How to fight hard Brexit: Step 1 – Understand why Remain lost. Spoiler: It’s not what Westminster thinks

In a series of three pieces, Atul Hatwal sets out how hard Brexit can be fought in the coming years. Today he looks at why Remain lost and the implications for the battle to shape Brexit

Why did Remain lose? Since the referendum Brexiteers have been assiduous in asserting their narrative: immigration trumped the economy, emotion won over facts and these are the new rules of the political game.

The Brexiteer version of history is now the accepted consensus at Westminster, virtually unchallenged by pro-Europeans, often meekly accepted.

The state of the pro-EU camp feels very familiar, certainly to a Labour member. All very mid-1992 when following a fourth electoral defeat, the best that many senior leaders of the party had to offer by way of strategy was “one more heave.”

It wasn’t good enough then, it isn’t now.

The starting point for pro-Europeans is to ask the right question.

Not just why Leave won but why a Remain campaign built around familiar economic beats failed when the same backing track had proved so persuasive at the general election and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

At the election and referendum, campaigns targeting concerns about the economy had convincingly defeated Scottish nationalism in 2014 and crushed Ukip’s English anti-migrant nationalism in 2015.

The conventional wisdom is that immigration was more potent as an issue in 2016.

Fortunately for those who want to prevent a hard Brexit, this is wrong.

The British Election Study (BES), which surveyed a huge panel of 30,000 voters before and after the referendum, sheds some light on what actually happened.

Before the vote, 65% thought that after Brexit the economic situation would get better, stay the same or didn’t know, versus 35% who thought things would get worse.

In comparison, 55% felt that immigration would be lower if we left the EU.

For the majority, voting for Brexit didn’t hurt the economy but would reduce immigration and also give a whack to the establishment.

This is the view of eminent academic John Curtice, whose article was cited by Dominic Cummings, architect of Vote Leave’s strategy, as the best analysis of the referendum result.

These BES numbers suggest that Leave might have been on track for a bigger win but that worries about the economy did cut through on polling day, for those who wanted lower migration (which included roughly half of Remainers) but were risk averse on the economy.

After the referendum, the post-vote BES survey underlined the close alignment between views on the economy and final voting decision.

93% of those who thought that Brexit would make Britain worse off voted to Remain while 90% of those who thought it would make Britain better off voted to Leave. These findings prompted John Curtice to comment, “Rarely do survey data show so sharp a divide between two sets of voters.”

Compared to the 2015 general election and Scottish independence referendum, the difference at the EU referendum was that the economic threat was simply not believed by enough people. Where it was seen by voters as credible, they voted to Remain. Where it wasn’t, they voted to Leave.

Research is sparse on the reasons for this but three factors are evident to anyone with a scintilla of experience in political campaigns: David Cameron’s late conversion to the EU cause, the absence of alternative leaders to make the case and the pro-EU campaign’s collective failure to offer voters any upside on immigration.

Imagine if David Cameron had spent his five years in Downing Street, preceding the 2015 general election, making speeches about how the Conservative party was fundamentally flawed and the cause of many of Britain’s economic problems.

Or if he had prepared for the Scottish independence referendum with several years of speeches and press releases setting out that Scotland could quite easily separate from the UK without serious consequence.

Would voters have viewed his statements in those campaigns as credible? Flip flops and muddled messages are not commonly acknowledged as a winning attributes in a close campaign.

Yet, this is exactly what happened with the EU referendum.

For six years as prime minister, from 2010 to the start of 2016, David Cameron’s statements were clear: the EU was a problem and Britain could happily exist outside of it. This position was largely congruent with the tenor of British politics over the past four decades.

Then for six months, from January through to June 2016, David Cameron said the exact opposite

For those predicting, or more accurately, hoping for Brexit redux with anti-EU victories in the French and German elections in 2017, it’s important to understand just how differently the EU is regarded, both in political debate and public esteem, in France and Germany.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s understandable why voters doubted Cameron’s sudden conversion or the credibility of his threats.

