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Why the Brexit campaign has already lost – marketing lessons from two referenda

Looking at Betfair right now, the odds for Brexit are 3.2 – which represents a 31% chance of victory.

I’m going to suggest the real odds are under 10%.

And, to back that up, I’m going point out lessons from the Scottish independence referendum, and show how the Vote Leave campaign is repeating many of the same mistakes.

The Obligatory Disclaimer

As much as I’m trying to be objective, I’m sure my own preferences will come through. So, I might as well lay them on the table and say I voted for Scottish independence and will probably vote to leave the EU.

With that out of the way, let’s look back at the independence referendum…

Recapping the Scottish referendum

8 months before the referendum (January 2014), polls showed a 22% lead for the No campaign (61% – 39%).  It should have been over.

But, by September, the gap was so small, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg rushed to Edinburgh with a rashly cobbled-together bag of promises to bribe Scotland to stay in the Union.

So let’s look at what caused that swing towards independence, why it ultimately failed, and the lessons for the EU campaigns.

The No campaign’s mistakes

The biggest problem the No campaign had was that they couldn’t sell patriotism. So, instead, they had to sell the financial benefits of the Union. Or, more accurately, the financial risks of independence.

Unfortunately, that approach boils down to, “Without the English, you’re nothing.”

That’s not a good message. Imagine writing that in a salesletter. Ouch!

So there was, inevitably, a negative reaction to that.

That was probably unavoidable. But there were mistakes that should have been easy to avoid:

* Choosing Alistair Darling as the front man of their campaign. He’s just not liked.

* Ridiculous scare stories. There was a reason the campaign was labelled “Project Fear”. And, of course, the moment you’re exposed as the boy who cries wolf, you’re no longer believed.

* Threats from Westminster politicians – Miliband’s threat to place armed guards at the border rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. It was a sign that, if Scotland dared to go independent, English politicians would try to destroy it.

That’s not good. It kills the idea that we’re “friends who are better together”. And while those threats may have scared some voters into voting against independence, they voted with resentment (as Labour found out in the General Election). While, at the same time, it hardened the feelings of Yes voters.

What worked well for the Yes campaign

I suspect most of the swing towards Yes was due to the incompetence of the No campaign, but the separatists had two very good assets:

* They started from a strong base. The SNP had 45% of the vote in the 2011 Scottish elections and, although this may be surprising to people in England, Alex Salmond was generally well-liked.

* They painted a positive picture – there was never a racist element to the campaign. Instead, it was all about self-determination. And that’s generally aspirational, positive and energising.

What the Yes campaign got wrong

I genuinely believe that, if they Yes campaign played its cards well, it could have won. Here are some of the mistakes it made:

* They tried to dodge the currency question – for some reason, Salmond refused to give a straight answer to questions about what currency Scotland would use.

That was a strange move for two reasons:

#1: The No campaign was getting a lot of traction from this.

#2: The answer was obvious. Scotland would use sterling.

But the question was allowed to fester for weeks before Salmond finally answered it, leaving many voters thinking he never answered it at all.

* They allowed the decision to come down to “risky” independence verses the “safe” Union.

While there were obvious risks to independence, there were also risks from staying in the Union. For example, if Scotland’s funding per head was cut to the UK average – as many people in England want – that would cut Scotland’s funding by over £7bn.

Whether or not that happens is in the hands of the English. And there’s always a risk when your fate isn’t in your own hands.

But the Yes campaign just never played that card.

So, while there was a significant swing towards independence, the Yes campaign never managed to shake off these two issues. And they were ultimately its undoing.

Should we expect a similar swing in the EU referendum?

My answer: not anymore. I believe that opportunity has gone.

Here’s why:

#1: They started with too narrow a church: they’re half the Tory party plus UKIP. That’s the equivalent of around 25.8% of the vote, based on the 2015 General Election. They had a year since the general election to build a broad campaign, and all they ended up with is some Tories, UKIP, and George Galloway.

