How not to screw up a People's Vote

Protestors march during the People's Vote demonstration against Brexit on June 23, 2018 in London | Copyright: PA
Protestors march during the People's Vote demonstration against Brexit on June 23, 2018 in London | Copyright: PA

By Laura Shields

Hats off to the woman in the Question Time audience last week who resisted Rod Liddle's attempts at interruption and explained, clearly and eloquently, why she'd changed her mind about Brexit and now supports a second referendum.

She was reasonable, articulate and seemed to be precisely the opposite of the kind of person who Nigel Farage and co have warned would take to the streets if they're offered the chance to vote on Brexit again.

We need to see more people like her. People's Vote campaigners must not give in to the idea that the electorate is too divided to talk to each other about Brexit. To borrow from Gil Scott Heron, the revolution must not be polarised. If we're going to campaign for a vote, let's not screw it up.


So, first things first: It's time to drop the labels. No more Remainers versus Brexiters. Labels put people into groups and we need to break these identity divisions down.

Secondly, empathy has been virtually non-existent on both sides of the debate. We need to get off Twitter and talk to more people who disagree with us.   Regardless of whether there's actually a vote, the polls are still tight, and people will still have to live with each other. Let's put the spadework in now and raise the overall empathy level of the discussion.

I know this isn't easy. I couldn't talk to a very close friend who voted Leave for almost two years because I was so angry I didn't trust myself not to say some things that would have made the rift permanent. But it can be done.

Basic psychology matters as well. We must resist running run a campaign based on 'now that you’ve seen the light' type messages. It's patronising, paternalistic and misses the point that all good campaigns are emotional. That's why the core 'Vote Leave, Take Control' story was so effective.  It was future-focused, offered hope and made people feel that they were capable of bringing about real change. We miss a trick if we fail to understand the emotional appeal of this and don't connect with and exploit the reasons people found it powerful.

Different messages work better with a different audience, as do different spokespeople. Maybe we could have a campaign which didn't just feature old white men, as we had last time. Any official People's Vote team should field a variety of spokespeople who can listen and adapt when talking to people who disagree with them.  Most persuasion is about listening and suggesting, not slam-dunking with what we think is the single killer fact and then waiting for someone to crumble under our searing rhetorical brilliance.

Finally, we should never underestimate the power of personality.  Brexit is personal, so let's anchor the discussion in the day-to-day experience of people's lives.  Arguments over Chequers, sovereignty and WTO rules are boring, conceptual and leave most people cold. It's hard to empathise with a trade deal.

This means stories must meet the troll test: that only the borderline pathological wouldn't be affected by them at some level.  My friend Nicky is a good example. She lives in the Netherlands and is married to a long-term term disabled Dutch man. She also has ageing parents in the UK who she will probably need to care for at some point.  The Dutch government don't allow dual citizenship and Nicky won't be able to bring her husband to the UK after Brexit because, being disabled, he won't meet the minimum income threshold as a third country national.  This means she may have to choose between her parents and her husband. Do we really believe there are people so callous that they would be OK with that?

We shouldn't just tell sad stories, but the ones we do tell need to be able to make people think and empathise.  Contrary to the impression we are given by much of the media, most people are reasonable and kind. They want to understand where other people are coming from and to meet them halfway.  As Femi Oluwole from Ofoc says, people who voted Leave often want very similar things to people who voted Remain – more money for the NHS, to be better off and to have more control.

If we’re going to do this, let's make sure we have a People's Vote that brings people together rather than tearing them further apart.

Laura Shields is a media consultant who lives and works in Brussels. In her spare time, she does press for British in Europe and works with other NGOs and Lib Dem parliamentary candidates on messaging and communications.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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