If you’re pleasing traditional ‘eurosceptic’ audiences, you’ve missed the point

I attended a conference of Brexiteers yesterday. In fact I sat on the panel at the end for the lively Q&A session.

The conference had stressed how a section of the electorate will always vote to leave the EU (including all those present at the conference) with a rather optimistic figure of 30% of electors being cited as voting to leave the EU, come what may.

But as was also impressed upon the gathering, we need 51% to win the referendum and ideally much more to prevent an EU/Government-sponsored attempt to ‘try again’. Those extra 21 percentage points will contain people who respond to very different messages to those that play well to the core vote. It was noted several times how the “eurosceptic” movement has failed to break through despite banging on for years about the costs and bent bananas. And immigration.

There was a valiant attempt (rightly so) to put the issue of immigration into context — and arguably back in its box — in favour of other reasons for leaving the EU. But more importantly any campaign needs to be built on a solid intellectual base, not easy soundbites.

During one particular part of the Q&A session, a representative of UKIP (there were a number present) asked what alternative vision would the panel lay out before the electorate that was as compelling as the message of controlling immigration, which is noted by polls as being of high importance?

This was followed up by a question from the floor (again from a UKIP member) about how we can appeal to the under-35s and women. Some answers to these questions were provided by the panel, including mine which was:

“I do ‘get’ what drives people on the immigration issue but I don’t agree with it. Perhaps partly because I am myself the son of an immigrant. For me, if you want one image in your head of what we’re about and what will appeal to these other voters we need, think of the London 2012 Olympics. Think back to that immensely exciting event that drew enormous interest across the whole nation and across all communities. Think of the helicopter view of the stadium with it’s Damien Hurst Union Flag at the centre. Of Mo Farah winning that race. Of Jessica Ennis. Of the crowd roaring. Because whether you like it or not, yes we do now live in a multi-racial society. When I was young, my dad would put on the tea when the countries trooped out at the opening ceremony. There are now so many nations in the world, one could go out for a takeaway, such is the popularity of nationhood. It’s about a global community of nations coming together under a global body. The event was expansive, it was young, it was vibrant and positive. And, do you know what? There wasn’t any sign of the EU at all. I think I spotted one EU flag being waved by an onlooker during one of the races through the streets. These images come close to what our vision is.”

What was interesting was the reaction from the floor while I was saying this.

Yes there were some nods and smiles. But there was also a perceptible level of discomfort and muttering. And the point about a multi-racial society drew some overt “here-we-go-again” groans from several people. I noticed two UKIP people in the room move quite dramatically in their seats at this point, and roll their eyes towards the ceiling

Yet this highlights a crucial point in the run-up to this EU referendum.

If one wants to appeal beyond one’s core vote, say, to the under-35s, it means speaking a language that doesn’t necessarily appeal to the core vote, who have been trudging to eurosceptic meetings for years, to be “among friends”, to say all the same stuff for the umpteenth time, and to then go home happy with all one’s prejudices reinforced. Until the next time.

Indeed the message for the 21% may actually be disliked by the core vote. But the core vote aren’t going to suddenly undergo a damascene conversion to Europhilia.

That means overturning some people’s comfy assumptions and making core vote meetings rather uncomfortable for some of those present. It’s arguably akin to a Clause 4 moment. And, by the way, some core voters will not actually be wanted anywhere near the campaign.

We all have our own ways of dealing with this issue. But dealt with, it must be.

As it happens, the conference was a mix of radical ‘new’ Brexiteers [‘new’ in the sense of new ideas, not of being new to the anti-EU movement] and of moderate traditional Brexiteers…so it didn’t actually descend into a bun fight. Indeed many delegates came up to panel members afterwards and made very positive comments about the Q&A session and the conference as a whole.

But there is going to have to be more — much more — challenging of core vote audiences in the run up to 2017 and beyond. And it’s going to be uncomfortable.

Because if you’re any kind of voice within this Brexit movement and you find yourself pleasing traditional eurosceptic audiences, you’ve missed the point.

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