How the struggle for Europe was lost
The Remain campaign had no answer to the seductive message of Leave, writes Peter Mandelson
At times the referendum campaign seemed like a re-enactment of the gang warfare from West Side Story, although, as I remarked early on to George Osborne, the chancellor, it sometimes felt as if our gang was taking a spoon to this knife fight.
A relatively short campaign was never going to cool the resentment that many of those who voted Leave harboured towards an establishment they believed had let them down over many years. Yet the failure of the Remain campaign, of which I was one of the architects, was not inevitable.
Initially, we were confident. Internal polling showed that the voters we needed to convince would support the side they thought would best protect their economic wellbeing. Although they understood little of the way the EU works (as one Number 10 staffer remarked, we were fighting “a referendum on a subject people don’t understand”), they seemed intuitively to grasp that it was good for the economy and that leaving would be a significant risk. Our pollsters assured us that economic concerns trumped those about immigration.
Economic research was commissioned, stakeholders lined up and interventions planned. This early onslaught was undoubtedly successful. While our case was backed up by authoritative independent sources, it was clear that our opponents, when pressed to offer alternatives to life inside the EU, had none. Internal polling in the early part of the campaign showed a healthy lead. Our research and planning had paid off. It helped, too, that Remain initially had behind it the combined weight of the government machine and the prime minister’s office.
A decisive shift in the campaign occurred towards the end of May, with the beginning of the “purdah” period, during which Treasury officials and other civil servants were prohibited from engaging in any activity that could be construed as an attempt to affect the outcome of the referendum. This was not because the big guns of the government were silenced but rather that there was a requirement on the media to give more time, and therefore credence, to the Leave case.
Another factor shaped broadcasters’ coverage of the campaign. One BBC journalist said to me: “You’ve won the economic argument hands down, so we can move on.” This was a gift to Leave, which opted for a “core vote” strategy, abandoning economic questions and concentrating on immigration.
While Leave transmogrified into the official opposition, spraying around spending pledges they were in no position to make, Remain was discovering the limitations of running a campaign led by David Cameron without the echo chamber of the rightwing press. The difference between this and every other campaign fought by the Number 10 team was that it lacked the support of the Tory-leaning press, which, instead of trumpeting their economic warnings, now sought to discredit them.
Remain campaigners asked Number 10 for licence to attack Boris Johnson and Michael Gove .
But the prime minister saw this as a “trap” which would simply exacerbate the grievances of rebels in his own party after a Remain victory.
Meanwhile some in the campaign thought we should broaden our economic message. We had to do more to explain why being in the European single market is so important, how leaving would harm jobs and investment in the regions and why the other options available were inferior.
The problem was that, while the single market was the core of our argument, the majority of voters did not know what it was. This was a serious communications challenge, especially as we were up against Leave’s simple and seductive message of “Take back control” and “spend £350m on the NHS” — but I thought it was essential that we took it on.
In the end, however, it was decided that the focus on the single market was too difficult and that instead we had to hone the message about risk — hence the focus on the fiscal dangers Brexit posed to the National Health Service and public services, alongside stories about the threat to pensions, mortgages and house prices.
This decision was pivotal. Whereas Leave was campaigning around a single number — the £350m — we presented voters with a succession of different figures which bounced off them and did not cohere into a single, overarching economic narrative.
At the same time it was becoming clear that we had a major problem with Labour voters. After an initial surge in support among them for Remain, it was now haemorrhaging badly. The dominance of Tory voices in the media and the halfhearted campaigning of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, meant that many voters did not know what the party’s official position was. The Labour leader’s office refused to engage. Indeed the problem became so bad that we were reduced to trying to engineer television appearances by Mr Corbyn in front of Remain posters so that Labour voters might pick up the signal. At times it looked as if the Labour leader was actively sabotaging a campaign he was happy to see fail.
As this drama unfolded, our strategy on immigration was to focus on economic risk — with every question met with a “pivot” to the economy. This did not work. Together with Will Straw, the director of the Remain campaign, I argued that the immigration argument needed to be tackled head on: benefits championed; current and future controls explained and advocated; the single market choice made stark. But there were no takers for this message in Number 10.
The belief of Mr Cameron’s team in the Conservatives’ election-winning formula was total: no playing on your enemy’s turf, no distraction from economic risk. As one of the architects of message discipline in modern politics, I can only say that I never meant it to be quite so one-dimensional.
Immigration remained an open flank, where we had no coherent message or credible message carriers and a division over tactics. We suffered from failing to agree our approach to the subject long before the campaign started, a lack of appetite on the Conservative side to confront it and an oversimplified interpretation of our task by those providing us with data.
We failed to persuade voters sceptical of the economic benefits of EU membership (and the costs of leaving) and those concerned about immigration. Leave, by contrast, had a direct, if dishonest, pitch to end free movement, retain economic benefits and insulate Britain against future enlargement.
In the end, people voted for risk and rebellion over stability. We did not mount an effective “persuasion” campaign but a cruder “get out the vote” one. The public was not offered a future vision of Europe they could believe in and for that we must take responsibility.
Now, the political centre is reaping what it sowed. While for too long the centre right sought to garner support from the grass roots and from sections of the media by demonising Europe, on the centre left support for EU membership was taken for granted. This conspiracy of complacency on both sides led to a culture of anti-Europeanism that we were unable to overcome during the campaign. In the meantime, while we have to live with the result of the referendum, we do not yet have an outcome to embrace. That is something to be negotiated in the coming years and for the British people to accept, or not, as they judge best.
The writer is a former secretary of state for business, innovation and skills