Picture: The classic 90s game, Lemmings.
Referenda are odd affairs. Two sides, both of which are passionately invested in the success or failure of the proposition, seek to woo disproportionate numbers of far less interested voters to their respective causes. Votes are counted, not marked out of ten for enthusiasm. Each side must resist the temptation to make arguments that fascinate those who are already-engaged but which make the barely engaged switch off.
Activists on both sides of the EU referendum debate must constantly remind themselves that they are unusual, both in being consumed by the subject and in having made their mind up already. The average member of the public is just not that into it.
So with that in mind, what will the undecided be weighing when they decide how to vote in the referendum? For a start, we need to get away from the idea of an identikit undecided voter. Undecideds are far more heterogeneous than either Remnants or Leavers. Strategies that will work with some voters will actively repel others. The process will resemble a game of Lemmings, with some marching resolutely over a cliff even as others are obediently marching to the desired destination. As with the computer game, the trick will be to get to the finishing line with sufficient numbers of lemmings following your instructions and not worrying too much about those who you’ve had to sacrifice.
Where is the battle going to be won and lost? I have identified three central battlegrounds.
- The economy
The public will want to know whether the economy will be better or worse inside or outside the EU. Here at least most voters are likely to have an aligned view of what they are looking for: few voters would be keen on the idea of impairing the national economy.
On this battleground Remain starts with a real advantage. Even the Leave camp concedes that leaving the EU would require the renegotiation of the trading relationship. It argues that the costs of EU membership outweigh the benefits of remaining. The Leave camp is impeded because, inevitably, the terms of any renegotiation are at present unknown and would have at least some costs attached to them. The public will naturally tend to a safety-first approach, all things being equal.
Numerous studies have been undertaken as to the possible effect on the UK economy of leaving the EU. Open Europe has given what it describes as a realistic range of between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030. Other estimates are available to be selected according to personal taste. All estimates will be commemorative rather than definitive.
The two campaigns will spend ages talking about the economic detail. By and large, the public will tune this out. Their eyes will glaze over as the two sides discuss the per capita contribution that Norway makes or the trade terms that South Korea enjoys with the EU. No minds will be changed by this fruitless endeavour.
In practice this battle is most likely to end either as a no score draw (most members of the public hate thinking about economics, even though they know it’s important) or on balance the public will form a vague sense that leaving the EU would be bad for Britain’s economy. The outcome of this battleground will probably depend on completely unrelated aspects of the debate, with most members of the public backfilling their view of the economics from their conclusions elsewhere (just as much of the Scottish electorate did in their independence referendum).
- Relationships with other countries
The public will be naturally more attuned to consider Britain’s place in the world. This is a perennial subject of debate. Here the public has a much more jumbled sense of what’s going on. It doesn’t want to be ganged up on by all the other EU countries and see Britain forced to do things it doesn’t want to do. But it doesn’t want to be shut out from decision-making. It likes the idea of international co-operation in the abstract. And it likes Britain doing lots of things and having lots of influence around the world. Few members of the public have fully thought through which bits of this mix are most important to them.
The two campaigns will spend quite a bit of time talking about this area. Is Norway a fax democracy? What decisions of the ECJ is Britain stuck with? How is Switzerland getting on with ignoring freedom of movement? Can we trust the other EU member states to behave decently towards us? Will that differ inside or outside the EU and if so how?
Once again, more heat than light will be generated. Much of the discussion so far undertaken on this subject has come from a right of centre perspective. That is a major mistake. Something like half of the electorate thinks of itself as dressing to the political left. Internationalists will not be much interested either in splendid isolation or in Britain’s ability to mount effective military actions. They will be much more concerned about social Europe and TTIP. Both referendum campaigns should consider how to reach these voters.
- National identity
Above all, the decision about whether to stay in the EU or leave it is a decision about who we are as a nation. The Leave campaign has framed much of the discussion on this around immigration, noting that it is rated the most pressing problem facing Britain right now, playing on the sense that only by leaving the EU can Britain regain control of its borders.
National identity is not just about immigration, however. Many voters will feel uncomfortable with the idea of Britain retreating to introspection. They will want to be persuaded that Britain will be playing a full part internationally and not becoming a backwater. Many voters will be anxious to ensure that Britain does not end up a country that things are done to rather than one that takes a lead in doing things.
Left of centre voters will want to be sure that their vote will enable Britain to become more progressive, or at the very least not regress towards reactionary politics. Different left of centre voters, of course, may have different views about whether economic progressiveness or social progressiveness is more important.
None of these concerns is intrinsically owned by either Remain or Leave. Both camps will need to think about how they will construct a referendum-winning coalition from the various permutations open to them.
Both sides, it follows, would benefit by putting forward a positive view of Britain in the future as well as knocking the future for Britain offered by their opponents. I see no evidence that either has any intention of starting work on a positive case any time soon. This is not just a great pity, it is a serious mistake.
To date, Leave has sought to portray Remain as representing anti-democratic duplicitousness in hock to the EU hierarchy. In return, Remain has sought to give the impression that Leave is run by aggressive and erratic mavericks and that all the sensible people are backing Remain.
Both attacks will be believed unless one or the other is obviously untrue. If the public have to choose between dishonest bureaucrats and angry nutters, they will probably with regret choose the dishonest bureaucrats. Tony Blair’s surname was mangled into Bliar by his more juvenile opponents. It didn’t stop him winning three elections.
So the Leave camp have an urgent problem to fix: they need to find some boring politicians with an impeccable reputation for competence. If recruited, Boris Johnson wouldn’t help on this front. Theresa May or Philip Hammond would, because they would make the public look again at what a post-Leave Britain would look like.
So if I were on the Leave campaign, right now I would be putting a lot of effort into recruiting Theresa May to be the campaign leader. I can’t see how Leave can get guiding enough lemmings to reach Norway without a politician of that style and stature at the helm.