Home Editor Picks The Leave campaign’s dog-whistle strategy will only succeed if Remain voters fail to turn out

The Leave campaign’s dog-whistle strategy will only succeed if Remain voters fail to turn out

The Leave campaign’s dog-whistle strategy will only succeed if Remain voters fail to turn out


IF BREXITEERS were going to win the economic arguments in Britain’s EU debate, they would have done so by now. Hence the signs in the past days that they are giving up on the subject. The barrage of big, serious voices—from Barack Obama with his “back of the queue” jibe to Mark Carney and most of those businesses to have taken a stance—has highlighted the Out campaign’s dilettantish inability to answer basic questions about Britain’s economic future outside the EU. When it moans that the deck is stacked against it and that devastating projections like those released by the Treasury on Monday are a stitch-up, that is in substitute for a credible, detailed counter-argument.

The failure is remarkable—and telling. Many at the top of the Leave campaign have been pushing for this referendum for years, even decades. They surely always knew that, when their time came, winning the economic battle would be their main hurdle. Yet they appear to have done little serious preparation. Together with the zeal with which they have lately conceded this struggle (“It’s not the economy, stupid” runs one poster), this gives away the category into which many top Brexiteers fall: romantics in big houses. On the other side of a pro-Brexit vote on June 23rd, these revolutionaries manqués see no end of tantalising, utopian prospects: Britain as a high-tech Singapore-on-Thames, Britain in a revitalised union with “Anglosphere” countries like Canada and India, Britain a neo-Bennite socialist commonwealth. The implicit message of their insouciance about the hard economic effects of pursuing those dreams is: “Can’t you see this is about national destiny, not some schmuck’s job at Nissan?”

It is not easy to see how they win from here. The typical Briton, it is true, cares about the subjects like sovereignty and immigration on which the Brexiteers can more comfortably campaign. But he or she does not consider them very important to his or her life, compared at least with employment and public services. (Vote Leave’s bid for this territory—by hypothecating the savings of leaving the EU to the NHS—is canny but hardly neutralises its implicit acknowledgements that Brexit would make the country, and thus presumably its welfare state, poorer.) Sure enough, some polls suggest that support for Remain is edging up. Ipsos MORI has it on 55%, its highest level for three months. Remember that to believe Britons will vote for Brexit you have to believe they will abandon their habitual preference for an imperfect status quo over a leap into the dark. The burden of proof is on those who claim Leave will win.

With less than a month until referendum day, there is vanishingly little evidence pointing that way. The always-questionable notion that the Brexiteers’ superior passion would power them to a grass-roots victory now looks particularly doubtful: a study by Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo, political scientists, shows that the Remain camp has held 1,758 campaign events since the start of the year to Leave’s 1,162. [Update: after this post was published Vote Leave described the latter figure to me as “way off”.]

For some Brexiteers, it seems, the writing is on the wall. Railing against the media (which is actually heavily skewed towards Brexit), against David Cameron and Whitehall, against business and foreign leaders who dare to express a frank view of what Leave would mean, they are preparing their excuses for defeat. It is increasingly clear that—as I predicted in April—many will not take “Remain” for an answer. Casting doubt on the legitimacy of the result on June 23rd is a first step towards a second referendum.

Yet despite deteriorating odds—and, revealingly, a clear expectation on the part of voters that Remain will win—many Brexiteers are also fighting on, and seem to spy a slender path to victory, despite everything. This relies not on winning over undecided voters, let alone convinced Remainers, but driving turnout among persuaded Leave voters as high as possible in the hope that the other side’s people, perhaps lulled into complacency by the various signs that Britain will stay in the EU, choose to Remain… at home. Thus there are signs that Leave’s events are concentrated in areas strongly inclined towards Brexit and that the campaign is focusing ever-more on immigration, which fires up a nativist, heavily Eurosceptic minority. Vote Leave—supposedly the more liberal of the pro-Brexit outfits—now bangs on about foreign criminals and terrorists with such recklessly divisive ferocity that Khalid Mahmood, a Labour MP, has left the campaign over what he calls its “racist” messages. The worst may be yet to come. Expect the prospect of Turkish membership of the EU, about which (and much else) the Out campaigns now routinely lie, to take a particularly prominent role in the coming weeks.

As with most core-vote strategies, this is unlikely to succeed. But to ensure its failure, Remainers must do two things. First, the campaign itself must resist the temptation to be distracted from its main strength: the economic risks of Brexit. In the now-looming television showdowns (the first is next Thursday, June 2nd) the Leave campaign will seek to electrify the debate by reframing it as one on immigration. David Cameron, Theresa May, Alan Johnson and their comrades will be challenged to justify numbers, apologise for crimes by recent arrivals, ruminate on refugee-terrorists and the like. They must stand their ground. If the rise of right-wing populism from Austria to America in recent months teaches us anything, it is that moderate pandering over immigration only raises its salience and thus benefits those for whom it is home turf. Next time someone tells you the mainstream “needs to talk about immigration” (as if it weren’t endlessly talked about already), refer them to the Jeb! Bush Presidential Library.

Second, Remainers need to vote. This point is no less emphatic for being unoriginal. Younger voters tend to vote less, and are pro-European. Middle-class ones tend to vote more, and are also pro-European. So neither campaign has an obvious advantage when it comes to getting its vote out on June 23rd. The Remain campaign rightly detects that its people should make the effort if they feel they are voting on their job security and that of their children. But the (admittedly well-founded) sense that the Out camp is coasting to victory is risky. However much it has won the central arguments, Remain will only prevail on the day—and achieve the sort of resounding victory needed to crush the inevitable Brexiteer calls for a second referendum—if its supporters actually turn up.

Britons not on the electoral roll must register by June 7th to vote in the referendum. They can do so here; it takes about five minutes. Those living abroad, in particular, are encouraged to do so as soon as possible.

Those who will be away from their normal address on June 23rd can apply for a postal vote. Local election registration offices will accept such applications up to 11 days before the referendum. The deadline for proxy vote applications is six days beforehand. Proxy voters can submit their proxy votes by post; this too requires an application.


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