Understanding the fears of those leaning towards Brexit

In many of my doorstep conversations with people who say they want to vote out of the EU, I have been left with a sense that it is those who stand to lose most from leaving the EU who are actually being tempted to do this. It’s as if their fears are being played on for the benefit of politicians whose careers would gain from Brexit.

There is a significant gap between perceptions of influence between ethnic minorities and white people according to Demos research
There is a significant gap between perceptions of influence between ethnic minorities and white people according to Demos research

The snag is that the fears are real. The photo comes from an article on research by Demos which highlights a perception that ethnic minorities are more able to influence things. That fits with a sense of alienation and fear I have been encountering on the doorsteps among the less wealthy and predominantly white people who have been talking of voting for “Out”.

If people are afraid of losing their job, or struggling to afford somewhere to live, and the blame can be pinned on “immigrants” coming “because of the EU”, then the government is neatly absolved of responsibility. The EU becomes the scapegoat, so voting for Brexit makes sense. Except that scapegoats are always symbols for the problem, not the actual problem of government failures.

Scapegoating the EU makes it easy to hide the awkward reality that immigrants stimulate the economy, that we need more house-building, and that years of austerity have taken a toll on the most vulnerable. In another blog posting I explored this in detail, but am left with a sense of people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove aiming for a major career advance if we vote to leave, and having callously found a way to blame the EU for the shortcomings of their party and government.

How does one counteract this? The question is partly about winning the referendum, which is vital for the long term future of the UK and of the EU, but it is also about standing with people whose fears are being whipped up and manipulated.

A doorstep conversation is not the place for a long discourse on the EU, but I am picking up anxiety, concern and confusion. For some, the decision to vote “out” provides a moment of clarit that lets them escape this. For the others, it would be callous in the extreme to fuel the anxiety, particularly as the aim of the EU is to make life better for all the peoples of Europe, not to undermine them. Things I am tending to have in mind on the doorsteps are:

Why I am bothering to knock

The long explanation for why I am spending time on doorsteps would take a while, so I tend to say I am swayed by the “peace, opportunities, stability and possibility offered by the EU”.

Way of being

I am genuinely concerned at what would happen if we left the EU, but don’t think scare tactics help anyone. On the doorstep it seems important to be genuine and grounded — hoping to offer some of the stability the “Vote leave” rhetoric misses. This feels a little like door-knocking at an election, where perhaps the most important thing is that the voter feels they can trust the candidate.

The long term

I tend to pick up the long term issue of the populations of China and India, and their economic growth. Without scaremongering, this is a light in which being close to our European neighbours makes a great deal of sense.

The subtext

An approach which is altruistic, concerned for people, and not trying to dominate seems entirely appropriate on the doorstep (at least from a LibDem angle), but it is also how the EU tries to operate — so one is modelling something of the EU approach as well as advocating it.

For me the aim is to come over as genuine and trustworthy, so the sense is that there are some worrying things out there, but we are better facing them with our European neighbours.

This was originally published on Liberal Democrat Voice, 13 June 2016.

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