EU referendum: top tips for the In/Out campaigns

David Skelton examines what both sides of the EU referendum campaign will need to do to win the day.

It’s only a few weeks since the last campaign finished, but steps are already being made for the next national campaign – the long-cherished in-out- referendum on the EU. The only problem is that campaigners on both sides don’t know exactly what is being debated and don’t really know when the referendum will be held.  There are plenty of people who will be waiting until they know what the renegotiation looks like before deciding which side to be on when the referendum comes.

But the referendum itself could be less than a year away, with newspaper speculation this morning hinting that it could be held on the same day as Scottish and local elections in May next year.  Labour’s failure on 7 May proved what we already knew – that perceptions are forged over the long-term and are seldom completely changed over a short campaign. With this in mind, both campaigns will be looking to build an initial structure straight away, looking to seed early perceptions in people’s minds.

This morning’s Independent suggests that many of the key pro-EU actors are looking to combine at an early stage, with British Influence, Business for New Europe and the European Movement looking to join forces in an umbrella campaign group. ‘Business for Britain’ stands out as a key player on the sceptical side, led by Matthew Elliott, who masterminded the thumping rejection of AV in the 2011 referendum. Many sceptics, including Business for Britain, are pressing for a reformed EU, leaving the position on the ‘out’ side more fluid as renegotiations go on. The interventions of Lord Bamford for the sceptics and Sir Mike Rake and the CBI for ‘In’ this week illustrate the crucial role that business voices are going to play in the debate.

Both sides know that winning the campaign will be based on a combination of hope and fear – fear of the alternative and hope for the vision that the campaign is putting across. The campaigns will be keen to learn from the mistakes of the Scottish referendum campaign, where one side over-played the hope without answering detail and the other side over-played the fear.

Expect both campaigns to be building a vision of what the UK will be like either inside or outside the EU and both campaigns to trying to eliminate the negatives associated with their campaign. What should be the immediate priorities for the two campaigns?

Three things that the ‘In’ campaign need to do

  • Repeatedly talking about the perceived benefits in terms of jobs, business and consumer protection.
  • Trying to show that they are pro-EU but also pro-reform, in a way that minimises concerns about regulation, red tape and a democratic deficit.
  • The pro-EU side will be keen to minimise the perception that they are part of an out of touch elite of big business and politicians, leaving them vulnerable to a populist, anti-politics campaign by ‘Out’.

Three things that the ‘Out’ campaign need to do

  • Set out a vision for how the EU can grow and prosper outside of the EU, whilst regularly taking on the argument that Brexit would put jobs at risk. They will be trying to learn the lessons from the 1975 referendum, when debate often descended into a discussion about weights and measures or food prices, allowing the ‘In’ campaign to be seen as the ones with the positive ‘forward-looking’ agenda.
  • Neutralise the perception, which ‘In’ will be using, that withdrawal would be bad for consumers and workers’ rights, enabling them to ride a tide of populist sentiment.  The goal for ‘Out’ will partially be to run a ‘people versus powerful’ campaign, trying to show that ‘In’ represent an out of touch establishment.
  • Distancing from UKIP and building across politics. Given the correlation between the rise of UKIP in the polls and the fall of ‘Out’ in the polls, the out campaign will also be keen to prevent the ‘UKIP factor’ further toxifying the brand.

Building a broad alliance of large and small businesses, politicians, unions, consumer groups, newspapers, academics and experts will be essential for the campaigns. As Dan Hannan argued for Cap-X, the way to win the referendum revolves around positivity, being cross-party and cheerful.

The starting pistol for the referendum campaign was fired on 8 May. We know the referendum will happen and we know that it will happen within two years. ‘In’ and ‘Out’ will both now be developing messages, coalitions of support and key themes to enable to enable them to be in the best possible position when the public start to tune in to the argument.