But if the leader of the Remain campaign, the politician charged with convincing the public of the economic peril of Brexit was so compromised, the public might yet have been persuaded if an alternative champion had made the case.

Unfortunately, the alternative at the EU referendum was Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong Eurosceptic virtually invisible during the campaign, lacking in credibility with the public and who singularly failed to emphasise the key economic messages about the costs of Brexit.

Had the referendum been conducted twenty years ago, with a wildly popular, articulate opposition leader – don’t forget, in 1996, Labour was registering poll leads over the Conservatives of 40 points – most prominent in the public debate, the result would very likely have been different.

These twin shortcomings of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn meant that the economy firewall was breached. During the campaign, immigration became increasingly relevant in swinging votes.

The final failure of the Remain campaign was just ignoring it.

In a situation where the economic threat was not resonating sufficiently, there needed to have been some effort to neutralise the negativity of immigration. To demonstrate that the country and voters benefitted from the efforts of EU migrants.

Decades of public antipathy to immigration could not have been turned around in a campaign lasting a few months, but at the margin, in an exceedingly close election, maybe a difference could have been made. Perhaps.

The implications of this analysis are twofold for the coming fight over Brexit.

First and foremost, it’s still the economy, stupid.

If the public had believed the economic dangers of Brexit, Britain would still be in the EU.

Yes, people are angry. Elites are mistrusted. Immigration is a real issue and cannot be ignored. But in terms of determining votes, immigration only became such a salient issue once the economic threat was discounted.

The primary task of pro-Europeans fighting hard Brexit is to make the economic threat real, understandable and palpable for the public.

Second, there needs to be consistency in the campaign.

This is a case that needs to be made over years not months by politicians who are capable of commanding column inches (yes, business leaders, union leaders and non-politicians will be important, but ultimately this is a political battle which will be led by politicians, that is after all the point of them.)

For the anti-EU brigade, stretching back to the Maastricht rebels of the 1990s and earlier, Europe was a prism through which the ills of the world were explained. For pro-Europeans, Brexit now needs to fulfil the same role, particularly given the imminent economic slow-down.

These are the key lessons from the EU referendum. If they are learnt and acted upon, all else will be political administration.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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21 Responses to “How to fight hard Brexit: Step 1 – Understand why Remain lost. Spoiler: It’s not what Westminster thinks”

  1. Stan says:

    Interesting article thanks. You might be interested in this article arguing that Labour’s currently incoherent Brexit policy risks alienating alienating both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ voters

  2. paul barker says:

    I agree with most of this but what Atul does not say is that Labour cannot provide the Politicians who will lead the fight against Brexit. Both the Labour Leadership & The PLP majority have given up the fight & neither have any Economic credibility.
    Labour supporters who want to fight Brexit have to get behind The Libdems.

  3. LordBlagger says:

    It’s not what you think either.

    It’s that free movement and free at the point of use services are incompatible.

    The public realized that and vote accordingly. The elite wanted their cheap labour.

    To break even fiscally on an economic migrant the migrant needs to earn 38K on average and that includes dependants. Quite simple to check that number, since average wage [not median] is 33.3K a year and we don’t break even on UK residents since there is a deficit. That ignores accrued costs like pensions.

    The public look around and see lots of min wage migrants and realize that they are paying the price for the difference between tax and cost of services.

    They see economic migrants using state services and when remainers say that they are all healthy and don’t use the NHS, they work out they are being lied too.

    They see their wages being driven down by competition.

    They work out that you can’t allow in 300K per year and not have a negative effect on their housing costs.

    Atul, you’re still stuck in the Westminster bubble.

    The major reason for the slow down is different.

    With 30% of state spending going on debts, politicians like you need to milk the public.

  4. Raddiy says:

    It would seem that not only does Westminster live in blissfull ignorance, so do the chattering classes, who insist on continuing to use the benefit of hindsight and ‘polls’ to arrive at their conclusions, which are always based on simplistic binary choices between economy and immigration or similar.

