Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Worst Political Campaign In Living Memory

For all that there were an awful lot of references and call-backs to the Independence Referendum a couple of years ago, this European Referendum campaign was no Indyref.  Sure we had encores for the old favourites – “Project Fear”, “Pooling & Sharing”, “Best of Both Worlds”, “Talking Down Britain/Scotland”, “Scaremongering as well as a reprise of the Winton Paradox.  However, all of the EU campaign has been a fourth rate attempt at a copy of the Independence Referendum.  As the title of this blog suggests, this campaign has been the worst campaign in living memory.
Cameron with EU President Jean Claude Junker, 18 February 2016

The obvious reason for this is the descent of the official Leave campaign into race politics.  Their campaign has been centred around the apparent concern about immigration, buying into and amplifying UKIP’s consistent conflation of immigration and freedom of movement.  The nadir of this part of the campaign came last Thursday when UKIP unveiled a poster which more than referenced Nazi 1930’s style propaganda, on the same day as the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox.  While the official Leave campaign made an effort to distance themselves from Farage & UKIP, Farage’s comments about the Cox assassination at the weekend should have prompted the Leave campaign to, metaphorically speaking, throw Farage under the bus.

As I’ve pointed out previously, there are better reasons than Immigration to vote to leave the EU.  It does seem that the official leave campaign have picked up on this on the latter stages of the campaign – hence the consistent repeating of the phrase “take back control”  from the ITV debate two weeks ago onwards.  However Immigration still dominates the Leave campaign and has contributed to the divisive climate.  That immigration is seen by the leave side as their trump card possibly says something about the official Remain side.

The pro-Brexit campaign has also contributed to the poor quality of the debate.  Their trump card of the economic case has not been played properly – with the government swamping the public with figures and statistics rather than picking out killer facts and using them on repeat.  The remainers have not responded very well either to the immigration card being played, with rather than a rebuttal of the Leave case with the case for freedom of movement, acknowledgement from the Westminster parties that ‘something must be done’ about rising immigration. 

The only voices on the remain side in favour of both immigration and freedom of movement have been the SNP, and even then they have been demonising the voices of anti immigration rather than understanding why anti immigration rhetoric has been playing well in the North of England and in former strong Labour supporting parts of the country.  Given my own history with the blog, it is surprising that the 'Labour Hame' blog has by far the best Scottish piece on the immigration debate – Cat Headley’s piece called for a smart campaign for immigration.  Certainly it is a contribution better than the complacent and increasingly pious campaign interventions from the SNP.

It’s not just on immigration that the pro-EU campaign has failed.  The positive case for the EU has been smothered in a blizzard of figures and statistics, some of which are highly subjective.  There is also Cameron’s reliance on negative campaigning, which some political observers claim has won him a referendum and an election already.  It remains to be seen whether with this campaign will be won with Cameron’s brand of ‘encouraging’ voters to hold onto nurse in fear of what’s worse.  However Cameron’s previous record is actually quite chequered once you get past the results.

True, part of the reason Cameron won last year was the constantly mentioned prospect of a possible coalition between Labour & the SNP.  But the reason it worked so spectacularly was Labour’s own botched rebuttal.  With the independence referendum however, negative campaigning most certainly did not win that referendum.  At the launches of Better Together and Yes Scotland in Summer 2012, support of remaining within the UK was at 68% in the polls.  The consensus was that this would be a cakewalk, particularly with the stumbling scratchy start by Yes Scotland.  The game changer that saw the polls dramatically narrow was not the much vaunted SNP White Paper, but Osborne’s notorious ‘Sermon on The Pound’ (© Iain McWhirter) speech, which attempted to torpedo the SNP’s terrible plan to adopt the English Pound as the currency for an Independent Scotland (as opposed to adopting the Scottish Pound, Sterlingization if you will – which is technically what we already have). 

From that moment, the polls narrowed until the moment which really saved the UK.  Not an act of negative campaigning, but the now notorious Daily Record front page – The Vow.  That kept enough soft ‘no’s’ from wavering and defecting to ‘Yes’ to win the day for the pro-Union Better Together.  But a winning vote of 55.3% revealed the ground that Project Fear had allowed to be conceded.  If conceding 26% to your opponents is a sign of success, then success itself has been redefined in the new politics.  In comparison to Cameron & Osborne’s bombastic style and scaremongering, Corbyn has been a quiet but dignified figure.

If the experience of 2014 is anything to go by, the fallout of this referendum will last long and be fractious.  That years referendum, which most people think of as a joyous celebration of politics saw a fractious and bitter conclusion followed by a more fractions and bitter fallout.  This doesn’t bode well for a campaign which has poisoned the wells of British (English?) politics from the start.  The only good news is that the campaign is now over.  The bad news is that the results are still to come, followed very swiftly by the fallout.

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