#2: Boris Johnson isn’t trusted and Michael Gove isn’t liked. Johnson might be liked by some Tories and some Londoners, but according to opinion polls, only 34% of Brits trust him. And Gove is just a vote loser outside of the Tory party. Can you imagine them in the streets shaking hands with normal people the way Salmond and Sturgeon did?

#3: Because they’re not going to be in the streets meeting joe public, the campaign is going to be run as a series of TV appearances, press conferences and the occasional stage-managed photo ops. Unlike the SNP’s campaign, it’s going to feel distant, and as though it belongs to the Tory party, rather than to the British people.

#4: They’ve introduced elements of racism into their campaign – with Boris Johnson’s comments about Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. Maybe racism is too harsh a word. Maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as “old-school colonial attitudes”. Either way, it puts a stink on the campaign that’ll turn off some swing voters. Both utterly unnecessary and utterly stupid. (And there was a very simple way to turn Obama’s intervention into a win for the Leave campaign.)

#5: They’re acting like whiners, complaining that the remain campaign aren’t “playing fair.” Whiners look like losers. And that’s not a good look.

#6: They’ve failed to offer a clear and attractive vision of post-EU Britain. Will we be like Norway, Switzerland or Canada? Will we be still paying money to the EU, but having no say? Will we have to accept unlimited immigration? Who knows?

Voters are confused. And, as we say in marketing, a confused mind always says no.

#7: They haven’t sold against the future of the EU. Right now, the EU is fairly tolerable for most Brits. But, if the majority of nations want the EU to be a United States of Europe – with countries sharing debts and having veto over each other’s budgets – then it won’t be. But Johnson and Gove have failed to convince people that’ll be the cost of staying in.

#8: They haven’t convinced voters that Turkey will inevitably join the EU. Turkey – rightly or wrongly – is a vote loser for the Bremainers, but it’s been left off the table.

#9: Their vision is one where we have a hostile relationship with Europe. Instead, they could have argued that, if our neighbours want closer integration, then we have a choice between acting as spoilers, using our veto to prevent them from having the EU they want, or respectfully stepping aside and letting them have what they want.

That’s a far more positive relationship, and could be used to position exit as a pro-European move, and remaining as anti-European.

#10: They’ve not countered the question: What if Europe doesn’t trade with us? They could do this by pointing out the balance of trade and exactly how many jobs would be lost in each country if that happened. In which case, freezing us out would be turkeys voting for Christmas.

#11: The, “They’ll freeze us out as a punishment,” argument, could have been reframed this as, “What is this? A union of friends, or some sort of protection racket where, if you leave, they’ll break your legs? Do we want to be in a Union with these people?”

#12: We’ve heard little of substance about corruption in the EU parliament. In particular, how much of the UK’s £12.9bn annual contribution is unaccounted for.

#13: Similarly, little about the lack of democracy and accountability.

#14: Even the claim that the EU prevents war in Europe – which, I’d suggest, doesn’t make much sense – hasn’t been refuted. All we got was an, “Oh, no, it doesn’t. Oh, yes, it does,” argument.

#15: Most tellingly, they’ve made zero progress since the start of the campaign. In fact, they’ve lost ground in the betting, with the odds going out from 3.0 to 3.2.

At some point, you’ve got to land some lasting blows. With only a month and a half until the vote, there’s little time to make a difference.

And that’s why I believe there’s almost no chance the UK will vote to leave the EU.

To sum up

When the referendum was announced, I thought Brexit would win.

After all, the EU is headed towards closer integration, and Brits don’t want closer integration.

Seems like an easy sale to me. Any half-competent marketer would have made hay.

But there’s nothing so easy that politicians can’t find a way to mess it up.

I predict the Vote Leave campaign will bumbles around aimlessly for a while before running out of steam… a bit like Boris answering a difficult question.

And, on June 23rd, well see a bloodless victory for the Remain camp.

Just my 2p,

Steve Gibson

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