I heard a broadcast interview recently that should make for truly depressing listening for either side of the EU referendum campaign.
Radio 4 reporter Sima Kotecha was talking to young people in Hartlepool, County Durham.
“Do you know what I’m talking about when I say ‘the EU referendum’?” she asked a labourer.
“No.” came the honest reply. So she told him.
He thought again. “I think we should stay,” he replied.
“Why?” asked the reporter.
“I don’t know.”
The reporter asked someone else. This time the respondent announced, “I do believe we should stay in the UK.”
When it was pointed out that the referendum was about staying in or leaving the EU, not the UK, he then replied, “I think we should leave it.”
If this is representative, Britain still doesn’t get what it’s all about.
So how might campaigners change this?
In the many interviews I’ve heard with politicians on both sides, very few have used three techniques that can make an argument compelling:
1. Examples. No broad message is complete without these. In other words, there’s no point saying, “British workers will be better off out of the EU,” unless you give concrete reasons why, such as, “We receive back less than 50p for every £1 we put in to the EU and that would mean £x a year for every pensioner etc…” Without examples it’s like booting the ball the length of the field and into your opponent’s box, only to find no-one from your team is there to tap it into the net.
This was so clear on Radio 4’s Any Questions? this weekend when pro-leave panellist and fresh produce businessman Peter Davis declared he was, “sick and tired of the EU telling us what and how we can run our businesses”.
So Tory MP and Minister for Small Business, Anna Soubry, (who wants the UK to stay in the EU), perhaps surprisingly said, “I’d like Peter to tell us and give us some examples where the EU is telling you how to run your business.”
Well, I gave up waiting for him to do so.
What a missed opportunity and his argument for leaving was instantly weakened.
(It was perhaps quite a high-risk strategy from Soubry, as Davis could have scored an easy goal for his side here. But maybe, given the MP is a former journalist, her passion for hearing a straight answer was stronger than her desire to win the campaign argument here!)
2. The second “trick” campaigners seemed to be missing – and one that can enhance the “examples technique” – is use of “third parties” to make a case more compelling. Let’s face it, if a training provider claims, “Our courses are the best in the UK,” whereas another provider says, “Ninety-nine per cent of our delegates rate our courses as ‘10 out of 10’ on their feedback forms,” which one might you be more inclined to believe?
So if a campaign group argues that there will be more money to spend on the NHS/education/the transport network etc…, voters are much more likely to believe the argument if that claim is supported by evidence from an independent “think-tank” or research from a prestigious university etc.. Otherwise, scepticism of the “well-you-would-say-that- wouldn’t-you” variety will reign.
3. Finally, there’s not enough “context”. In other words, smaller numbers and more focused messages are needed.
If we’d save some £14.3 billion per year on our net EU contribution (and is that according to independent analysis, I wonder…) how many new schools/hospitals/motorways could that buy?
The Britain Stronger In Europe group says if we left, it could cost our farmers an extra £330 million every year to export their lamb and beef. But how much is that on average per farm and who says so?
It’s not enough for the various players to spell out the detail on their websites (well, have you looked at them?!). To win hearts and minds, they’ll need their compelling messages to go beyond the ears of the listeners and viewers.
If not, then the next reporter who asks a voter, “What’s your view of Brussels?” will probably be told, “I’m not a big fan, but then we only have them once a year on Christmas Day….”.
The battle for Britain’s future won’t be won through “blue sky thinking”, but by smart communication that resonates with voters in their homes, not in the corridors of Westminster.
And either side can quote me on that.