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A Positive Story Must Be At The Heart Of A New Pro-EU Party

18/08/2017 14:41
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Could Brexit be stopped by a new political party and its fired-up supporters?

Honestly, I haven't a clue. But, if it does get set up and (presumably) wants to be successful in changing enough people's minds and/or win a second referendum on the terms of the final deal then it needs to learn from previous communications mistakes about how to engage with the public on Europe.

Here are three thoughts:

1. Get the story right

I've written previously about how the EU Referendum was always going to be about British identity and not British interests. The Leave campaigns knew this too and played a blinder.

Joan Didion famously wrote: 'We tell stories in order to live'. And one of the reasons behind the surprise EU Referendum result and Trump victories is that both campaigns were centred around a powerful organising story that offered hope. 'Vote Leave Take Control' and 'Make America Great Again' may have both been denounced by critics as hyperbolic cons but they were also future-focused, inspirational and told a sufficiently broad story for enough people to see a reflected image of themselves and their country that they could feel good about.

This means that any party and supporters that want to keep Britain in the EU need to get out of rebuttal mode, ditch the anaemic, snore-inducing, negative messages about stopping a 'harmful Brexit' and 'guaranteeing the benefits of the single market' and go all in with a muscular, positive story that encapsulates why being part of the EU in its entirety is the best thing for Britain and Europe.

The Eurosceptic newspapers will attempt to rip this story to shreds for ignoring the 'will of the people' but the General Election result showed that the British public is far more nuanced than a lot of our media and politicians would have us believe. Fairness and austerity-induced despair are obviously dominant issues. As the Lib Dems have always argued and David Miliband wrote earlier this week, the EU is not just the single market. It's the entire package of rights, environmental legislation and broader political values that were hardly discussed at all during last year's campaign.

Clearly there is fertile storytelling ground here and - here's a radical thought - it would inject some actual Europe into the discussion.

2. Remainers need to stop telling Leavers off

A positive story would also offer an alternative to Remainers (including me) who can't stop telling Leave voters why they are wrong at every opportunity. Funnily enough, most people don't react that well to being told that their voting choice will result in a shower of fire and brimstone raining down on our collective heads. If people are going to change their minds, they need to be allowed to do it on their own, privately and with space to reflect.

And while I'm as ready as the next frustrated europhile to seek catharsis by cranking James O'Brien up to top volume before engaging in some caps-locked shouty egg pistol whipping on Twitter, something tells me this is probably not a substitute for a proper communication campaign that listens to people's motivations and doesn't lecture them with: 'I told you this would happen if you didn't eat your broccoli' type messages.

Any pro-EU party and its supporters will need to break out of this top-down mindset early on and work hard to get away from the alpha male mud-slinging of the Westminster bubble and the Great Repeal Bill. This also means talking to, getting shouted at by and hopefully making a positive, curiosity-sparking argument to the people who disagree with them.

Otherwise it will just be labelled as more elite, Project Fear nonsense and will remain mired in negative territory.

3. Find the people stories

There have never been enough ordinary people or non-business/political figures in any of the pro-EU campaigns or lobby groups. And I'm convinced that one of the reasons that chlorinated chicken and the Euratom debacle (with its implications for cancer patients) captured the public/media imagination this summer is because they are both tangible examples of how the broader Europe issue affects people's lives. No one normal understands the single market or the ECJ and this is to the most extreme Brexiters' advantage because they are boring topics and most people don't stay interested enough to try and understand more.

At the moment, the only human faces in this sorry mess are the EU nationals in the UK and Brits living in Europe. This is understandable as these 4.6 million people are going to be affected the most immediately by Brexit. But pro-Europeans need to build a broader bank of human stories/spokespeople (from outside the worlds of politics and business) that spell out the positive benefits and identity value of being in the EU.

Of course, we are so far down the track now that none of this may be relevant. But if a new party does get formed, they must learn from the mistakes of the past. In communications terms, this can be boiled down to two things - stay positive and relentlessly humanise.

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