    I very much doubt that many people changed their minds on the basis of the campaign, because the views of most people have been honed over their lifetimes not 2 months,

    Anybody over 60 who voted in the 1975 referendum will have remembered the benefits of the Common Market when our cheap food supplies from New Zealand were stopped in preference for expensive food from protected EU growers. They can also remember when our fishing industry was handed over lock, stock and barrel to get us into the Common Market, destroying coastal communities all around our coast, and to rub our noses it it Common Market funds (our money) used to build of Spanish trawler fleets that would come and rape our fishing grounds. Or what about the people of the North East, who can remember when the two faced Conservative government at the time in cahoots with Brussels conspired to destroy our merchant shipbuilding capacity, whilst funding the expansion of merchant shipbuilding in Poland and Germany.

    In recent years the working classes of Northumberland and Anglesey have watched EU Climate change legislation and taxation destroy the British alluminium smelting industry with the closure of the strategic smelters in both locations.

    Generation after generation have watched the ‘ economic benefits’ of the EU, and it is no suprise those who have been subjected to it longer are the most anti-EU.

    I’m afraid your long winded rant is just a variation on the long winded rants of those who have been supporters of the Common Market/EU over 40 years, and who have been singing the same completely disconnected from reality tune.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Excusing the ‘Tory press’ painful the debts for year, twaddle remoaners come out with

    And then fact Cmeron thought he could keep his party together,by making our he was anti the EU, pretend that he’d got a deal to control, soverignity/sleaze, take it to the public ,and cos he’d done the deal, the EU sceptic public would vote to remain
    Lthe fact was the remain campIgm,from their Metrolpolitan elite London base wrongly thought cow Remain was popular in London, that they’d win, weeks before hand

    The high turnout, from blue collar workingclass outside London basically told the London elite to F@@k off,and although the referendum, was a way to relllondon to F off, the Metrolpolitan elite, couldn’t actually believe that the blue collar qoking class would do that

    NOW all this hard Brexit nonsense, YES after a bit of legislation, the UK can re peal certain union rights we’d like to keep, but that’s not party of ngociations,
    There’s only one thing we really need, the end to the single market, as is our right after we win the referndum

    All this the Labour Party must fight HARD Brexit,is silly, as even if the idea of Brexit will see left wing views gone,so the left could appear in touch, wth our working class vote, by opposing it, is silly ,if Atul calls HARD Brexit, getting out the subtle market, controlling immigration a right wing thing, and thinks the blue collar working class font want us out the single market

    He is in for a nasty surprise, role in March 31

  6. John P Reid says:

    Font should have read don’t

  7. Alf says:

    Owen Smith has been slowly rehabilitating himself over the last few days. With the help of our dutifully obliging media, he seems to be trying to promote himself as a kind of chirpy faux-socialist gameshow host. So… er… no change there then.

  8. Alf says:

    Alan Johnson headed up Remain and was neither seen nor heard of during the referendum campaign so I put a lot of the blame on him. Also, a lot of potential Labour Remain voters were put off by Johnson’s Blairite views; we all know how toxic Blair has become with voters of all hues.

  9. Fredbloggs says:

    ” the imminent economic slow-down.”

    Dear Oh dear. There is no coming economic slowdown due to the brexit vote. People are happy and spending money. Business seem content and are still investing.

    I would predict that we will see a continued business investment mini boom let as businesses wean themselves off an unlimited supply of minimum wage labour and automate. Newsnight before Christmas was in East Anglia before Christmas and had a piece on the agricultural sector and automation. One farmer had installed a carrot sorting line saving 18 jobs. Another had a weeding machine doing the same work in a day as a gang of 30.

    UK business has gorged on cheap labour and our productivity is seriously below our competitors especially France and Germany. We need to automatem make more with the same people and so GDP per Capita increases because that means bigger pay packets and an increase in living standards.

    All staying in the EU meant was more declinism. Better off out.

