Friday, 28 August 2015
Defining the battlefield
I'm in dialogue with a number of figures in relation to the Brexit No campaign. All of whom appear to be making the same mistakes. We've seen them pumping out all the same tired old anti-EU arguments which in most cases are irrelevant to how things are today. More than that, they stand on intellectual sand. Most of the arguments we see are little different in essence to the failed arguments of 1975. They are of narrow appeal, they're boring and they don't reach any new ears. This is why the EU issue has been on the political back-burner for so long. It just doesn't reach the top ten list of concerns for most people.
Consequently the issue has remained the sole province of a corp of obsessives who largely have nothing original to say, relying on mantras of yore suited to the world of yesteryear. Any eurosceptic event you might attend looks little different to the ones I attended as a kid, where anyone sane would zone out completely. Put simply, it's game over if we cannot reclaim "No" for a broader audience. Ukip and the eurosceptic aristocracy represents a limited social constituency - predominantly white, predominantly male and predominantly boring. These are the last people we need. Being white and male is no great sin, but to be boring in politics is to be extinct.
It's no use complaining that the media will be biased or that the BBC is up against us either. Patton didn't show up to the Battle of the Bulge and sit there whinging that he was taking Shermans up against Panthers. A good commander accepts the facts of the battlefield as they are and it's strategy that wins out. The winning strategy is nearly always the one that anticipates the movements of the enemy.
The No campaign is going to expend a lot of energy talking about the EU and that's fine as far as it goes, and we might well win every single argument - but that does not necessarily translate into a referendum victory. Talking down the EU is the wrong fight to have. It's like taking your forces and storming a hill only to discover it wasn't a strategic objective and it's miles from the main battle.
The enemy in this fight is not the Yes campaign. That is a distraction. A decoy. The enemy in this fight is David Cameron. He will not fight the battle on our terms. He will be selling us an alternative to the status quo without even touching the main arguments we are prepared with. He will attempt to sell us a new realtionship with the EU. It will look superficially attractive and it will be enough to convince the swing vote if we don't play it right. Thus the real fight is whether our alternative to what he offers is better. To that end we don't want to be talking down the EU but talking up our alternative.
Thus far all we've got is The Know and Business for Britain bashing out the same tired tropes that speak only to the already decided. This is suicidal.
It is an assumption that the No campaign can capture the base and then change tack, but this bait and switch idea doesn't work. We've seen this before with the Tea Party in the USA, where what started life as a libertarian movement was co-opted by right wing nutjobs, eventually dissipating as it attracted the worst kind of bigots from the Obama birthers to the Islamophobes. From that there was no basis for building a popular movement. For sure it got mainstream celeb endorsements but largely unwholesome and self-serving individuals such as Glenn Beck. Celebrity endorsements are of a limited shelf life and not always welcome by default. For the UK, think Katie Hopkins.
The same dynamics apply in the UK. The Ukip social constituency of the so-called "left behind" has particular repellent characteristics an inherent glass ceiling to its appeal. The politics of that cohort are absolute anathema to virtually everyone else. Thus if a No campaign is perceived to be founded on that base it will rightly be treated with suspicion and will not reach the swing vote even if it changes tack.
For sure, Ukip got 14% of the vote at the last election, which in fairness is a decent showing, but elections are not referendums. We don't know how well they would have done had things been different without the threat of an SNP/Labour coalition but we can hazard a guess that it wouldn't have exceeded 20% - and that would be the upper limit of their appeal. That might have converted the surge of Ukip support into a few MP's but to win this referendum we need 51%.
We can count on the 20% or so who are sympathetic to Ukip, and we can count on a further 10% comprised of eurosceptic conservatives, with the rest made up of the loony left. We can take 35% for granted. But that still leaves a massive gulf we have to bridge. That dictates the nature of our message and who we pitch it to. If we build a base on what we know to be broadly discredited, open to questions of racism and jingoism, with ideas based on blind optimism over political reality, then we lose the initiative.
We need to reach new ears, and we also need to win over opinion formers early. Presently the eurosceptic message is on very very thin intellectual grounds and the media will drive a horse and cart through it. And so will I. Ukip wasn't mindful of that and it cost them. The problem being that populism just isn't that popular and the public's understanding of the issues is far more sophisticated than most political types assume. The usual hackneyed baloney about the EU from the hard right and the far left suffers from a credibility deficit, with a message that is far too divisive. By declaring biases in narrow concerns we instantly exclude most normal people.
That is why a positive alternative message is more valuable to us. It has less of a change of alienating the people we need to win. We need something wholly different to reach the parts we as a movement have not reached for the last thirty years. If we attack, we must attack the real enemy; David Cameron, not the EU. He is the peddler of false goods. He is the one shining up shit and calling it gold. He is the one selling the status quo as reform. We need to call him out on that, but we need to offer a bigger better vision. Bitching about the EU and what it costs is neither here nor there.