The referendum on UK membership of the European will take place on 23 June 2016. This will be the most critical vote that the British people have cast in modern times; the future welfare of the UK is at stake, as it is very existence (a vote to leave might trigger another independence referendum in Scotland, which would likely succeed), as is the future direction of the European Union.
Polls indicate that the British population is roughly evenly split between those who support continued membership, those who oppose it, and those who are undecided. The result of the referendum will be determined by how many voters turn out on referendum day, and the final decision of the Don’t Knows. It will also inevitably be impacted by factors that only have a marginal bearing on the issue at stake, such as the level of popularity of the Cameron government, and how the migration crisis from Syria continues to play out.
The In campaign has a lot of work to do to capture the Don’t Knows, and nothing can be taken for granted. It might think that common sense and history are on its side, and can take comfort from the strength of the case for the UK remaining a member of the EU, and the many uncertainties about what a Brexit would mean. But the challenge is to make sure that everyone hears the case for staying in.
Here are eight tips on what we need to do.
1: Focus on the benefits of membership, not the costs of an exit
There is a danger that the Stay campaign might focus too much on what an exit will cost the UK rather than on the many benefits that have come – and will continue to come – with membership. This has already opened them to charges of scaremongering, and focusing on the costs of leaving involves much speculation that can be offset by speculation from the Leave campaign on the benefits of an exit. Far better to focus on the real, the measurable, and the positive, and to make the case that the track record of membership speaks volumes for the wisdom of remaining part of the EU.
2: Address the myths head-on
Recent Eurobarometer polls have found that only about 40% of Britons understand how the EU works. (The polls also find that more than 80% of Britons think the EU needs to send a clearer message.) Into this knowledge vacuum have moved eurosceptics who have been so adept at misrepresenting the EU on the basis of general claims that many of the myths have become conventional wisdom. Prime among them: that 80% of British laws come out of the requirements of EU law, that the EU is corrupt and routinely fails to have its accounts approved, that membership is expensive (it actually costs us 36p per person per day), that ‘Brussels’ is hell-bent on creating a United States of Europe, that the UK is routinely outvoted in the hallways of the EU institutions, and even – moving into the realms of the absurd – that the EU has the power to rename the member states, that we might lose the monarchy, that we might have to drive on the right, and that a European army is in the offing.
If we are going to have a sensible and effective referendum, whose result is credible and lasting, and which is based on facts rather than myths, then we need to make sure that voters are informed. We need to take on the myths directly, by calling out those who perpetuate them and obliging the other side to come up with the hard evidence to back up their claims. Large numbers of voters have always been uninformed to some degree about even the most important public issues, so we can’t expect perfect information. But if UKIP can make people believe the myths through constant repetition, then we need to respond with constant repetition of the truth. Every time we see one of the myths we need to respond, and only through constant response will we get some balance into the arguments.
3: Focus on what the EU means in real terms
The EU can sometimes seem distant and complex, and is routinely accused of working in the interests of big business and the wealthy. In truth, it has been the architect of numerous policies that have had real and immediate benefits for everyone: consumers, students, workers, tourists, small business owners, people who want to retire to warmer parts of Europe, and anyone who breathes air or drinks water (EU law and policy has helped make Europe cleaner and greener). And yet it is human nature to reduce big and complex issues to the simple question ‘How does this affect me?’. The Stay campaign needs to keep this in mind. It is all very well to talk about broad ideas like how the EU has helped give Britain a louder voice in the world, has brought down barriers to trade, and has promoted a lasting peace in Europe – but it is in the small things that people notice the most obvious changes, and what we need to do is to show the average person how his/her life is better in real terms because of British membership of the EU.
4: Keep an eye on the demographics
The polls show that the older or less educated you are, the less you are likely to know about the EU and its work, and the more likely you are not to like it. Never mind that is often our oldest and less educated citizens who have often benefitted most from the kinds of opportunities provided by the membership of the EU. It is often the older Britons who are most likely to hark back to the ‘good old days’ that often were not so good at all, and the less educated who are more likely to resent the EU as club for the wealthy. Let’s also bear in mind that faith in government generally has been on the decline, and that a lot of people see the EU as suffering from all the same problems as government at home. If we could just go back to basics, the critics seems to say, then we could solve all our problems. Getting out of the EU, they argue, would free us to get back to a (mainly imaginary) better life in which we can all stand tall as independent Britons. We need to remember the demographics, and focus particular effort on the people who are most likely to blame the EU for all that is wrong with their lives, and show them how the EU has actually made things better.
5: Admit that the EU is not perfect
The EU is not perfect. Like any network of institutions, it is created and run by people, and people often make mistakes and bad decisions. In arguing the case for continued UK membership, we need to acknowledge the problems and focus on how the EU can be made better. In many ways, the problems stem not from the EU having gone too far, but from it not having gone far enough – there are still many areas, including trade in services and the development of a digital European market, where it lags behind and where more integration stands to mean more benefits for more people.
6: Win the argument; the votes will follow
Far too much political debate has been reduced to winning and losing, to horse races, to polls, and to simplistic binary choices. Life, meanwhile, is far more complex. But that complexity means that people often give up trying to understand, and allow themselves to be bullied or bribed into making choices; they identify parties or leaders or newspapers that they like, and let themselves be swayed by whatever often simplified arguments they hear from their favoured sources. Although it will be harder work, the Stay campaign needs to focus on making real and substantive arguments about the benefits of the EU, which will help us sow the seeds of deeper and more sustained ideas about what Europe represents. If we go into the referendum simply hoping to turn the numbers to our side, we might win in the short term but we will have to come back and revisit the issue later.
7: Let’s not take anything for granted
As the referendum inches closer, the Stay campaign will need focus, leadership, and enthusiasm. There is a real danger that we might take the benefits of EU membership for granted, and allow the other side to make their case as though we have little or nothing to prove.
The Irish vote on the Treaty of Nice should be a salutary lesson. When Ireland had a referendum in 2001, neither the Irish government nor supporters of the treaty made much of an effort to argue the case for Nice, which was seen as relatively innocuous compared to the more controversial Maastricht treaty. They were shocked, then, when Irish voters – albeit on a turnout of just 35 per cent, and by the modest margin of eight points – voted down the treaty. When a second referendum was held later in the year, the Yes campaign got its act together and the treaty was approved on a 50 per cent turnout by a margin of 26 points.
There will be no second chances or do-overs on the UK referendum – we need to get it right by winning the first time around. We also need to make sure that turnout is strong and that the winning margin is large, otherwise the debate about membership will never end.
8: The Don’t Knows will have it
The result of the referendum is unlikely to be determined by the pro-EU side or the anti-EU side, because they have already have made up their minds, and few will change position between now and then. The result will be mainly in the hands of the Don’t Knows, that centrist mass of voters that enters an election or a referendum able to go either way, and many of whom may not make up their mind until the last minute, or may just stay away altogether. That’s the group we need to focus on. If we like the EU, we’re going to vote Yes to staying in. Most UKIP supporters and large parts of the Conservative Party will be voting No – nothing much to be done about that. But the Don’t Knows are open to suggestion, and the outcome of the referendum will depend on how good a job the Stay campaign does relative to the Leave campaign in convincing that large group of the benefits and costs of membership. And the key to winning them over is to be reasonable, polite, logical, thoughtful and knowledgeable in making our case.