Project Fear, Project Hate and a most vitriolic debate


Charles Ansdell, Professional & Financial Services

Charles Ansdell, Managing Director at Redleaf Communications, debriefs on the communications strategy of the Remain and Leave campaigns, and where the day was won.

Project Fear, Project Hate and a most vitriolic debate

In the end, the unthinkable happened. Leave won.  In just 10 days following the result, Sterling has dropped 10% and the FTSE see-sawed between 5700 and 6550.  Two major property funds have closed redemptions as panicked investors withdraw. 

Mark Carney has had to shore up jittering markets by loosening bank capital buffers and hinting at rate cuts/ quantitative easing.  George Osborne has mooted dropping Corporation Tax to 15%. 

We have seen the end of the careers of a generation of political leaders.  David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have gone.  Michael Gove and George Osborne’s may yet go.  As I write, Jeremy Corbyn is grimly holding onto the Labour leadership.

So how did Remain get it so wrong?  Was it a misreading of the public mood, overconfidence or poor communications?  Regardless, there is no doubt that Leave’s communications strategy was particularly effective.

Project Fear and Polemic

Leave’s early positioning of the Remain campaign as “Project Fear” was a masterstroke.  It meant that Remain’s arguments on the risks of leaving could be dismissed as fearmongering.  While Remain tried to quantify the empirical, negative impact of leaving the EU, the “Project Fear” moniker moved the debate onto more powerful, emotive messaging – an area where Leave could appeal to nationalist sentiment.

What is curious is that it took so long for Remain to respond in kind.  It was only towards the end of the campaign that Sadiq Khan daubed the Leave campaign “Project Hate” – an equally impacting message. 

By just laying out a reasoned economic case for Remain and focussing on the negative impact of leave, the Remain campaign failed to engage the electorate on an emotional level.  It was an understandable strategy. It had played out well in the Scottish referendum.  There, older voters were genuinely worried about the economic impact of separating from the UK.  On this occasion, older voters were not worried about the economic impact of leaving the EU.

Maybe they were right to be.  Within the UK, only London and South East regions are net contributors to the UK economy, passing on £35 billion and £20 billion respectively each year to other regions.  The total of European ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and ESF (European Social Fund) investment is, on the other hand, worth just €11 billion euros over the 2014-2020 period (Source: SPERI).  In other words, older voters recognised that the economic impact of leaving the UK for Scotland would be greater than the impact of leaving the EU for the UK.

Despite being daubed “Project Fear”, the Remain campaign singularly failed to link the Leave campaign with some of its less palatable, far-right proponents.  In the general election, the Conservatives had used the threat of a Labour vote letting in the SNP to damage Ed Miliband.

An attack line of “Going to bed with Boris Johnson and waking up with Nick Griffin” would have been more effective than attacking the highly popular Nigel Farage.  

The young fail to vote

Perhaps the biggest failure of Remain was in engaging young voters.  Turnout in the 18-24 group was about 35%.  This was lower than the 2015 general election, and marks a remarkable long term drop for this demographic; in the 1964 general election, turnout was 75%.

Turnout for the 25-34 age group turnout was still below 60%.  This contrasts with turnout amongst over 65s, which topped 80%. 

There are serious questions as to why young people are so disengaged from politics.  Survey data backs this up.  As a generation, the millennials view politics with disinterest and disdain.

There are also questions over the effectiveness of the Government’s digital outreach strategy. Most importantly, the Government seemed unable to convert digital support into people physically voting.

If there had been an official voting app, rather than polling station voting, the result might have been different.

The disparaging of the Elites

In a trend that has swept the US and many major European countries, there has been a rise of popular sentiment against “Elites”.  The Leave campaign were quick to tap into this mood – and the irony of Oxbridge-educated former education secretary Michael Gove claiming that we shouldn’t listen to “Experts” was a frightening mirror of Trump’s firebrand polemic in the Republican primaries. 

In reality, this rising distrust of the electorate of figures of authority - experts, politicians and businessmen - is a marked global trend that the political class needs to take seriously. Whether it is caused by inequality, frustration or a sense of disengagement is not clear. However, the concept that people will instinctively distrust those with expertise over the collective noise of the Internet is one that politicians must address.

Getting it wrong on immigration

Once again, Remain found themselves in a difficult position on immigration.  This was primarily down to David Cameron’s promises to reduce immigration.

There is a compelling case for more immigration. On aggregate, immigrants are younger, are net fiscal contributors and tend not to use UK public services as much. Importantly, immigration is required to pay for an increasingly ageing population.

Having promised to reduce immigration, Cameron was unable to make the case for why immigration is positive (and faced attacks for failing to reduce it).  Ultimately this prevented him from counter-attacking on Leave’s most powerful argument.

Lies, damned lies

Along with disparaging “Elites”, attacking forecasts and statistics was a feature of both campaigns.  This was coupled with a propagation of false (or massaged) statistics. The incorrect £350m weekly contribution to Europe became well quoted figure.  The claim that over 60% of our laws come from Europe became widely used, despite compelling evidence against it.

Any attempt by the Remain campaign to correct Leave’s statistics was dismissed as “Project Fear”.  It was left to some of the more neutral/ left-leaning media to flag inaccuracies.

Throughout the campaign, statistics and “facts” were used, abused and rubbished, allowing the debate to return from rational to emotive.

“Nasty” campaign fails to put off Leavers

There is no doubt the death of MP Jo Cox was an important watershed for both campaigns.  This was followed by Nigel Farage’s poorly timed and conceived immigration poster (clearly inspired by Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t working” 1979 campaign).

Along with stalling the momentum of the Leave campaign, it provided the Remain campaign the perfect vehicle to associate Leave with far-right factions.

Coupled with a febrile and vitriolic atmosphere, the campaigns had got too “nasty”. The electorate were sick of rhetoric and accusations. The Leave campaign had to stall campaigning and turn down the volume.

Although it slowed Leave’s momentum, it wasn’t enough to swing the result.  

The Final Word

The surprise EU Referendum result was the latest of a recent trend of significant social movement; Trump in the US, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain.  We are witnessing major political change globally, and Governments are struggling to understand what this means.  

A dissatisfied electorate who connect through social media, create their own content and communities presents politicians with unique challenges. The distrust of authority and expertise is another dangerous trend, allowing the politics of acrimony to misidentify facts with narratives.  It indicates a credence-based approach to communications, where belief systems trump well-reasoned argument.

None of this is new.  We’ve seen such environments before – particularly in the 1930s when financial crisis lead to political crisis.  Politicians should not dismiss the result as ignorance, bigotry or misinformation.  They must take time to really understand the underlying causes and the concerns of the electorate. Moreover, they must find new ways to communicate and engage with disparate groups to join the critical debate about what kind of place we want the UK to be.