  10. peter carabine says:

    Sound analysis Atul but there was another factor which people like Oxford economics policy professor Simon Wren Lewis mentions frequently on his Mainly Macro blog as well as Cameron’s top media advisor namely the Brexit tabloids. Trouble is media influence is difficult to demonstrate and can be too easily dismissed. But consider this in both the Scottish Referendum and the Miliband defeat the press were almost uniformly Yes and anti-Miliband.

    Yet Brexit was different as the Sun, Mail, Telegraph, and Express gave millions of voters a distorted daily news agenda both anti-EU and anti-migration. It’s coverage denied or omitted all serious economic consequences , played on Turkish entry and distorted the Syrian war refugee crisis into part of the EU thing .etc.

    Inevitably this tabloid rat pack of propaganda reaching a crescendo by ‘leave day’ in June showed the British bulldog spirit at its best most especially reaching those millions of voters less informed on economics, less educated, less advantaged and most often the senior voters most likely to vote.

    Many in Labour especially on the left continue to deny media impact paradoxically enough forgetting their Neo-Marxist scholars like Antonio Gramsci who during the Fascist years talked of workers(voters) living with a ‘dual consciousness’ namely a mix of both consciousness of their true economic position as well as being subject to the endless false consciousness/propaganda of the populist tabloids.

    Ineffectual Jeremy Corbyn and his followers lost the Brexit battle and will lose disastrously in the face of the coming GE campaign where all previous manifestations of Labour media attacks will look relatively civilised compared to the massacre of anti-Corbyn propaganda now being prepared. Labour will be so appalled by the coming attack of the re-invigorated Brexit Tabloids against Corbyn that never again will Labour members smugly say the media is less important now. That will be why Darce, Desmond, Barclays brothers and Rupert Murdoch expend so much energy on their headlines.

  11. Rallan says:

    The Wisdom of Atul Hatwal, LOL! He writes with such confidence and authority! Shame it always turns out to be utter b0ll0cks.

  12. Martin says:

    There is much evidence based insight in this article, one of the best I have seen, but it does point towards a crunch with reality sometime in the future. Whether this will be next spring, or as late as 2019, depends on business reaction and how the government approaches the Brexit problem. With vociferous brexiters, particularly from the right wing tabloids are very likely to influencing May and her ministers, economic realities may hit hard earlier rather than later.

    The question is: who can lead the opposition? There are three names, Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Caroine Lukas, who speak with consistent clarity. Whether Keir Starmer can or would be allowed to add his name to this list is not at all certain.

    Unfortunately, I cannot see a way out of this that does not include significant economic hardship.

  13. Richard MacKinnon says:

    The first sentence is enough for me;
    “Why did Remain lose? Since the referendum Brexiteers have been assiduous in asserting their narrative: immigration trumped the economy, emotion won over facts and these are the new rules of the political game.”
    A blatant massive embelishment of the truth passed as fact in the first sentence. But if Atul Hatwal can prove me wrong and tell me who on the Leave side has said “emotion won over facts and these are the new rules of the political game.” I will be the first to apologise. He wont. You know why I can be so certain? because nobody has said these words or ‘asserted the narative’ as Atul Hatwal prefers.
    Atul Hatwal needs to learn the first lesson of politics if he wants to make a living in the business, and that is, dont treat the voters as fools. It is the reason why the UK is about to leave the EU.

  14. Delta says:

    So let me get this right, you acknowledge the elites are distrusted and your solution is to warn people of the terrible economic consequences should they allow Brexit to happen. In your example you cite certain elites who can command “column inches”.
    Sounds like your suggestion is to refight the battle you lost using the same tired method….

  15. AnnoyingMess says:

    Strange things at work here.

    The dumb epsilons our here were warned comprehensively of the dire consequences of leaving the EU – many MPs (70%) numerous NGOs, universities, bankers etc. – and the plebs voted for poverty.

    It may come as a shock to the likes of Mr Hatwal, but people may put other values before the love of money.

