It is fast becoming an iron law of modern politics that any successful election campaign will at some point be accused of lacking passion. At the time it will seem incredibly important. The result hangs in the balance. Just a little more fervour might carry the day and push a triumphant campaign over the line. This is the constant media refrain, the background hum of election season. It is the accepted wisdom, and like most accepted wisdom, it is total nonsense.
The charge of indifference was made of David Cameron’s 2015 campaign to such an extent that he was forced to literally roll up his sleeves and harangue startled factory workers about how really really super pumped up he was to demonstrate that his heart was really in it. This was the campaign that made the prime minister the first British premier in memory to increase his majority in office. Anyone who thinks the sleeve-rolling made the slightest bit of difference is fooling themselves.
There is a common pattern here. The Better Together campaign was boring and technocratic, we were told, yet the United Kingdom is still together. Hillary Clinton seems bloodless compared the zeal of Sanders or the belligerence of Trump, yet she is poised to become the next president of the United States. Of course, such evidence does not dissuade the dispensers of political wisdom and now they have the Britain Stronger In Europe (BSE) campaign firmly in their sights. It is “lacklustre”, “boring” and even (god forbid) “cogent”.
I have many problems with BSE, but to accuse it of lacking passion is to misunderstand how the referendum will be won. Sure, David Cameron kicked off the campaign by announcing that he has no love for Brussels, but who does? A tiny fraction of the population have bought into the grand project that is the European Union, and they will all be voting to stay no matter how cold the campaign leaves them. The warts-and-all approach of BSE is far more convincing to the sceptical public than starry-eyed idealism ever will be.
The prize in this referendum, as in most elections, is the legion of the disinterested and half-engaged. Normal people. People whose sum total of emotional response to the EU might be characterised by a shrug of the shoulders and a weary sigh of resignation that, yes, they will probably have to formulate an opinion on this at some point. The only thing that an emotional pro-European case is likely to convince these people of is that the wild-eyed proposer is a bit unhinged and please can you get them off my doorstep.
Ah, the passion-truthers will say, but what about turnout? What about the ground war? Of course there is a point here. Persuading activists that they are engaged in a noble and worthy cause is important, as is sending them to the doors of your more sluggish supporters. But this is mobilisation, not persuasion, and it should not determine the tone of a campaign this far out. Mobilisation happens in the last few weeks, normally accompanied by a Gordon Brown speech that the media are contractually obliged to describe as ‘barnstorming’.
If this seems a clinical way to approach the electorate then it shouldn’t. People who argue for a more emotional case misdiagnose how political emotion works. To them, emotion is manifested in stirring rhetoric, the power of the big idea, the universal truth. Like a Spielberg film the politician stands alone on the stage, dazzling the crowd with the force of their rhetoric until the music gets hopeful and the audience bursts into rapturous applause.
But elections are not about politicians, nor are they won and lost in the halls that politicians make their speeches. Elections are about voters and election strategies should reflect this. Normal people do not feel their strongest emotions about abstract political ideas, they feel them about their families, friends and communities. Emotion is specific, not general. Telling a father that his child will have more opportunities inside the EU, or a worker that she and her colleagues will have more secure employment prospects is not a cold or purely rational message, it is one that plays on our deepest emotions, the connections we have with the people and places we love.
This may seem self-evident, but it is a point often overlooked, especially on the left of politics where there is a tendency to dismiss such arguments as appealing only to narrow ‘self-interest’. This is the attitude of people who want to feel morally superior to the country, not to win its support. Ed Miliband’s election campaign may have seemed deeply passionate and committed, and in a sense it was. But Labour too often asked voters to care about people they didn’t know or felt weren’t like them. It confused altruism and emotion, and ultimately it suffered for it. Across the aisle, I have lost count of the amount of times that I have been told that the problem with David Cameron is that he doesn’t believe in anything. The problem with people who argue this is that David Cameron has won two general elections.
This is not a plea for political vacuity, or standing in the middle of every road. Ask Nick Clegg how that works out. It is simply a rebuke to the refrain that our politicians are insufficiently strident in their beliefs. In fact the great tragedy of so many failed political campaigns is that they are run by people who simply care far too much about politics. Their own burning zeal leads them to believe that comparable fires can be kindled in the hearts of the voters. But this is rarely more than wishful thinking. What the activist sees as ardent passion, the electorate see as unsettling conviction. The righteous fury of the Outers may have given the columnists the jitters, but columnists don’t decide elections and they should not be dictating election strategy. Ignore the wailing of the hand-wringers, it is the Out campaign that are worried. “If this were a passion contest”, mused Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave strategist, on Twitter, “it would already be over. We’re behind because it isn’t”.