The EU referendum was a major campaigning failure on both sides. Whilst Leave won, much of the press has analysed its moral failings; lying red buses, racist posters and the conspicuous absence of even an inkling of a model for Brexit.
Remain’s failure is more obvious: they lost. This failure is practical one. Listless and crippled by its de facto figurehead David Cameron’s inability to be positive, particularly on immigration given his previous anti-immigrant rhetoric instead Stronger In avoided the issue. Labour’s lacklustre campaign in its heartlands exacerbated this, whether you blame Jeremy Corbyn, Alan Johnson or both.
Unfortunately, Bremoaning won’t change the future. Theresa May’s path is unlikely to be swayed from what looks to be a hard Brexit. Largely, all of the above is academic.
There were reasons Stronger In didn’t campaign in poor areas…
There were two reasons for not targeting the poor. Firstly, that it would be ineffective.
The theory: Leave voters were more likely to be poor and fewer would vote except a small, dedicated core of Leavers. Remain voters were more numerous, richer and normally more likely to vote at elections. However, they were less enthused than Leavers on this issue.
Run a good Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign in affluent areas and turnout would be high; Remain would win. With a low turnout, this dedicated core of Leavers would outnumber the Remain equivalent.
Secondly, there were safety issues. Attempts to set up a stall in a South Yorkshire town were abandoned due to a ream of abuse. A woman I was with was assaulted (though she was not badly hurt) whilst slightly away from the main campaign group in a city centre. On referendum day, a campaigner talking to parents outside a school was accused of being a paedophile by a local. They then threatened to call the police. Outside the largely good-natured shouts of ‘Brexit’ – from largely from white van men apparently unaware of or uncaring for their stereotype – one group of builders physically threatened a campaign group in a leafy suburb of Sheffield. A local politician placated them with a selfie.
And all in the wake of the death of Jo Cox, herself a passionate Remainer.
…but Stronger In still should have campaigned to the poor
Having discussed the issue since, I know many campaigners – in South Yorkshire in particular – were frustrated that they weren’t talking to the poor. Stronger In’s leadership made its decisions for the reasons outlined but they lost. Turnout was high at 72% and 17.1m voted Leave; in practical terms, they are to blame.
But I’m talking about a moral failing. It comes down to this: we had a duty to talk to the poor about why immigration was good.
I understand why Remain needed to win. I also get this is a very easy decision to make in hindsight. But ultimately it was the right thing to do.
Why? Britain is rarely transfixed by politics but the EU referendum had managed it. We squandered that opportunity to talk to the poor about why immigration mattered to them. Would we have convinced all of them? No. But maybe some. Maybe 600000. Maybe our campaign wouldn’t have looked and felt so insipid.
Labour probably ought to take some blame for this. They could venture into areas Tories, Lib Dems and Stronger In campaigners could not. But the blame cannot lie solely at their feet.
I am a doctor. The most affluent place I’ve worked is Nottingham for 1 year. I spent the other 3½ years full-time in Boston, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham, excluding a further 1½ years part-time.
My patients are largely poor and they need the NHS more than anybody. I’d far rather work in an area with those who truly need my help. It makes me feel like it’s worth being a doctor.
That’s what the Stronger In campaign could have been – an attempt to at least partially reverse the trend of assuming every poor person hates immigrants. It wasn’t first-past-the-post, there were no marginal seats. And the theory that we would have “woken up” Leave voters was both wrong and offensive.
I don’t know what will happen with Open Britain, the European Movement, Britain for Europe or the British People Who Think Europe Is Really Ace Or At Least Sort Of Alright And Not As Bad As That Floppy-Haired Chap Heavily Implied. I hope above all, that it talks to the poorest in society about immigration. They’re the ones that need it most.