“No10 panics as Leave surges”, shouts today’s Daily Telegraph. “Massive swing to Brexit“, screams another.
With only 11 days until the Brexit campaign reaches its conclusion, momentum appears to be swinging at a very inopportune time for the Remain campaign. A new poll shows a 55-45 gap in favour of Leave (adjusted for voter turnout, it’s 53-47). UK voters appear open to following a narrative that has developed over the past year on both sides of the Atlantic – defying the establishment.
The papers and TV news are filled with Remain campaigners issuing dire warnings about the implications of leaving the EU. Former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major said peace in Northern Ireland was at stake. BBC News discussed an open letter expressing concern for science funding. Prime Minister David Cameron is visiting job sites to underscore the threat to employment. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband exhorted Labour supporters to get behind Remain.
It’s a robust campaign. The Remain campaign is backed by the leadership of the four major political parties – governing Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish Nationalists, and the Lib Dems.
Significant voices in the Conservatives and Labour are advocating for Leave, including former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, cabinet ministers, and Labour MPs, not to mention UKIP, which garnered 13% of the popular vote in last year’s general election and wholeheartedly embraces a Brexit. Other than UKIP, the Leave campaigners are bucking against their own parties, and while there is an aroma of opportunism, there are also points given for authenticity.
There are some interesting divides at play. There is an elite/populism divide. The insiders favour Remain while the outsiders look to Leave. The pro Euro faction of Labour obviously favours Remain but a significant bloc of Labour voters are going the other way. Labour was particularly vulnerable to UKIP in last year’s election as working-class white voters outside London looked for a new vehicle for protest. There is a generational divide. Polls claim that young people are strongly in favour of Remain while plus 55 year old voters favour Leave.
Some constituencies are not bearing as much fruit for Remain as previously thought. Columnist Stephen Bush writes that hoped-for support from liberals and multicultural communities for Remain is less than certain:
The [Labour] Party always knew that it had a problem with persuading white voters in its small-town heartlands to back staying in the European Union. It now appears that they have a problem persuading middle-class liberals in big cities to turn out to vote, and that the party’s large ethnic minority vote is more hostile to the European project than either the Labour leadership or the Remain campaign ever expected.
We’ve seen this movie before in Canada when a cross-partisan alliance (of elites) fails to mobilize their parties’ followers. The national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 is a shining example where dire warning were made about the future of Canada if there was a No vote. The outcome was actually “Hell, No”. Canada survived.
Last year’s transit referendum in Metro Vancouver was another similar example. Everyone supported Yes except the people.
The 1995 Quebec referendum and 2014 Scottish referendum offer more insights. Dire warnings were made, and heeded, by voters. There were moments in those campaigns where the Yes campaigns looked like they would succeed. In Quebec, the ultimate margin was razor thin. A key difference was that these campaigns advocated for independence. The EU referendum is the reverse – “yes” means status quo. Voting “no” means change. To mobilize grumpy protest voters, it is arguably easier to coax a “no” than a “yes”.
In all cases, emotion is key. Bombarding voters with facts and figures from self-interested elites is not the path to success when contrasted with fears over migrants or anger over EU spending.
In the Quebec example, while there were many factors at play, a late-campaign emotional outpouring from Canadians provided much needed momentum. The federalist forces had their backs against the wall and they rallied, literally, in an historic and emotional show of force.
Can the Remain campaign muster a cogent emotional argument in the next 11 days? In the past year, the success of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Bernie Sanders provides striking examples of the resolve of voters outside the establishment to go their own way and absolutely tune out traditional voices. Remain will need to change up their playbook to reach voters that are turned off as much by the messengers as they are by the message.
Over pints at a pub here in the UK, I talked with a collection of university students. They are incredulous that the UK could vote to Leave. Their modern outlook sees the opportunities that the EU brings. The Remain campaign will need to draw on generational differences and mobilize this group of voters that has been typically less likely to vote.
Will the UK vote to Brexit? Most here think not but the next week will be critical in swinging the momentum either way. As has been said many times, campaigns matter.