    Besides which, hitting them over the head with pie charts from the LSE and waving GDP figures about is of no interest to those on Zero or Short Term Contracts.

    It is also of some amusement to me that the plebs keep on buying the Sun, Mail etc. and not the snotty Grauniad.
    Price may be an issue, but surely the oh-so-enlightened liberal minded can see that the Graun’s message is anathema to the lower orders.

    And there’s the crux of the problem – the Labour party were set up by, and were meant to represent, the ‘working class’ (to be provocative – the white working class) Where, in Atul’s catalogue of woes, is there any policy that is going to address that lack of representation.

    Those at the bottom of the pile are there because our Labour ‘representatives’ have put them there; does Atul honestly believe that any of the present Labour crop are going to reverse that perception.

    I’m as working class as they come, and I literally now despise Labour – the rot goes deep, and the division is growing.

  16. Peter carabine says:

    One has to respond to the ridiculousness of hard Leftist Alf and his comments about the toxicity of Alan Johnson’s and Tony Blair’s views on the EU ‘ putting off voters of all hues ‘ which must rank as the biggest carbage of the year.

    Corbyn the current unpopular leftist leader of course having the lowest leader voter ratings in British history, having lost 50% of 2015 Labour voters , having got the rejection as next PM of 83% of the voters ( YouGov) and having made pro IRA comments which are common place now across the Web, having hid from TV cameras behind glass doors and been exposed on that to Friday night comedy TV millions, having ran away from London voters and media reporters the weekend after the Brexit vote and this man who would command PM responses to threatened defensive Subs and Typhoons 24/7 – that this man who prepares to decimate our party in parliament
    Come the GE , that this man could in any way not be toxic.

  17. John P Reid says:

    Had the referndum been 20 years ago, we Hoe many treaties have e had since then, I was part of the if we’d never had Maastrict I’d have voted to stay in a Xommin Market, ok that was 23 years ago, but the twaddle here,is that, John Majory lost 2milluon votes to the referndum party, yes labour is say 5% less popular than 18 months ago, maybe 1.5% to the libDems over The EU, maybe 1% to the SNP , but labour has lost support in the last 18 months too, the Tories,who er, were lead by a Remainer,

  18. Tafia says:

    Oh dear Atul, you forget a substantial percentage of Labour’s core vote wants hard Brexit – and if you attempt to interfere in that they will desert you in their hundreds of thousands. Likewise at least 30% of the SNPs core vote – including some of their =MSPs and senior party officials – and even Mhairi B;ack has stated publicly she only voted Remain because it was party policy – she is actually anti-EU. More than 10% of Plaid’s vote wnat hard Brexit as well.

    Now where do you thonk all these people will place their cross at a General Election Atul? I’ll tell you where they won’t be voting – for any party that supports Freedom of Movement – even a watered down version.

    If Labour had any sense it would declare pro-Hard Brexit, demand we leave the Single Market and demand we trigger A50 now. It’ would rapidly recover in the polla and become a serious threat to the Tories and UKIP and be more in line with what the working class think as opposed to the collection of vapid rubbish it currently appeals to (middle class, metrosexuals, minority groups with big gobs and little brains etc etc)

  19. 07052015 says:

    The problem with articles like this is they are polemic masquerading as analysis.

    Everyone knows where atul stands on immigration.

    Unfortunately many people of my acquaintance hide hehind corkscrews in their attempts to say anything but what they really mean about that subject.Not very scientific I know but then nor are those polls and old libdem curtice.

  20. NickT says:

    “There is no coming economic slowdown due to the brexit vote.”

    And no-one ever said there would be. What happens after Brexit becomes a reality and we lose our major export market – well, that’s going to be a very different story, especially with the corrupt Tories and Corbyn’s idiots competing to see which of them can be more incompetent. As for the idea that people care about more things than money – just wait until they lose out financially from Brexit and you see what those “principles” are actually worth.

  21. john P reid says:

    07052015, I recall your monicker was predicting labour would win a election on that day

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