The EU referendum Leave vote surprised most people in Westminster and London. Countless Remainers woke up on 24 June feeling they did not understand, or even like, the country which they call home.
The reasons for the Leave outcome are multifaceted and complex, and I do not wish to recount them. Instead, I will focus on the stark contrast in the approaches adopted by Remain and Leave campaigns. Remain fought the rational economic argument, whereas Leave pursued a socio-value argument (“let’s take back control”).
“We played an absolutely textbook campaign. You secure economic advantage so people think the economic risks lie with the other side. You run a disciplined campaign with dossiers, leaflets and well-crafted soundbites. Everyone’s on-message, no one screws up, you pull apart the other side’s figures. That is how all my adult life you’ve won general elections.”
George Osborne ally and Remainer
It went in the face of the Westminster campaigning orthodoxy, but Vote Leave (specifically Dominic Cummings, chief architect of the Vote Leave strategy) better understood the prevailing national mood in large part because it listened better.
“This was a campaign that would be ruthlessly focused on people as they actually are. There are two sorts of political communications operators in this business. There are people who see the population as they would like them to be, and there are people who see the population, ruthlessly, as they actually are. There is the wishful-thinking element, and there is the winning element.”
Dominic Cummings ally
“Our story rested on five simple foundations that came from listening very hard to what people really knew, thought, and said…’Let’s take back control’. The overall theme….A lot of people have given me a lot of credit for coming up with it but all I really did was listen.”
Remain fought a campaign which relied on the voters trusting what the voters viewed as a discredited elite. I believe that this is symptomatic of the growing remoteness of Westminster politics and voter disillusionment with the political process.
“It was just elites talking to elites, saying it’s in your best interest to do this, and people weren’t listening. Many voters thought, “What’s the IMF? What’s that got to do with my life? What’s the OECD? What’s that got to do with me? It wasn’t something that was real for them in their communities.”
Phil Wilson, Chairman of Labour In for Britain
Besides politicians, the mainstream media has an important role to play in the London vs. the rest disconnect. It tends to re-write the story that has already been written, not taking the time to go beyond the simplistic headlines. The media often lazily reaffirms a story rather than explore it. Like politicians, the media also fails to listen.
“News ‘packages’ rarely feel like voyages of discovery, but have the very same sterility as the political campaigns. Add to this an over-reliance on polling data and electoral arithmetic, and you end up with a media narrative that is as distant from the people as we accuse the politicians of being.
Politics is, after all, a social science. It cannot rely on quantitative findings, but needs meaningful, direct encounters with people to understand what is going on…seeing and hearing how they answer is as important as what they say. And if you don’t have a script, your story will be led by what people tell you, and not vice versa.”
John Harris, The Guardian
Take Boston, Lincolnshire (my first stop) as a case in point. Since its 76% Leave vote – making it the most Eurosceptic town in the UK – countless journalists have descended on Boston in search of evidence to support already scripted headlines such as “Racism Unleashed” and “Hunt the Remainer.” This is not helpful.
To truly understand the sentiments of the so-called “ordinary working people” requires meaningful, direct contact. In short, one must listen better.
I plan to visit eight locations around the UK, each for two weeks – time enough to immerse myself in each community and look behind the headlines. The locations are determined to best capture the key issues in contemporary UK politics (e.g. Brexit, immigration, cuts to budget national and local government budgets).
I will listen to community figures, business types, market sellers, local politicians, that bloke in the pub, and anyone else that’ll talk to me. My research relies on qualitative, anecdotal findings derived from direct contact with people.
My articles will report what concerns, frustrates and excites people in each community.
Graduated from Cambridge University in 2011.
Live in North London.
Worked in finance in the City of London for past five years.
Currently on a six-month sabbatical.