We both want Britain to stay in the EU. But we see our side making a lot of communication errors. If another public vote isn’t to end in another Leave victory, we think the following rules of communication are necessary.
1. Don’t look back.
Remainers seem to think that if they repeat the same arguments they made in 2016, only louder, things will go better next time. We are acting like the stereotypical Englishman abroad.
If you find yourself making an argument you could have made first time around, pause. Try and find new ways of talking about the choice in front of us. It’s insanely counter-productive, for instance, to keep repeating that people were duped in 2016. All you’re doing is reinforcing the impression that you don’t respect the intelligence of the 52 per cent.
In fact, we’d advise against raking over the ashes of the last referendum altogether. It only serves to harden the divide. Focus instead on the choice in front of us: should we accept Theresa May’s deal? That is likely to be the only Brexit option in any referendum – and the good news is, it’s not popular.
2. Drop the labels.
We talk about Leavers and Remainers in this piece, but we don’t recommend it when campaigning. The more you do that, the more you define people by a decision they made two years ago – and the less you talk about what people actually want.
The truth is, there’s a lot of things that people on both sides of that vote agree on, perhaps more than you would imagine – 57 per cent prioritise free trade over cutting immigration, for instance.
3. Tell Leavers they were right.
As and when the last referendum does come up, don’t talk about what those who voted Leave got wrong. Talk about what they got right.
Voters were right to treat the promises of politicians with suspicion. Voters were right to shout out about the lack of attention they get from Westminster. Voters were justified in giving a political establishment a kick up the backside. Voters were right, given the choice on offer. We need to do much better.
4. Keep pointing to the botched Brexit.
This is the biggest area of shared ground: 92 per cent of people think the Brexit process is a mess. No matter which way you voted, you almost certainly think that it has been royally screwed up by Westminster politicians.
Let’s take the ideological heat out of this debate by calling on British values of common sense, and fixing stuff. Like a builder coming into the house and shaking his head about the last lot, it’s now up to us, the people, to clean this mess up. The campaign to Remain should include a call for urgent reform of British politics. It shouldn’t just target Leave politicians, but the political class.
This doesn’t imply rancorous populism. It’s about getting together to sort this mess out.
5. Paint Brexit as a distraction.
First of all, let’s be clearer about this: May’s deal isn’t the end of Brexit; it’s the start of endless Brexit.
Remainers are never going to persuade hardcore Leavers to change their minds about the EU. What can they do is focus on the common ground they share with wavering Leavers: that Brexit is a colossal, painful, decade-long waste of time and effort, and a distraction from this country’s more urgent problems. “We don’t want our government to spend the next ten years going to meetings in Brussels and Paris when they should be focusing on the problems of Sheffield and Coventry. We shouldn’t be recruiting thousands of lawyers and trade negotiators when we desperately need more nurses and teachers. We don’t want our politicians endlessly debating details of international treaties when they should be getting the homeless off the streets.
“What the referendum showed everyone was that many of this country’s real problems aren’t getting enough attention. So let’s focus on those, instead of Brexit.”
6. Making this about taking back control.
Another area of shared ground is, or should be, sovereignty. May’s deal means Britain loses the power to set its own rules – precisely the opposite of what Leavers voted for. “No Deal” would leave us enfeebled.
Paradoxically, it’s now Remainers who are best placed to make a powerful appeal to the desire for more control.
7. Showcase converts.
One of the most powerful strategies in counter-terrorist “deradicalisation” is getting former terrorists to talk about why they decided to put violence aside. They carry credibility with those who are tempted to join the cause because they are “one of us”.
In American politics, presidential campaigns run ads showing voters who come from the other party explaining why they can’t vote for their party’s candidate this time around. Remainers need to find Leavers who have changed their minds and showcase their stories.
This isn’t just a tactic, however. Any pro-EU campaign must let itself be infused by the voices of some of those who chose Leave last time around, and allow them to change its character. Crucially, you cannot afford to be painted as the people who want a return to the world pre-June 2016.
Unless the upcoming referendum feels like a different debate to the last one, it will have the same result. If you want to remain, you cannot be Remain.
Rob Blackie is a marketing strategist for political campaigns. Ian Leslie is a writer and communication expert.