panicked campaign. It is perhaps only surprising that Leave did not win by a bigger margin. That question is however, for another day.