This piece first appeared on the Slugger O’Toole website on June 14th. Note that I wrote this piece a few days before the horrific murder of Jo Cox, M.P.
Shortly before polling day in last year’s Marriage Equality referendum one of the Irish national daily newspapers ran an opinion piece by a marketing/messaging expert evaluating the Yes and No campaigns to that point.
Though he had several criticisms of those of us on Yes side and even suggested that the Yes campaign was putting the outcome in unnecessary doubt, the subtext to his article seemed to be: this would have been a whole lot better if he had been running things.
I mention this now just in case anyone thinks that the observations I am about to make here about the poor state of the UK’s In/Out debate are intended in the same – if only they had asked me – vein.
They are not. Having worked on the winning side in several referenda from Lisbon II to Marriage Equality and from the Good Friday Agreement to Seanad Abolition, I know how difficult they can be and how each referendum is different from the other.
We have a particular familiarity with the referendum process in the Republic. This is not due to some fetishist love of them, but rather because we have a written Constitution which can, under Article 46 of the Irish Constitution, only be amended by a referendum. Ratifying EU Treaties such as Lisbon, Nice and the Fiscal Stability Treaties has required making changes to Article 29 (on International Relations) to facilitate Ireland’s ratification.
We know how it can often seem that the campaign is about almost every issue bar the one on the ballot paper and that forces outside the campaigns are dragging the focus away from the matters at hand.
That said, it is hard to imagine a referendum campaign that has been as bad and confused as this one. Yes, the individual campaigns have made errors and have adopted messaging strategies that seem unfocussed and discordant with voters concerns, but these errors go nowhere near explaining the mess that is the UK’s EU referendum.
To borrow a phrase from the late Sir Geoffrey Howe:
“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.
There is a problem with the conduct of the EU referendum campaign, because there is a fundamental problem with British politics – namely, the big gaping hole in the centre of it. There are no big beasts, big ideas or big concepts among the current leadership on either side of the House of Commons. In its place is a political void, populated by bland assemble with no hinterland beyond the confines of Westminster.
It is no coincidence that the most significant and impactful interventions in the campaign so far, particularly from the Remain side, have come from those who are no longer active on the main political stage, such as John Major, Gordon Brown or Ken Clarke.
With a few exceptions, the current crop of Conservative, Labour and LibDem political leaders have failed to impress. They have either been absent, like much of the Labour leadership, or been insipid like Brexiteer, Chris Grayling or plain wrong like Penny Mordaunt. The few bright points from the current political generation have come from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon.
Referendums on complex issues need plenty of advanced planning and strategizing. They also need long lead in periods to allow the froth and irrelevancies to be exposed and blown away. Cameron’s strategic approach to this referendum, not least his convoluted pre campaign negotiations with EU counterparts and his assertion that he would have no compunction about recommending “leave” if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, left the scope for meaningful preparation in tatters.
The problem though is that strategy may not mean the same thing to Prime Minister Cameron as it does to others. As Hugo Young remarked in Michael Crick’s documentary “Boris and Dave”, strategy is something Cameron thinks will get you through to next Monday.
The result is that Cameron has allowed the rise of UKIP and disquiet among his backbenchers to compel him to holding a referendum which his poor preparation and planning has allowed to descend into a squalid slanging match of petty claim and counter claim with no real debate on the UK’s EU membership.
A stunning indictment of the Prime Minister’s ‘strategy’ is the fact that an Ipsos Mori survey published less than a week ago (and conducted in April and May) shows that the British public is still woefully ill-informed on the facts and realities of the UK’s EU membership. British people think there are three times as many EU immigrants in the UK than there actually are and they massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%, but 14% of people think that its 30% and a further 23% think that its 13%.
Did no one around Cameron think to survey public attitudes a year or so ago and get a picture of the perceptions and beliefs of the people they were hoping to convince? If they had; then they could have tackled these wrong perceptions head on and tried to correct some of them long before the campaign proper began.
In failing to prepare and plan, Cameron has encumbered his allies on the Remain side from even before the campaign started. The gross error has been compounded by the way in which the coverage of the campaign has focussed more on the future of the Tory party and the Blue on Blue battles.
The next few days will be crucial for Remain, if it is to win – and I still expect it will. It needs to sharpen its message and redouble its efforts – it also needs to realise that it cannot solely depend on the current generation of Westminster denizens to get this over the line, it must look to more trusted and well regarded figures.
There is some good news for Remain in the Ipsos Mori survey. 51% of those surveyed predict that Remain will win, while less than half of those planning to vote Leave believe they will win. I mention this as there is some evidence from the U.S. to suggest that asking people who they think will win is a better indicator of the result than just asking them how they will vote.
In less than 10 days we will know either way… And then the real debate can start.