Photo by Boaz Guttman
Politics is in turmoil, with resignations, new appointments (including a new Prime Minister) and great uncertainty: what will it mean for the economy, for Europe, for British society? One thing is clear, the result was not expected. Everyone, including the markets and betting firms, predicted a Remain vote.
To declare an interest, I strongly felt that Leave was the wrong call, as was the EU Referendum in the first place and campaigned for Remain in the week leading up to the vote. The Art of Conversation is about research and communication, not politics. But it looks as if Brexit is a result of a massive failure in communication.
Campaign magazine said as much, in that the Remain team left out strong work and did not get the message or the tone right. I fear that it goes much deeper than this. This was a massive communication failure in at least these five ways:
- Miles apart from the start
Communicating effectively requires some common ground, shared understanding. But the Brexit vote has "exposed a huge rift between the metropolitan elite and the rest" to quote James Bartholomew in the Spectator. So many people felt cut off from and/or put down by ‘the establishment’. The Leave/Remain vote drove a further wedge into the rift which was already there, but which those in power ignored, under-estimated or just did not see.
- Never assume
There was something that felt rather complacent about how the Remain campaign conducted itself. ‘We know best’. It was as if they assumed they would win, as if staying in the EU was so obviously the better option that this merely had to be spelled out (no matter how patronisingly). As Grant McCracken pointed out, polling mistakenly assumed (once again) that asking someone their voting intention has no context. But it does, people respond to an imagined ‘position’ not to a question. Similarly, the numbers chucked at us during the campaign were either pointless or counter-productive: “millions of Britons were sick and tired of experts presuming they know better.”
- Tonally wrong-footed
Tom Ewing at Brainjuicer pointed out that the emotional message of the Leave campaign was stronger, more heartfelt and tapped into a powerful archetype (re-birth) and turned feelings of frustration into something positive and dynamic – “Take (back) control”, “We want our country back”. The Remain campaign “Stronger In” was more conceptual, based on a judgement, a calculation ('more jobs, lower prices, a stronger future') not a gut emotion and the campaign did not capture a sense of pride or Britishness.
- People not messages
In ‘Could He Actually Win’, Dave Eggers describes the Trump American presidential campaign, seen from a rally in Sacramento. Trump has said some outrageous things in his campaign; similarly, some messages in the EU Referendum were clearly untrue, most infamously the £350m ‘cost’ of the EU. But as Eggers points out, it is not about the message. We are in ‘post-factual’ times, to use that chilling phrase. What matters is the sentiment and the person conveying the sentiment:
“(Trump’s) appeal is in the forbidden delight in hearing highly inappropriate things spoken into a microphone … His supporters are not really listening to anything he says … Nothing in Trump’s platform matters. There is no policy that matters. There is no promise that matters. There is only the man, the name, the brand, the personality … a loud, captivating distraction ... His appeal is … fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit”
Trump in America, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK; larger than life characters (‘brands’) whom people wanted to be unconventional and disobedient. The Remain campaign put up people with far less charisma, including establishment figures and anonymous economists who made the economic case using lots of numbers. The source and the message itself left people cold and the message was characterised by Leavers as ‘scaremongering’, winning the emotional high ground (or low ground?).
- Cultural identity
As Mary Beard pointed out on the radio this morning, Britain divides into those who culturally feel more ‘European’ as part of their identity (broadly, in Scotland and in London, plus some other pockets) and those who do not. It should have been no surprise that so many people see ‘being European’ or being ‘part of Europe’ as a contrast to not a complement to ‘being English’. Consider how English history focuses on fighting the French, the World Wars. Apparently, Leavers tended towards nostalgia/the past, Remainers oriented more towards modernity and the future. So the cultural ‘background communication’ for years has been anti-European and very much anti-EU (‘meddling bureaucrats’ etc). No doubt we shall now learn whether Britain’s isolation is quite as splendid as we used to imagine it to be.
And so the repercussions and fallout rumble on. There is debate about whether Brexit necessarily means leaving the EU in all forms. What does Brexit actually mean and entail? (Yes, you would think they'd have considered this, before the referendum was called for Tory party political reasons). Could there even be a second referendum? A government spokesman responds with 'Brexit means Brexit' which falls a bit short of meaning anything whatsoever. But, to use another airy truism, 'we are where we are'. Which would be worse, actually leaving the EU, eventually, or not leaving the EU? Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Splendid indeed.
So what are the lessons, what can we learn?
We need to learn how to engage with people not like us, who hold different views. Social media encourages us to engage only with those inside our own, like-minded sphere, a kind of 'digital gated community'. Those who care about such things maybe need to get out more.
Politicians need to consider how they represent their constituents. The media need to consider the impact of their work on the public and in whose interests they operate.
People on both sides, whether denouncing 'thickos' who voted Leave, or sneering at the 'liberal elite' who voted Remain, need to get over themselves. Those of us in market research need to understand more and measure differently.
For my part, there are organisations such as Involve which campaigns for active citizenship and greater public engagement and have called for facilitators to rally round. (What is the collective noun for facilitators?). I'm in. People such as Agents of Change have been discussing how people in organisations can generate more inclusive and constructive conversations. I'm there.
Things can get better. But only if we work hard and work more collectively.