By: Andrew Cooper
The research to map out the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union started more than a year before the referendum. The story it told was more daunting than the voting polls implied. Within the data, it was clear that the axis of British politics was in rotation: a new battle line was emerging, cutting directly across the heartland of both main parties – a division founded in national identity and compounded by the impact of an open, globalised economy.
Britain was deeply Eurosceptic. Positive facts and arguments in favour of EU membership were mostly disbelieved and rejected out of hand; and most voters believed that the costs of being in the EU were far greater than the benefits, and that other EU countries got much more out of membership than we did. Beyond that, there was a widely held feeling that the only way to cope with the pressures on jobs, public services and the economy may be to put up barriers to the world – and therefore to the EU – which we alone controlled; a craving for unilateral control in a multilateral world.
The arithmetic told us that motivating and mobilising pro-EU voters would be nowhere near enough; we would also need the votes of people whose underlying attitudes meant they would find the leave campaign’s arguments compelling and would be hard to persuade.
The research that informs political campaigns is much more sophisticated than published polls. We don’t just want to know who is going to vote one way or the other. We need to understand what perceptions and arguments cause people to come to the voting conclusion that they do. This means looking beyond demographic and regional factors to map the electorate on the basis of attitudes and behaviour. We need to identify our core vote – and our opponent’s – and to define, with as much nuance as possible, the voters who are genuinely in play: what they think and feel about the choice before them and which messages, messengers and modes are the most effective in persuading them.
The foundational research showed Britain divided into three almost equal chunks. The first chunk – 34% of the population – was internationalist in outlook; socially liberal; positive about globalisation, immigration and multiculturalism; and optimistic about the future. For these voters, the economy was by far the most important issue in the referendum. They were overwhelmingly going to vote remain, regardless of the terms of the debate.
The second chunk – at that stage, 32% of the population – was diametrically opposed: nationalist in outlook; socially conservative; fearful of globalisation; opposed to multiculturalism; preoccupied by immigration; pessimistic about the future; and very hostile to the EU. For these voters, immigration was far and away the most important issue in the referendum; most of them favoured ending free movement, even if this made Britain worse off. The attitude that most characterised them was “I hardly recognise the country I live in any more”. More than half of them agreed with the statement “If I could wave a magic wand and take the UK back to the 1950s, I would”. Their imperative was to shut out the consequences of globalisation and open markets. These voters were overwhelmingly going to vote leave, regardless of the arguments.
The third chunk – 34% of the population – was conflicted. These people were the in-play voters: the primary target for both campaigns in the EU referendum. They were very clear that they didn’t like the EU, and why: uncontrolled immigration, the huge direct cost of membership, too much meddling in our laws and lives. They were torn between the appealing idea of insulating the UK from the pressures of an open world, and fear of the idea of a Britain outside the EU, isolated and alone. They were defined by the attitude that “my heart wants to leave the EU, but my head says it may be too risky”.
There was no emotional argument for the EU that had any resonance with these voters. For committed remain and leave voters, the decision was often passionately held and part of a wider worldview. For the “hearts v heads” voters it was a pragmatic, often transactional, decision. Like almost everyone else, they were worried about immigration – but the economic implications of Brexit mattered even more. Our challenge was to cut through with hard economic arguments – so that head would trump heart. This is where the campaign failed and the referendum was lost.
Within the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, the referendum often felt like a battle between a simple lie and a complex truth. The leave campaign seemed to have all the best tunes. “Take back control” was a strong, clear message requiring no explanation. It was demonstrably not true that leaving the EU would give the UK £350m a week to spend on other things like the NHS, but endless repetition of that single number meant people heard it and it struck a chord.
The remain argument was more complicated. There is no single verifiable statistic that is evidence for the benefits of membership. The economic case lay in easier trade leading to more jobs, lower prices, stronger growth and higher living standards. Each part of the soundbite “Stronger, safer and better off in Europe” required explanation – and the underlying hostility towards the EU, built up over years, meant that pro-EU arguments met strong scepticism.
On immigration we had no satisfactory answer. For voters who felt this was the most important issue, nothing came close to the simple appeal of ending free movement from the EU, and that was plainly irreconcilable with remaining a member. The Stronger in Europe campaign tested dozens of arguments, but none had any traction with the key in-play voters. Because of the hearts v heads dynamic, many wanted to believe the leave arguments, and disbelieve those forwarded by remain.
One of the few straightforward ways to try to get across the risks of leaving the EU was to point out the overwhelming weight of opinion among economists, businesses, unions – the reviled “experts”. Research established that “independent experts” were top of the list of people whose opinions the swing voters wanted to hear. It turned out that what they really meant was “independent experts who agree with me”. A poll during the campaign found that while remain voters trusted a wide range of experts and professionals, leave voters didn’t trust anyone.
In April 2015, when the nascent remain team first looked in detail at the spectrum of attitudes, the “hearts v heads” voters on balance – and mostly with reluctance – came down in favour of remaining in the EU by 55% to 45%. On 23 June 2016 they voted in favour of leaving the EU by about the same margin. Heart won out over head.
The detailed analysis of the result suggests that the dividing lines of politics are shifting: as Tony Blair put it, left v right is being supplanted as the driver of political alignment by open v closed – and Britain is split on those lines more or less 50/50. The referendum was decided by people who voted on the basis of national identity and in defiance of rational economic self-interest. The result made clear the existential threat that this poses to the Labour party now – and in the foreseeable future, unless it can square the circle, to the Conservative party too.