EU referendum: What are the lessons for political communicators from the Leave and Remain camps?

The debate over whether Britain should leave or remain in Europe shows that we are more emotional than rational – but political communicators must not get bogged down in a campaign of fear

By Paul Baines

22 Jun 2016

Prospect theory suggests we are on average three times more motivated by aversion to risk than by opportunities for gain. That’s why negative campaigning dominates communications with the public in the EU referendum – and negative has really stepped up in the final weeks. But negative only works if the public believes it and does not see it as being deliberately manipulative.

That’s the reason why the Remain campaign has struggled in recent weeks. It lacks a clear and positive message around why our future should be within the EU – what it looks like, what it really means, which would appeal to waverers. By contrast, a negative message from Remain might just depress the Leave vote. Hopeful messages can have a sharper edge in influencing waverers – and these are all that are left in the last few days of campaigning. 

The EU referendum is a good example of a situation so complex, so riddled with attachments and prejudices, that decision-making tends to be more emotional rather than rational. The Leave campaign has perhaps understood this best, particularly by focusing on immigration and the cost of membership. No matter that their stance on the cost of membership is inaccurate (the claim that EU membership costs Britain £350m per week) – it seems to work anyway.

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The accuracy of opinion polls taken before the referendum date has to be viewed with caution. People tend to give an answer off the top of their head – but when they’re in the voting booth they will think more carefully. The final vote may well be decided by those people who make up their minds today and tomorrow. In general elections, for example, 7-8 per cent of floating voters make up their minds in the last 24 hours. The EU referendum is the kind of situation where voters are more open still to influence and last minute realisations, shocks and appeals.

For Remain, what’s needed is to avoid being bogged down in the campaign of fear – they need to focus on the positive reasons to remain, and their plans for Britain as part of a new, more reformed EU. They also need to stimulate more activity from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to play a much greater part in what has been – and is perceived to be – a fundamentally Tory Remain campaign. Remain, for example, is strong among Labour voters (58% versus 38% according to a recent poll), but its leaders have stood on the sidelines of the debate.

The EU referendum is a good example of a situation so complex, so riddled with attachments and prejudices, that decision-making tends to be more emotional rather than rational

The EU referendum experience holds lessons for engaging the public in complex political issues and communications campaigns more generally. "Star Power" hasn’t appeared to have been important in this campaign. On the surface, the Remain campaign has tried to be stronger in this area, managing to use the prime minister's influence to persuade US president Barack Obama and Enda Kenny from Ireland to speak up for Remain. 

Besides Boris Johnson, Leave has, if anything been blighted by attracting some choice overseas supporters for Brexit, including French National Front chairwoman Marine Le Pen and US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. But the point is that authority figures endorsing Remain have probably made little difference – because the Brexit campaign have managed to focus the media and the public’s attention not on rational reasons for voting, such as the economy, but on emotional issues such as immigration and, amazingly, by attacking the credibility of some of the most august institutions we have in Britain, including the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. 

To the credit of the Brexit campaign, they understand that they can only win by hammering away at the credibility of the economic arguments of the Remain campaign and by focusing voter attention on emotional issues. If they win, it will be this single-minded focus that lends them the referendum prize. Remain’s only hope is to use more hope.

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