With barely any time to take in yesterday’s remarkable vote in the EU Referendum, the political world is already moving on. We’ve seen Prime Ministerial resignations, aspiring PMs taking their marks and future referendums already in the planning.
Before we lose track of what’s just happened, we need a proper post-mortem of the campaign and its effectiveness. It has a lot to tell us political anoraks, both about the future direction of the country and also the effectiveness (or otherwise) of campaign techniques.
This post makes no claim to provide the detailed analysis required. Rather I wanted to highlight five areas that seem to me to be most worthy of detailed exploration as the most significant factors in determining the result.
The Reform package – Remember that? For months after the 2015 election, Cameron made a huge amount about the renegotiation he would secure that would deliver a better deal for the UK. In the end, the reforms he secured were widely perceived as weak and tokenistic and were effectively airbrushed from history, barely getting a mention in the final weeks of the campaign. This is significant in my view because securing a real set of reforms could have offered Cameron a much stronger defence against Leave on the issue of immigration. As it was, Remain were left having to defend high levels of EU immigration with no credible ‘change’ message at their disposal.
The Economy – Remain’s best message by a long way was the economy and yet they failed to land it effectively. Astonishingly, the Prime Minister actually launched his business case for Remain at Davos. They then used financial experts, FTSE business leaders and global financial institutions all to argue that our economy was at risk by a Leave vote. There was too much big business and macro-economics, not enough about jobs, wages and families. Hard-pressed voters in middle England who had suffered years of recession and austerity were not going to be easily persuaded by a bunch of rich bankers who thought the UK was booming. The economic message was also taken to extremes, leaving Remain’s best message appearing like a campaign tactic - ‘Project Fear’. There may well be an economic shock from Brexit but the biggest shock is Remain’s failure to make a compelling case on this issue.
Labour – it pains me to say it but the biggest loser on the night, apart from Cameron, seems to be Labour. The Tories have lost a leader. Labour have lost an electorate. The Labour leadership’s confused stance on the EU meant the party was felt nationally to be on the margins of the debate, something which the impressive Labour grassroots campaign couldn’t turn around. It should also have been obvious to the Stronger In campaign much earlier that Cameron was going to be little use in turning out the Labour voters of Sunderland, Swansea or Stoke. Much of Labour’s problem here pre-dates Corbyn and is about a long-term failure to tackle economic and social upheaval in urban areas. It’s interesting, however, that Corbyn’s victory has done nothing to arrest this. Labour has much to fear from what happened last night.
The United Kingdom – the result also shows huge disparities between different areas of the United Kingdom. Wales and England voted to Leave the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland to Remain (albeit with lower turnouts than might have been expected). It seems that the SNP campaign was less effective at turning out pro-European Scottish voters than Leave were at motivating anti-European voters elsewhere, in areas where they had weeks before performed very strongly. Whether this is because of campaign fatigue, having just fought elctions weeks before, or a secret desire on the part of some nationalists to see Leave do well so as to depose Cameron and make a second Independence referendum more likely, we may never know. The differences in the UK weren’t just between countries, however. Areas with high ethnic minority populations, higher university educated populations and more younger people voted relatively strongly for Remain. Central London was an island of Remain in a sea of Brexit. While all English regions outside of London voted to Leave, the south was more sympathetic to Remain, the north and midlands much less so. The UK is a nation divided by class, ethnicity, nationality and age and this makes finding a settlement on Europe much more difficult in the future.
Boris – the final area to analyse is the role played by Boris Johnson. Surely the next Prime Minister in waiting, Boris’s decision to side with Brexit transformed the Leave campaign’s fortunes. Before his arrival, Leave were in chaos, rudderless and with the polarising figure of Farage as captain. Although popular with some, Farage would undoubtedly have made it difficult for many voters to side with Leave. Boris however provided Leave with a popular, charismatic and respectable figurehead. Notwithstanding his gaffe-prone interventions, Boris more than matched the Remain figures in their ability to carry a message and gain media attention. His personal intervention to back Leave might be the single biggest factor in the overall result.
Whatever your view of the result, the campaign provides us with much material to ponder. And we shouldn’t be slow in drawing conclusions. We may need to apply the learnings in a general election campaign or another referendum before too long!
What do you think? What would you add? Let me know your thoughts - firstname.lastname@example.org.
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