Campaigning methods for pro-Europeans: positive or negative?

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Photo by North East Bylines

Hope and fear are both powerful forces, in politics as in life. Often, they are two sides of a same reality. We hope for life and health, and fear illness and death. We hope for peace and security, we fear war and disaster. We hope for plenty, we fear poverty.

People selling a product or service, or a brand, are typically seeking to make a positive case in a competitive market. They may in some cases also seek to arouse and exploit fear – fear of ambient dangers, fear that an unwise choice may be unsafe or of inferior quality.

Marketing methods in politics

Marketing methods have long been applied in politics. A marketing campaign can sell a political candidate or proposition just as a marketing campaign can sell a brand of cornflakes. But the process of democratic political competition can transcend the bandwidth of commercial competition: it involves a struggle of ideas, a struggle of values and interests, and of course a struggle for power.

Consumer market salespeople in turn strive to capture these deeper sources of engagement by endowing a logo with existential, ethical and expressive values. Commercial competitors can also, of course, struggle for and sometimes capture monopoly or cartel power in a market, allowing them in turn opportunities for political influence.

Marketing tools have long been widely used to help design and evaluate the effect of political campaigning messages. Some general lessons of marketing practice may apply directly in political campaigning, but the conditions of politics are specific (and subject to change) and so may be the factors that make political communications successful.

Politics is, at least in part, about selling people or their qualities and capabilities, and political persuasion involves working on interpersonal attitudes and feelings such as trust, and its opposite, distrust. Direct attack advertising – the attack on a competitor’s product – is now unusual in consumer selling, but much less so in politics.

Attack advertising

It may be unwise to over-generalise about what kinds of persuasion or marketing have been or will be effective in politics. ‘Labour isn’t working’ the poster campaign by the agency Saatchi and Saatchi for the UK Conservative party in 1978, is an example of a highly successful attack ad, mobilising emotions of economic insecurity and fear.

The ‘Breaking Point’ poster for Leave.eu in the 2016 referendum, designed to echo the Saatchi poster, appears to have been a highly successful, although highly mendacious attack on the EU and its UK advocates, mobilising as it did, feelings of insecurity, fear and hostility.

Attack campaigning from the Right can backfire – Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ slur on Labour in 1945, Hague’s ‘Demon eyes’ posters attacking Blair in 1997- but it can also be a decisive factor in some victories. The Daily Mail‘s ‘Zinoviev’ letter forgery in the UK election of 1924, and the massive vilification of Corbyn in 2018-9 stand out as examples.

One should not always attribute these wins to superior campaign psychology or strategy; they can also be won by the brute forces of money, mendacity, media power, state agencies and infringement of the law.

The 2016 referendum and pro-Europeans

It is now commonplace to deplore the historic failure of UK pro-Europeans (and of the EU itself) before, during, and after the 2016 referendum to mount an effective positive campaign of mass public education about the EU and its merits, virtues and benefits. But maybe when we make these easy retrospective accusations, we need to think back to the conditions of earlier periods and seek to understand why such campaigns were not undertaken, or not undertaken with sufficient visible effect or success.

Was the Remain campaign too negative in the 2016 campaign? Were campaigners too negative (or too timid) in their subsequent efforts to stop Brexit? These are different questions, neither of which are straightforward to answer.

There is some plausible insider testimony which suggests that Remain could have won in 2016 if it had been, not more positive, but more aggressive and ruthless in attack; if it had run the ad showing Johnson in Farage’s pocket, or if Cameron had been prepared to challenge the lies of his ministers Johnson and Gove.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with attack messages if they tell the truth and expose opportunists and liars. There was no good reason for pro-Europeans in 2016 to abjure the use of ‘Project Fear’ negative economic arguments. ‘Project Fear’ had just worked very well for the same government in a preceding general election and referendum.

Did the People’s Vote campaign make the right judgement in 2018-19 to focus efforts tightly on the single goal of a second Brexit vote at the expense of making a stronger new case to Remain, and even of ensuring that a new vote would include an option to Remain? Many thought not. But that arguably mistaken policy is probably less attributable to errors in the strategic calculations of the pro-EU movement and more to do with interests, calculations and agendas of other political actors and forces which were sometimes amenable to the movement’s influence but never under its control. The same, or similar uncontrollable realities may have to be reckoned with in any future campaign.

