Five books have recently been published covering June’s EU referendum campaign. If you ploughed your way through the 2,000 pages telling the inside story of Brexit, it would be easy, in focusing on big personalities and key events, to lose sight of the fundamental reasons underpinning Vote Leave’s victory.
It’s worth remembering how close the vote was. If just 976 people in each Parliamentary constituency had changed their vote from Leave to Remain, Britain would not be leaving the European Union. The UK is basically one enormous marginal seat in that regard. The Leave campaign triumphed because its communications operation was better than Remain’s and its ground campaign more effective.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the rival campaigns was Leave’s ability to achieve message discipline. If Remain’s ‘Brexit will cost every household £4,300’ claim had been repeated, it could have been effective.
Instead, key figures meandered across a myriad of economic-related warnings: recession, job losses, food prices, the cost of holidays, inter-rail, air fares, an emergency budget, 18% fall in house prices and more. Lumped in with concerns about peace on the continent, workers’ rights, the PM’s press conference all about ‘Brexit untruths’ and a ‘stop Nigel Farage’ approach, Remain’s message discipline was poor.
By contrast, Vote Leave doggedly stuck to three messages:
Of course, focusing on such a short list of issues carries a huge risk if your choice of issues is poor. Vote Leave’s communications director, Paul Stephenson, wrote in The Times about the use of research and data in choosing which messages to run with: Towards the end of the referendum campaign, both sides were privy to private polling that showed a clear trend; people were prepared to take an economic risk to bring down immigration. That was the issue at the heart of the referendum — so the result naturally followed.
That does not mean the Remain campaign was wrong to focus on the economy, which was its best chance of success. But Leave won because it prosecuted its argument with sharper focus.
The top lesson we can learn from Vote Leave’s success is that in campaigns, it’s not what you tell people that’s important – it’s what they remember that counts.
So, after clearly-defined research has helped hone your message, being disciplined enough to keep it simple will ensure it cuts through.
Measurement and evaluation