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How Could the Remain Camp Ever Lose?

27/06/2016 13:52

No-one was going to be surprised by a Remain vote. Not the pollsters, the many experts, the Government. Instead we've had a sense of national shock, an excitable flapping in the media, outraged calls for legal challenges and a new referendum. Voting for a risky future isn't something that's supposed to happen.

First of all, most polling companies did get it wrong. But only just. Although many final week referendum polls called the referendum for Remain and got the wrong result (Populus' online poll was out by 10%), others (e.g. TNS and Opinium) got within a couple of per cent of the shares of both camps and called the election for Leave as the result turned out to be. As ever, the vote share predictions for final polls are subject to a three per cent margin of error. So the polls did not do as well as they should but improved on their performance at the 2015 general election and some did better than others as they experimented with different approaches to forecasting the vote shares.

According to the principles of behavioural economics theory, we are on average three times more motivated by our aversion to risk than by opportunities for gain. So the Remain campaign was always working from a basis of clear strength. The Scottish referendum was a classic example of where 'Project Fear' campaigning made sure voters stuck with the devil they knew. With a month to go before the EU referendum the polls were predicting a fairly straightforward win for Remain, the Leave messages and marketing were looking lacklustre, the popular press coverage against the EU was low key. So how did Remain manage to lose?

A cynical view would have it that Leave stoked fears of immigration through posters featuring Turkish accession to the EU and long lines of EU migrants, and disgust at EU profligacy, arrogance and despondency through the fictional idea of a £350m per week cost of membership. But this was ruthlessly applied and maintained despite heavy media and opposition pressure questioning its reality. Such rhetoric appealed particularly to working class voters and pensioners fed up with being taken for granted in a political system which they feel doesn't represent them.

That same cynical view applied to Remain would suggest that by 'banging on' - to use a Cameron turn of phrase - about the dire economic implications of Brexit, that rather than depressing the vote of the opposition (as negative campaigning usually does) they actually entrenched the vote of the opposition, making some people more likely to vote Leave as they reacted against the advice of government, encouraged by the Leave campaign not to trust 'experts'. This might then explain some of the regret expressed by some Leave voters.

Whilst persuading people to love the EU would always have been an uphill struggle, the Remain campaign did not provide the positive case for staying in the EU, which would have appealed to floating voters. The positive case would have been on the benefits of EU trade, the EU's track record on peace and security, and the maintenance of the integrity of United Kingdom given Scotland's strongly pro-European stance (which was predictable before the referendum poll). So Remain failed to inspire hope, for further reform of the EU, for increased prosperity as being part of the EU particularly for the working class, to balance their fear-based campaign. Another key element of the failure of the Remain campaign was that the Labour Remain component was completely invisible. Corbyn was nowhere to be seen, and only muttered about workers' rights being protected in the EU, which completely failed to resonate, hence the exodus of many in his shadow cabinet as the recriminations begin. However, probably Remain's biggest failure was not monitoring the effectiveness of their messaging, particularly with pensioners and the working class, as they squandered the lead they had in February 2016 to a loss on referendum day.

Arguably, the biggest mistake of all was Cameron calling the referendum in the first place. When the referendum was first called in January 2013, two of the three polls conducted (by YouGov) before the announcement that an EU referendum would be held, had Leave winning by in one case 15% and in the other 6%. Only between February and August 2015 was Remain consistently ahead in the polls. In most other months, some polls called it for Remain, others for Leave so volatility was always high.

Where Cameron got it wrong was by calling the referendum at all, given how close the outcome was likely to be, to try and slay the Eurosceptic beast in the Conservative Party. In the end, the beast bit back. The result is Brexit and an even more deeply divided Conservative and Labour Party. Cameron's legacy now will be as the gambler who bet his party and country's future on staying in the Europe Union and lost.

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