The launch of ‘Vote Leave’ highlights the importance of positive messaging in the battle for Brexit
This week saw the launch of ‘Vote Leave’ campaign group, rival to ‘Leave.EU’ and the start of what Isabel Hardman warns could become a Judean People’s Front battle for legitimacy between like-minded organisations.
Vote Leave launched with the YouTube video shown above, which is noteworthy in a number of respects:
1. There’s no obsession with immigration. In fact, there is no mention of regaining control of Britain’s borders at all. This is heartening to those of us who believe in Brexit because of the sovereignty principle first and foremost, and find the focus on immigrants to be an often-distasteful distraction. It makes the reasonable assumption that most of those who are dissatisfied with immigration are most likely already going to vote “Leave”, and that the focus now must be to convince those for whom immigration is not a burning priority.
2. There’s no mention of sovereignty either. In fact, this is an immensely pragmatic video in every sense – Britain’s membership of the EU is presented not as a subversion of our democracy but solely as a drain on our national finances. The UK’s daily and yearly contributions to the EU budget is explained in terms of how many schools and hospitals could be built at home for the equivalent sum. While this argument is simplistic (and ignores the fact that some of the money flows back to Britain after having been through the Brussels pork machine), it is nothing if not pragmatic. Much as some of us wish it were otherwise, most voters do not obsess about sovereignty as a point of principle, and therefore pragmatic arguments about allocation of public funds are one potential way to win over different groups of people.
3. The arguments made in support of Brexit are unabashedly left wing. We are told that Britain should leave the EU so that we can spend the money on “our NHS”, and other assorted items of public spending. Sure, we are also told that “we could lower taxation”, but this comes at the very end of a long list.
4. This is not amateur hour. The video is slick and the production quality high. The key visual – of bank notes flowing out of St. Thomas’ Hospital to Brussels, and then flowing back into the hospital if only we vote to “Leave” – is well executed and makes the desired impact. While the older campaigns of UKIP and other eurosceptic groups have at times felt quite amateurish, this video gives off the strong message that ‘Vote Leave’ is a serious, well financed organisation.
5. Neither Vote Leave or Leave.EU have done their homework with regard to a concrete plan for Brexit. What would British secession from the European Union actually look like, what would be the desired end state in terms of trading and diplomatic relations, and how do we get there? Such a plan does exist – it’s called Flexcit and can be found at eureferendum.com – but nobody else seems willing to talk about what would actually happen in the immediate aftermath of a “Leave” vote. People are unlikely to vote for a leap toward the undiscovered country of Brexit without the security of a rock-solid plan, and this is where Flexcit comes in. At some point, the broader “Leave” campaign must either embrace Flexcit or come up with a robust plan of their own.
6. ‘Vote Leave’ are trying hard to position Brexit as the safe choice, the low-risk option compared to staying in the EU. This will be a difficult pitch to make, but it is absolutely necessary if the wider “Leave” campaign is to stand a chance. It must be continuously, relentlessly hammered home that voting to remain will not just doom Britain to put up with the EU’s existing quirks and impositions, but will lock us in to future political integration with an economically stagnating group of countries. While much more work must be done in this area, the tagline “the safer choice” is an encouraging marker of intent.
‘Vote Leave’ hammer this last point home in their press release:
Which is safer – a vote for the permanent supremacy of EU law, or a vote to take back control?
Which is safer – a vote to keep sending hundreds of millions to Brussels every week, or a vote to put that money into science research and the NHS?
A vote to leave is safer than giving Brussels more power and money every year. Vote leave, take control.
It’s good that they are trying, but I’m not sure that just using the word “safer” in random sentences like this is going to deliver the goods. Britain’s subservience to EU law is problematic and antidemocratic, but not primarily for reasons of safety. Likewise, the UK may well be better off spending our EU budget contributions on the NHS, but again this is a question of priorities and public service quality, not safety.
The safety argument works best when tied to the economy – the fact that a vote to remain in the EU is a vote for Britain to chain itself ever more tightly to a group of stagnating economies going nowhere fast, who are about to compound the problem by ushering in ever closer political integration. ‘Vote Leave’ should relentlessly draw attention to French unemployment and negligible economic growth, and make the point that a vote to stay is a vote to belong to a union which actively wants to see French-style regulation and taxation applied across all 28 EU member states.
One launch video on YouTube is not enough to make any firm assessment of Vote Leave’s strategy, but first impressions are cautiously positive. While rival campaign group Leave.EU is more willing to talk up the sovereignty and immigration aspects of the debate, Vote Leave seem to be pursuing a cost-focused, “safety first” approach. Both make valid points, and both must work together to deliver a consistent and coherent message, regardless of which group is ultimately favoured by the Electoral Commission.
Ultimately, two things are clear: firstly, no eurosceptic campaign group has a monopoly on good ideas or smart tactics. Or bad tactics, for that matter. And secondly – given the turf wars and minor skirmishes we have already seen – it will take a huge amount of coordination and message discipline for eurosceptics to win this fight.
UPDATE (10 October):
To elaborate on point #3, the email bulletin from Vote Leave today included the following text:
Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader with the largest democratic mandate in the party’s history. No matter your political views, it is hard to argue with the swell of support he received from people of all ages and backgrounds.
However, his supporters will no doubt be angry to find out that – should he become Prime Minister – rules and regulations dreamt up in Brussels mean that a number of his key pledges will be extremely hard to achieve, and in some cases completely illegal.
Public ownership of the railways? Sorry Jeremy, not today.
Ending the privatisation of the NHS? No can do.
Greater rights for trade unions? Better luck next time.
Appealing to die-hard Jeremy Corbyn fans on the basis that the EU will thwart a future Corbyn government’s attempt to drag the country to the left suggests that Vote Leave are definitely making an open pitch to left-wing voters in their launch week.
Not necessarily a bad idea, especially since Jeremy Corbyn himself betrayed left-wing eurosceptics by agreeing to toe the slavishly pro-European “stay at all costs” Labour line. But it will be interesting to see whether this is matched by equal overtures to the Right.