Change the message or risk defeat

A number of years ago I attended a talk by the great Sir Robert (Bob) Worcester, founder of opinion pollsters MORI, and an expert on elections and the voting habits of electorates around the world.

One compelling argument from Sir Bob, was that he felt there were really only two effective election messaging strategies.  One was: “It’s time for change” – which is obviously used by the opposition parties.  The other was: “Let’s finish the job”; but that second message had a powerful partner theme of “don’t let the others mess it up”.  This second pair of messages is the most successful strategy for parties in power.

However, Sir Bob  warned, if the incumbent Government of the day is unpopular, the time for change message invariably wins.

The current EU debate, has seen the Brexit camp put all their eggs in the “time for change” basket, and there’s no doubt they are facing an unpopular incumbent.  In response, the Remain camp has gone negative – and concentrated almost entirely on the “don’t let the others mess it up” message.  However, “it’s time for change” was always going to be a popular message when, after 40-odd years of EU membership, large elements of the population are unhappy with the resulting situation.  And, at the same time, “don’t let the others mess it up’, is not going to resonate strongly when so many people believe it is already messed up.

Cards on the table – I am firmly in the Remain camp; but from a messaging and strategy point of view, I think its campaign has been flawed – and will fail unless it changes tack very, very quickly.

In recent years, Conservative campaigning has been under the influence of Australian political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby – knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for his “political service”.  Crosby believes in negative campaigning, and his legacy is all over the Remain “don’t let them mess it up” arguments.  The campaign has been relentlessly negative – your house will be worth less, your pension is at risk, you’ll earn less money, you’ll lose your job; threat after threat after threat. Thus opening a door for the Leave camp to simply say, they are scaremongering – things will be better if we leave not worse. And once the Remain camp opened the door to the “scaremongering” accusation, then everything they said could be tarred with the same brush.

Of course, at the same time, the Leave camp can make these promises about how things will be better, can talk about restoring “Great” Britain, can appeal to the best and worst of National pride, and – unlike in a general election – not actually have to set out their stall regarding what they would actually do when “in power.”

So what should Remain do in the time that is left?  I believe they need to go positive, while at the same time expose the flaws in the Brexit argument.  Much has been made of the £350million a day figure used by the Brexit team, and the Remain team have concentrated simply on trying to knock down the figure saying it is inflated, and doesn’t take into account the rebate or the money we get back.

But the Brexiters can say, we don’t control it – give us the £350 million to control and we can choose where to spend it.  It’s a compelling argument – except it is flawed, because the EU has invested in projects in the UK where Government funding was lacking.  I think the Remain camp should be highlighting the good things in the UK that EU money has helped to create.  Let’s highlight the local authority projects that would not have been completed without EU Funding, or the investment in Superfast broadband in Cornwall, more than half of which was EU funded.  Or the local community projects, and city regeneration schemes in places like Liverpool in particular.

Last weekend, a group of Nobel scientists spoke about their worries regarding research funding if the UK were to exit the EU. In response, the Vote Leave campaign said that “it was a myth” that research funding came from Brussels.  That is an outright lie.  The UK is one of the top recipients in terms of EU research funding.  Manchester University alone will receive £45.36 million of funding for its work on Graphene, set to become the wonder material of the 21st century.  Many, many businesses I have worked for, have received substantial EU-funded rebates of the VAT on their research and development spending.  Let’s celebrate the achievements that EU funding has helped to deliver.

So Remain campaigners.  Talk about the things the EU has funded and ask the question – where will that money come from if we leave?  And ask this question – how many times can you spend the same mythical £350m – which, after the rebate and the EU grants and income we receive is actually around £70m.  And remember too, that much of this EU funding in the UK, is based on a bid and is awarded on the merits of the case, not tainted by any political expediency.

Of course I, like many of us, am all for voting for a positive change – for a better tomorrow.  But Leave are asking us to vote for an uncertain tomorrow.  For a minimum of two years during which the financial markets will not trust the UK.  The Pound is already at its lowest since the global recession because the market doesn’t like the uncertainty and the way it looks like the debate is heading.  And whatever trade deal we strike is absolutely guaranteed not to be better than the existing one – why on earth would the other EU countries agree to that!  That uncertainty is the only negative strand I would allow, not with scaremongering figures, but with the simple fact that we do not know what will happen, what tomorrow would look like, and what the future would hold.

And as far immigration is concerned – leaving the EU with the so-called “Norway” trade agreement would mean we would still have to allow for the free movement of people.  And in any case the real immigration crisis affecting all European countries at the moment is a humanitarian one that has nothing to do with our EU membership.

Of course, it is hard to write about any concerns regarding immigration without appearing to be racist. But we do need an adult conversation about managing the population growth in the UK – not least by ensuring we have the housing and services in place to support the growth that will continue regardless of our EU membership.

The UK is a destination country for people from across the world, not just the EU.  All of these people are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families.  That is actually something to be proud of as a country. The UK is arguably the world’s finest example of a successful, peaceful, liberal, and tolerant multi-X society.  By multi-X I mean multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious – as well as creating multiple opportunities for its citizens.  Our popularity is further evidence that Britain is indeed a Great place.

The immigration issue in this debate is therefore something of a red herring.  Immigration will continue regardless of the vote.  We have good border controls now, which are actually strengthened by our EU membership and the knowledge sharing between authorities, that help us to exclude those who would do us harm.  There is even an argument that says leaving the EU puts us at greater risk.

So Remainers, use the time that remains to talk about the benefits of membership – the things that have been created, the opportunities we would lose, and the funding we would have to replace.

I don’t expect this piece to change anyone’s strongly held opinion.  But if you are undecided, maybe it will help.  And if the Remain team start getting positive and not just negative, I think they could sway a lot of people looking for a reason to vote to stay.

The Brexit team said recently that if we left the EU we could scrap VAT on fuel as an unfair tax.  Another promise the Brexiters don’t have to keep, as they are not the Government.  But should a future UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the aftermath of our exit from the EU, decide to scrap VAT on fuel; ask yourself how we, as a country, would replace that lost income?  Or is the answer we would spend that same £350 (£70) million again.

I firmly believe Britain is stronger in Europe, and it will be a very sad day indeed if the likes of Farage, Putin, and Trump (all in favour of Brexit) triumph over every living British Prime Minister, Barack Obama, the Nobel scientists, the vast majority of UK business leaders, and nearly every informed economic commentator.

But the message needs to change, and change quickly.

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