If you felt heartened by the good performance of pro-Remain parties, notably the Greens and LibDems in the local elections in May 2019, don't become too optimistic. The Brexit Party is consistently polling in the late 20s (see figure for latest YouGov projections). For a party with zero track record and history and no past electoral success, this is stunning. Remain meanwhile has made only modest (though consistent) gains. In 2016, hard Brexit meant not being part of the single market. Now it means no deal.
How do we explain the appeal of the Brexit Party and the lack of enthusiasm for Remain? It isn't just that the Brexit Party has ample funding and enjoys free airplay in mainstream media. It isn't just that Nigel Farage can tap into a deep and enduring discontent, which has most to do with identity, and perceived threats to (mainly) English identity, rather than economic hardship. We can't even put the blame on Corbyn's reluctance to embrace a second referendum.
The problem is that Remain doesn't have an effective message, and this is not purely due to bad PR. You cannot fix the lack of message by snappier slogans or logos or even charismatic figureheads. Remain has inherited problems with how the UK, regardless of whether it was under a Labour or Conservative government, conceptualized its relationship to the EU.
The zero-sum logic behind Remain isn't working
Game theorists distinguish between two kinds of games: zero sum and non-zero sum. Zero sum games are games whereby one party loses if the other wins (and vice versa), in non-zero sum games both parties can benefit (also known as a win-win scenario).
How can we conceptualize a country's membership to the EU? As Eric Schliesser has argued, the UK always (even pro-European UK governments) treated the EU as a zero-sum game, and its participation in the EU was, as a result, half-hearted:
It is this history of opt-outs that has made Britain’s participation in the EU so dysfunctional. Rather than buying into the (liberal) win-win logic of the EU, the UK’s political stance has always been a halfhearted zero-sum one.
By contrast, enthusiasts of the EU such as Germany treat EU membership as a non-zero sum game, Germany could become stronger as a result of EU membership, and other countries could likewise benefit. The pictures below provide a rough representation:
The zero-sum logic was even present in the 1973 EEC (European Economic Community) membership Referendum campaign, for example, in the government leaflet. The official UK government pamphlet of 1973 only briefly mentioned how the EU common market was there ensuring peace and prosperity. But it went on at length about how the UK government succeeded in negotiating better terms of EEC membership: "The better terms which Britain will enjoy if we stay in the Common Market were secured only after long and tough negotiations", and "Under the previous terms, Britain’s contribution to the Common Market budget imposed too heavy a burden on us. The new terms ensure that Britain will pay a fairer share." These are not the words of EEC enthusiasts, but of reluctant contributors, always worried about whether they're not being taken advantage of.
This logic worked in 1973 when the UK public voted to stay in the EEC by a considerable margin, but as I'll argue below, it has run its course. If Remain is to have an effective message now, it needs to radically reconceptualise the UK's relationship to the rest of the EU.
As a result of the UK's zero-sum stance, successive UK governments requested and received various opt-outs that resist integration, including an opt-out of Schengen, the euro, the banking union. This not not only occurred among the Conservatives, but also Labour. Labour posed stringent tests for holding a referendum to adopt the euro, rather than opting in and trying to help fix the problems with the euro.
The UK sees itself as a net contributor
The UK emphasizes it is a "net contributor", while it has simultaneously pressured other EU member states to accept the application of EU membership by fragile economies from the communism-torn east, which, they full well knew, would not become net contributors for a while.
The Treaty of Rome, which founded the EEC (the European Economic Community), says that subsidizing poorer areas is a win-win: it would "strengthen the unity of their [all EEC member states'] economies and to ensure their harmonious development by reducing the differences existing between the various regions and the backwardness of the less favoured regions".
Within such a logic, there are no net contributors, any more than London is a net contributor, while Stoke-on-Trent a net recipient. But the UK never bought into the non-zero sum logic of lessening economic divisions in the EU. Instead, it purely thought about how much EU membership costs them without seeing the bigger picture.
The rebate is also diagnostic of the EU's half-hearted zero-sum stance. It was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, but has remained uncontested by every UK government, including Blair's Labour government. Blair said he would veto any attempt to scrap the rebate, in spite of growing discontent of other EU member states who were picking up the bill.
The obsession with net migration from the EU
Especially in the years leading up to the EU Referendum there were the regular, alarmist reporting by mainstream media (notably the BBC) on "net migration" from the EU. In spite of the fact that the UK has no register of foreigners and has to rely on imperfect and flawed measures such as interviewing people at airports, the UK seemed particularly keen to count us, and we were too many.
If you buy into the EU and free movement of citizens, then net migration does not make sense as a concept, anymore than obsessively counting how many people move in and out of London. Cameron requested "emergency brakes" on EU migration (i.e., further special deals and exceptionalism for the UK), as if EU citizens are an emergency, rather than (as it so turns out) a boon for the economy, as well as having broader positive impacts by offering their skills and talents. The zero-sum logic sees net migration as a benefit for EU citizens moving to the UK, at the expense of UK citizens.
This is again not unique to the Conservatives. Labour is also skeptical of EU workers, with Corbyn claiming that "wholesale" EU migration has destroyed conditions for British workers, and Gordon Brown calling for tougher restrictions on EU migration. How would disempowering EU workers by making them subject to stricter visa requirements, deportation if some increasingly arbitrary criterion is not met, and to restrictions to strike possibly benefit UK citizens?
It only makes sense if you buy into the zero-sum logic: if immigrants are doing well moving into the UK, then that must cost the UK workers.
Remain has inherited problems inherent in this zero-sum discourse
Remain has inherited all the problems of the zero-sum discourse. How can you be an enthusiastic supporter of the EU and yet also endorse a concept of the EU where the UK needs to secure as many exceptions and opt outs so it is not taken advantage of?
Examples are legion: I've seen Remainers often claim that "we have the best deal now" (i.e., a deal with opt-outs and a rebate), and "we should lead, not leave". The idea of leadership is particularly difficult to reconcile with the UK's long-standing unwillingness to fix the EU's problems, and rather secure opt-outs for itself. I've also seen Remainers claim that Belgium can kick out EU citizens after 3 months if they can't find work, so the UK can also do that if only it chooses to enforce all the mechanisms of freedom of movement.
To have an effective discourse, Remain must disavow this zero-sum discourse. The EU is only going to succeed if countries work together earnestly, rather than always trying to maximize their own gain. The euro is necessary for a sustained EU integration. Sure, it has problems, but the UK should try to help fix these problems rather than have a permanent opt-out. The CAP (common agricultural policy) might have problems, but there are other ways to solve this than to selfishly secure a rebate for oneself and let other major economies pick up the bill. In short, the UK could have avoided lots of problems with the EU if it went all in and tried to solve problems together and not conceptualize EU membership as a zero-sum game.
Remain must recognize the UK does not have the best deal now. It has a deal that has allowed it to be a reluctant spectator on the sidelines, too much focused on how it can benefit and not enough on how the EU can collectively tackle problems. While I know lots of Remainers who are EU enthusiasts and who buy into the non zero sum logic of the EU, the discourse by Remain campaigners has not yet adopted this stance.