Future pro-European campaigning

For those who now want the UK to re-join the EU, how should the campaign happen, when should it start and what arguments will be effective?

Dr Adam Poole, senior lecturer in marketing at University of West England, has recently sketched a strategy for Rejoin in a post on his website, referring in places to his own research. Poole starts, as others have done, by accusing the Remain campaign of the past error of relying on negative rather than positive arguments. However, he then proposes as the first element of a new Rejoin strategy a major new campaign seeking to establish the illegitimacy of the 2016 Brexit referendum. This is, of course the mother of all negative campaigns and arguably none the worse for that.

The efforts made by people like Arron Banks to silence investigators like Carole Cadwalladr only confirm that pro-Europeans should pursue, support and call for such investigations with tireless persistence. Every viable form of action towards eroding the political legitimacy of Brexit may be worth taking. But we should not place all our reliance on these efforts, should not count on them being successful, and should perhaps not assume too rashly that they necessarily need to succeed. Public moods and attitudes and the Overton window of the publicly thinkable can be shifted by many factors and forces in addition to revelations about the past.

The timing of a Rejoin campaign

Should pro-Europeans start to campaign for Rejoin now, and should the objective be to Rejoin now, or as soon as is possible? The spectrum of opinion spans different views on both questions.

One might first note that Poole doesn’t discuss here another question that many serious and committed pro-EU campaigners now take very seriously. Namely, whether objectively or in the eyes of the EU’s members and citizens, the UK will in the immediate future be in a fit state constitutionally, democratically and politically, to be re-admitted to EU membership without placing the stability of the Union at renewed and unacceptable hazard?

Fit to re-join the EU?

Can the EU be confident that the UK as a re-joined member state will conduct itself any differently than before and during Brexit? This is a very real and serious question. One can argue that the majority of the changes required for the UK to be a fit member of the EU are those that will be needed if the UK is to form a new democratic will to seek readmission.

The image of the UK as, in the medium term at least, a (literally or democratically) plague-ridden state has unfortunately become much more threateningly plausible over the past two years. But the EU, even without the UK, is not a pure kingdom of the just. It may not demand angelic perfection in all its newly joining or rejoining members. rogue members and internal areas of toxic despotic regression and contagion to worry about. 

The depth of the collapse which threatens the UK should not be allowed to make pro-Europeans renounce the best, most robust path to recovery and future security – namely, re-joining the EU. A UK polity recommitted to democracy and freed from its capture and corruption of less than desirable political conduct, if one dare hope for such a thing, could play a constructive role in Europe, as it has done in the past, as a contributor to shared and better forms of governance. 

Regarding the timeline of a campaign to re-join, if not now, when? There is a spectrum of views and there is some potential for serious conflict on this within the pro-European movement. The questions can be ambiguous or misunderstood. What is meant by saying the Rejoin campaign should start now, or indeed that it has started?

A campaign to re-join, whatever time it may take, must put in place the conditions and actions needed to make possible, and then accomplish each stage towards a decision by the UK to seek admission to the EU. Such preparation will be an investment in a successful negotiation and implementation by UK and EU of the terms of such (re)admission. 

Conditions for re-joining and the process

Several of the required conditions are clearly not yet in place. This is a complex roadmap with various alternative routes, stages and sequencings, and various possible intermediate arrival points (such as UK re-accession to the Single Market and/or the Customs Union). It is also important, of course, to talk about the viable pathways for significant change in public opinion, will and consent, mediated via electoral politics.

Starting a campaign to Rejoin is, minimally, a declared commitment to accomplish, starting now or as soon as possible, the series of required steps and intermediate results necessary to get to the final destination. ‘Step by step towards Rejoin’ as Andrew Adonis puts it, on behalf of European Movement UK. A truism can sometimes be good sense and a good slogan. 

