The People’s Vote needs to ask a different question if it’s not to be a re-run of 2016

It’s not enough to campaign for a People’s Vote: for people to vote differently the question needs to be different — and unambiguous-enough not to be mis-represented.

A piece by Otto English in the Byline Times in March made the point rather well:

“In 1931, eleven years after jailing Charles Ponzi for defrauding millions of dollars from ordinary people, the state of Massachusetts set about reimbursing his victims. In order to be compensated, all investors had to do was hand over proof of assets, for which they would be repaid 30 cents on the dollar. This meant a substantial loss for some but the alternative — was nothing. The state advertised the scheme widely and waited for injured parties to come forward.

But very few did.

Some were simply too embarrassed. Many more were determined to hold out, believing that somehow – despite facing multiple counts of larceny — Ponzi would come good on his promises.”

The People’s Vote needs to offer something new

People were offered something that was too good to be true — and were reluctant to give up on the hope they had brought into.

The parallels with Brexit are stark — a raft of promises which also turned out to be “too good to be true” fired people’s hopes. As with Ponzi, it is hard for people to admit that those hopes were false.

There were false stories which whipped up people’s anxieties, so that Brexit could be presented as the answer. This is even more tricky to respond to. The fears never had much to do with what was likely to happen. The risk is that the message people hear is “Your fears are daft” rather than “the thing you fear is not going to happen”. The fascist leader works by presenting an answer to people’s fears, even if the fears are groundless. The un-nerving example of this is the way fascists in the early twentieth century manufactured a “Jewish conspiracy” out of contemporary anti-semitism. There was no justification for this — though it had genocidal consequences. If something has no justification, it is hard to dispel — unless one can find another way to discharge the actual anxiety.

Simple Brexit party messaging

For the European Elections, the Brexit party’s messaging was very simple — messaging around “protecting democracy”, “save democracy, support Brexit” or “this isn’t about Right and Left, it’s about Right and Wrong”. Michael Savage, writing in The Guardian reported that: “Nigel Farage’s party accounted for 51% of all shared content on Facebook and Twitter during the campaign, despite only producing 13% of the content. The analysis, by the 89up digital agency, said the ‘scale of their success went beyond what we were expecting’”. Those messages appear to have been amplified by twitter bots — the bots themselves are another problem, but a message that whips up anxiety and presents answers gets susceptible people to react, and if it’s that simple, it is easy for automated twitter bots to spread.

The reality, of course, is that those Brexit Party messages are false, but their falseness doesn’t stop people believing them, and, if anything, gets those who disagree with them to repeat the message (as I’ve just done in the previous paragraph), which spreads the message — and tells people who dismiss me as a Remainer to vote for the Brexit Party… By not posting about policy, the Brexit Party kept things much more visceral — and away from what could be readily disproved (or verified).

What’s particularly interesting about these Brexit Party messages is that they seem to boil down to telling people their view is being ignored. It feels like messaging those who were reluctant to claim compensation for Ponzi’s original fraud as if to say that, though in prison, he would come good on his promises (so they would be shown to be right after all).

That same article from Michael Savage points out that ChangeUK’s social media messaging received very little sharing because it was too complex — calling for a referendum to get out of Brexit, rather than just “get out of Brexit”. The LibDems #BollocksToBrexit cut through this, was widely shared on social media, and fits with a leap in the Liberal Democrat vote.

Implications for a People’s Vote

Simply having a second referendum invites people to vote as they did in 2016. Changing demographics probably changes the result this year but counting on that is a high-risk strategy (and a narrow result the other way wouldn’t help bring people together).

The Ponzi example shows how hard it is for people to admit they were conned (which might also explain why the capacity of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to say contradictory things hasn’t destroyed their support, so people must be believing them rather than what they say). The Brexit Party messaging in the European Elections shows that telling people to stick to their guns got through.

This seems to mean that whatever the question is for another referendum, it cannot be “Remain in the EU” against “Leave the EU”, because that invites people to vote as they did in 2016 (and blame politicians for failure to deliver).

Caroline Lucas is credited with coming up with the phrase “People’s Vote”. It’s a brilliant answer. It begins to make a new referendum different. At very least, it starts to turn the question into “What do you think now?” which is subtly different from “Have you changed your mind?”

But this simple Brexit Party messaging highlights the need People’s Vote to be different. There’s a widespread narrative that “the elite” is ignoring people, which is being taken up, even though it comes from figures including Jacob Rees Mogg and Nigel Farage — arguably among “the elite” rather than standing up against it. My instinct is that we need enough of a serious listening process first to kill off the idea that “support for Brexit” is “standing up against the elite”. Maybe that could come from citizens’ assemblies, but unless they get enough television coverage to take people on their journey of discovery, the problem is that Brexit supporters who take part are cast as “selling out”.

After a listening process, then it’s possible to frame a question, which might well need to be along the lines of “remaining in the EU on the present terms” against “leaving on the terms which have been negotiated” — but those only work if people understand what these “terms” are.

A possible game-changer: electing a Liberal Democrat government

A recent Yougov poll put Liberal Democrats on 30% (with the Brexit Party on 19%). If there’s an autumn General Election, that raises the prospect of a Liberal Democrat Prime Minister after a Liberal Democrat campaign built round the #BollocksToBrexit message. At the moment, the Liberal Democrats have so few MPs that it’s hard to see us as “Westminster elite”. A massive leap in our number of MPs would say that power has moved from the familiar elite and might be enough to flip at least some of those who voted Leave in 2016, out of frustration at the elite, into voting to with the Liberal Democrats to remain in an EU that looks very different from what Nigel Farage and his party describe.

Subtle postscript…

An interesting twist to the report from 89up is that the Liberal Democrat effectiveness on social media was a long way behind the Brexit Party — much further behind than the actual difference in the numbers of votes. While that does suggest that the Liberal Democrat messaging can be improved — probably along the lines of “Bollocks to Brexit”, “Dump Tory Brexit” and “Stop Jeremy Corbyn supporting Tory Brexit” — it also suggests a sophistication among the electorate. Part of the route out of the present shambles needs people to be more critical of what they see on social media.

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