If Leave wants half a chance, they need a bogeyman

The Remain campaign already has a perfect one in the shape of Nigel Farage.

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Parents have long been telling their children that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them.  The bogeyman doesn’t have an agreed appearance but is consistently deployed by mums and dads to stop their children committing heinous crimes such as thumb sucking or refusal to go to bed.

The bogeyman is a mnemonic.  A mental aid that parents use to get their petulant sprogs to do their bidding.

Another group of people with short attention spans that have a tendency to be unpredictable, contradictory and difficult to influence are the great British electorate.  

Successful communication with the electorate, as with children, can be facilitated through the use of simple, relatable shortcuts that communicate information in a way that can be easily understood and retained.  If they are non-verbal, all the better.

And as successful campaigns require a threat of darkness as well as a promise of light, having a bogeyman ready for deployment is important. 

A campaign’s bogeyman may even be more important than its leader.  People recall bad memories more easily and in greater detail than good ones.  For example, you know where you were when you heard about 9 / 11, but you probably struggle to remember where you celebrated your 21st birthday.

The ideal bogeyman is a character which is representative of the negative connotations that voters already have about a campaign or party.  Suggesting a bogeyman which doesn’t fit with a voters’ existing perceptions of that cause is likely to backfire (take the doomed attempt to describe Tony Blair as a secret leftist with the infamous “Demon Eyes” poster). 

Get it right and the results can be electrifying; it is now widely accepted that the prospect of the SNP - embodied by the bogeyman Alex Salmond - in a coalition government catalysed pre-existing doubts about Labour and Ed Miliband.

The Stronger In campaign will find it very easy to identify their bogeyman.  If you asked a focus group of floating voters to draw an illustration of a ‘leave’ voter, I suspect there would be significant similarities in the depictions.  Eurosceptics would likely be pejoratively characterised as grumpy, tweedy, often elderly, isolationist Little Englanders.  The pictures might contain gents gently swilling real ale and getting red in the face about EU regulation. 

This given, there are no points on offer for guessing which politician Stronger In will use as a shortcut for these qualities. 

But if you ask those aforementioned members of my fictional EU focus group to draw a picture of someone who was voting ‘remain’, I suspect they would find the task much more difficult and the resultant images would have far less in common. 

The reason for this is that ‘remain’ represents a broader coalition than ‘leave’.  ‘Remain’ will likely include the majority of MPs of both main parties, most business leaders of note, all of the trade unions and a host of other disparate people that don’t share much aside from an (often grudging) acceptance of the benefits of the EU.

As there is a lack of clarity in voters’ minds around the identity of the ‘remain’ voting constituency and leadership, it is very difficult to create a bogeyman. 

Have David Cameron’s widely derided negotiations done enough to move him in voters’ minds from ‘solid-enough leader of the country’ to ‘threat to economy and national security’?  I don’t think so.  Will ‘leave’ be able to make Stronger In’s leader Lord Rose infamous and loathsome?  Very unlikely.  Will there be towering 48-sheet posters accusing Alan Johnson of trying to scupper the fate of the nation?  Absolutely not. 

This inability to personify the problems with the EU is just an element of the wider difficulties that ‘leave’ face in creating effective communications.  As Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave Campaign Director, acknowledged in a recent interview:  “The challenge is not to say more things. The challenge is to focus, to simplify things and explain what is a very technical, abstruse set of issues.” 

The closest thing that Leave.EU have managed to come up with in terms of a consistent visual heuristic for the European Union is a toxic-looking frog. 

If the ‘leave’ campaign is to be successful they will need to find simple and motivating ways to communicate their anti-EU message.  They need a Brexit bogeyman. 


Benedict Pringle is founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk

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