The question of whether or not to proceed via intermediate partial treaties, rather than the shortest direct immediate route back to full membership via Article 49, can remain open for now. Does the European Movement, aligned under Adonis’s banner, count as part of what others understand by a Rejoin movement? Does the slogan mean the same thing as “Step by step to re-join”, or does “towards” signify a subtly less overt and categoric intent: an aspiration to a promised land, rather than a deliverable commitment?

Is the public ready?

Poole cites and, in my view rightly rejects the objection that the public is not yet ready to be presented with the proposition to re-join, or as some say, has not yet given us ‘permission’ to suggest such a thing. Of course, it very much depends here whether what one means by ‘the public’ is the median viewpoint of many finely-balanced and nuanced recent polls on Brexit, or the handpicked representative voices of Red Wall voters as curated for example in the book by Keir Starmer’s new pollster Deborah Mattinson. A wait for the conversion and retractions of hard Brexiters could be a very long wait. This task is to persuade a persuadable majority, not an unpersuadable minority.

Poole himself seems conflicted about whether reality has yet delivered the means of persuasion required. To all of us but the hardened Brexiter, the truth about Brexit’s effects must now be plain:

“Even in the midst of Brexit induced labour shortages affecting everything from bus timetables, the NHS and food supplies, Leavers are seen to deny the obvious”. 

But a paragraph later, things are less clear:

“The damage is much more insidious and taking time to become apparent and therefore not readily visible to many and is often hidden behind the effects of the pandemic.” Now you see it, now you don’t. Or at the moment some do and some don’t, and what we see is liable to be permanently contested, at least by some.  The situation is of course still evolving, sometimes perhaps swiftly.

Brexit is of zero benefit

Not only do we now have daily statements from industry leaders that Brexit is damaging export routes, supply chains, logistics and core labour force requirements, but we are also now seeing explicit and categoric statements from industry that Brexit is of zero benefit.

The obvious is not yet obvious to everyone, even to the relatively unprejudiced. But the weight of evidence continues to accumulate, while the cognitive haze of Covid disorientation might, possibly, be in gradual remission, and the regime’s system of ‘post-truth’ and ‘gaslighting’ might to be fissuring and crumbling at multiple stress-points. Pro-Europeans now have, among their other agenda items, a simple and immediate task to multiply and disseminate the critical force of facts about Brexit across our civil and political society.

However, at this point Poole introduces a marketing axiom to the effect that negative messages about Brexit will never suffice to win our case: there must also be positive messages about the EU. This may well be correct, although human psychology has been taken to be such that the immediacy of present ills can often have more cut-through persuasive force than the assurance of future goods.

One can see here a possible messaging choice to be made between the argument that life under Brexit is now measurably worse that life was in the EU before Brexit, as against the argument that life in the EU after Brexit will be measurably better (in terms of both hope and security) than Brexit now. One is allowed to say both of these things of course: Brexit has made things worse, not better, but we have the option to undo this harm. Persuasion is an empirical art, not a deductive science: let’s test different messages, arguments, stories, ways of making the point, and see how they work.

Poole has a number of other sound observations in his piece on the challenges for a Rejoin strategy. He notes the respective current stances of the political parties, our various tasks of working in, with and across the different parties, and what is involved in growing the capabilities of our movement. Dealings with the parties must be in terms not only of European policies but also of policies on electoral cooperation and voting reform, in a context where the agenda of Brexiters poses a threat to our democracy itself. We have to negotiate a path through this complex, Gobstacle-strewn landscape.

Poole remarks, as have others, on the irony that the UK now has, as a side-effect of its unique recent indulgence in self-harming folly, the continent’s most dynamic pro-European civil society campaigning movement. Indeed, a movement exists albeit with flaws and weaknesses.  Its capacity both to endure and develop, harnessing new energy and talent, could make a historic difference to our future.

This is not now starting from zero, in scattered isolation, or with zero ideas on how to proceed. It is not known by now that openness to collaboration and the cooperative mutual recognition of complementary initiatives are key conditions for further viable progress. If that ethos is maintained by being inclusive, diverse and united, then there may be a chance of success for pro-Europeans.

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