What did the Remain campaign get wrong? Here are three mistakes.
1) A referendum was called. Sounds obvious, but it’s true – the fact that the referendum happened at all was an unforced error. Remember, the Bill to create the referendum was a Government Bill, moved by the party of power and supported by the Prime Minister, and passed by a parliament that is supposedly pro-Remain in the majority. There was no political or legal requirement to hold it at all.
No, the Brexit referendum only happened because Prime Minister – and, perhaps more importantly, Leader of the Conservatives – David Cameron made a huge political blunder. In thinking that holding a referendum on EU membership would help him see off a threat from the Tory right and UKIP, Cameron played right into their hands. Calling the referendum directly led to the Eurosceptic Right being facilitated in dictating the parameters for political discourse for a protracted period.
Ironically, initial media reaction centred not on Cameron as the originator of the referendum, but Jeremy Corbyn for his perceived failure to deliver his (Labour) party for the Remain campaign. In other words, he’s taking the blame for failing to deliver on a promise made by the leader of a different party. Ho-hum.
2) The deal negotiated with the European Commission. One of the main tactics employed by David Cameron was to sell the ‘deal’ made with the European Commission for the UK to be afforded special status within the European Union. This was a monumental strategic error, not only by Cameron and his team, but also by the Commission that agreed to it.
Why was this an error? Simply put, while the deal itself may have dictated favourable terms for the UK in Europe, it presented very unfavourable terms for the Remain side in the referendum debate. Because this became a key ‘selling point’, Remain campaigners found themselves in the unenviable position of talking about the undesirable elements of the European Union and how Britain could change, or at least be exempted, from these elements. This focused voters’ minds on the negatives of EU memberships and denied the Remain campaign the opportunity to establish a positive narrative in relation to EU membership.
3) Cowardice. Fearful of ceding ground to the Eurosceptic Right, and mindful of the anti-immigration discourse pervading British politics at present, Remain failed to actually advocate a positive case for EU membership. They overplayed the ‘critical friend of Europe’ card at the expense of saying why anyone would want to be a friend of Europe at all.
Immigration was treated throughout the campaign, for the most part, as a problem to be addressed rather than a benefit to be protected and treasured. Leave was allowed to run rampant in linking immigration to low wages, unemployment, and strained public services. Remain failed to deliver a coherent argument for the economic and social benefits provided by immigration.
The Remain campaign was also afraid to make complex, nuanced arguments. This might sound counter-intuitive – most fights between simple and complicated political messages only go one way – but this was an exceptional circumstance. The Brexit vote took place in a climate where voters felt patronised and excluded by political elites. Remain could have included those voters in a mature conversation about how the Leave’s ‘take back control’ slogan was empty rhetoric – not least by highlighting the fact that closing borders to people would not close borders to capital, a scenario that would only negatively affect ordinary workers. Instead, it retreated to its default position of defending EU membership as a necessary evil to be endured in return for access to markets.
The weeks and months ahead will be very painful for the British people. Some of that pain for the Remain side may come from its reflection and self-analysis; they will do well not to shy away from the truth, no matter how painful.