1) Fear often trumps optimism.
In a video before the 2015 election, Ed Miliband said ‘We are the optimists in this campaign, and my political experience tells me that optimists win and pessimists lose’. He was wrong. Lynton Crosby and George Osborne’s campaign of fear convinced the electorate that a vote for Labour was a vote for economic catastrophe, and their message discipline ensured that the electorate knew that the Conservatives had a ‘long-term economic plan’. It didn’t matter that their plan was rubbish, they did enough to petrify the voters into voting against a change in government (although they did kick out the Lib-Dems).
I suspect that Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond had similar ideas to Ed about how they would win the Scottish Independence referendum. It makes sense. It’s very difficult to conjure up the same passions for the status quo than when you’re putting on Braveheart facepaint and charging into battle. The problem was that the remain campaign didn’t need to conjure up any passion, it needed to conjure up fear, and it was successful. People feared that Scotland’s economy would suffer if it left the United Kingdom.
In the EU debate, the In Campaign are doing all they can to conjure up those same fears, and perpetuating the idea that withdrawal from the European Union would be an enormous risk to Britain’s economy is the tactic of choice here. If the Out Campaign wants to counter this, there are a couple of things they can do. Firstly, it must be made clear that remaining in the European Union is not a vote for the status quo. Because the EU is evolving and becoming more federal, the Out Campaign can argue that voting in is not a vote for things staying the same, it is a vote for an EU army, it is a vote for free trade deals that hurt the UK (TTIP), and it is possibly even a vote for future membership of the euro. Secondly, the Out Campaign cannot rely on the idea that people will passionately vote for a sovereign United Kingdom on the basis of optimism. The arguments made against the idea that voting Out would lead to economic disaster must be made convincingly.
2) A strong and charismatic leader alone will not convince anyone of anything.
As far as I can make out, there are two realistic candidates for leading the Out Campaign. Firstly, there is Nigel Farage. His advantage is that he is plain speaking, charismatic and that he has an established level of support that will vote for anything he backs. The problem is that there are also a large number of people who will vote against anything that Farage backs. There is a portion of left-wing voters who would not vote to leave the European Union if Nigel Farage was leading the campaign even if they found the arguments for Brexit convincing. I suspect that most people who would like Nigel to lead the campaign are going to vote to leave the EU anyway, so it is quite likely that he would actually bring in no new voters to the Out Campaign.
The Second person that I think could lead the Out Campaign is Boris Johnson. He knows that his stocks are low, and that both in and out of the Conservative Party he is behind George Osborne in the pecking order and if things do not change there is very little chance he will be the next leader of the Tories. A tempting option for him might be leading the Out Campaign. Boris joining the Out Campaign would give it a significant boost, and if he was successful, his chances of being the new Conservative leader would improve dramatically. Brexit would be a huge blow to Osborne, who is perhaps the only member of the cabinet who everyone knows is an unashamed Europhile. Like Farage, Boris is a plain-speaking and likeable, and the buffoonish image that he has established gives him a good chance of beguiling voters who are cautious about voting to leave Europe.
That being said, it would be a mistake to think that a charismatic leader alone will be enough to swing the vote. For one thing, both Farage and Johnson are controversial figures and could put people off as well as turning them on to the idea of leaving the EU. In the minds of many voters, Farage has an unforgivable link to the kind of xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric that put them off voting UKIP in 2015. It is worth remembering that, as charismatic as he is, Farage failed to win his seat in the General Election. A Boris-led campaign would have similar problems; although he is fanatically pro-immigration, Boris’ ‘pickaninnies’ comment leaves him in bad stead to convince an electorate that is already cautious about the Eurosceptic movement and the racism that it is associated with.
Often, charisma is not enough to win votes. A poll commissioned before the Scottish independence referendum showed that 49% of voters trusted Salmond compared to the 19% that trusted Cameron, and most thought that Salmond was the better leader of the two. However, because the Remain campaign was so effective in scaring the electorate about the economic impact of leaving the UK, Salmond was unsuccessful. The Out Campaign cannot overly rely on a charismatic leader, especially ones as divisive as Farage and Johnson.
3) Left-wing voters cannot be ignored.
Some of the strongest arguments for leaving the EU are those that have largely been neglected by the generally right-wing Eurosceptic movement. The idea that having an exclusive club of rich European countries giving preference to each other for trade harms African countries, for example, is one that hasn’t gotten much attention in any of the In/Out debate. Similarly, although Farage briefly touched on it in a speech in the European Parliament, the past treatment of Portugal by the EU, during which its left wing majority was denied power, which was instead given to the existing Centre-right government on the grounds that the left wing party represented anti-European forces has barely been acknowledged by the media in Britain.
Left-wing Euroscepticism also has a proud history. Bob Crow and Tony Benn are perhaps the two most famous leftist Eurosceptics, and many in smaller Socialist parties have also expressed their doubts about the European Union. More recently, Owen Jones has called for ‘Lexit’, and I suspect that Jeremy Corbyn might well be a closeted Eurosceptic, given his hesitancy in the leadership campaign to officially declare that he supports Britain’s continued membership of the EU. Left-wing people must be given near equal prominence to those on the right if the Out Campaign is to succeed, and although many who support leaving have been opposed to 16 – 18 year olds getting a vote in the referendum, it may well come as a blessing in disguise given that young people are hugely more aware of issues like TTIP.
Those orchestrating the campaign to leave the European Union are lucky in that they have three recent case studies to refer to what makes a good campaign: The European Elections in 2014, the Scottish Independence Referendum, and the General Election. If they fail to learn the lessons that those offer, there is little chance of Britain voting to leave the European Union when the referendum comes.