Brexit lessons for government communicators

By Harley Dennett

Thursday June 23, 2016

Whatever the outcome of today’s “Brexit” European Union referendum in the United Kingdom, the lesson for government communicators has been that the people must be made to feel like they were part of the answer.

This has been about Westminster rather than the electorate, says Dr Michelle Harrison, who as the head of WPP Government Practice‘s research branch Kantar Public Affairs has been polling the British public over the course of the campaign. Rather, this is about a long-standing split in the Conservative Party, at its simplest: the cultural belief in the nation state versus the economy. Unable to resolve this tension inside the governing party, and with the rise of “edge politics” where fringe parties like the UK Independence Party threaten the centre’s ability to govern, the Conservative Party offered the referendum to stop the far-right vote going to UKIP.

Initially the public didn’t want the referendum at all, Kantar’s polling found, with it ranking last in the list of major issues. However, once the public were invited to have their say, the public wanted to make it about them. Issues high on the public’s priority list — reducing unemployment, economic growth and stricter border controls — were co-opted into the campaign.

“The British themselves are no more anti-Europe than the French or the Germans,” Harrison tells The Mandarin, in fact considerably less anti-Europe than the French. In the Eurobarometer research she did for the EU Commission, Harrison found 37% of Britons thought the EU was working for them, compared with 35% of Germans and 30% of the French. Yet, only the UK is having the referendum. What differentiates the UK is its long ambiguity of whether or not it’s really European, Harrison says, along with the political wedge on the governing Conservative Party.

“I’m sure the civil servants will have done their absolute damnedest to follow the civil service code — that isn’t a fearful document.”

Whether the UK stays or leaves will largely depend on how many younger Britons decide to vote on June 23, Harrison says. Voters over the age of 45 have long been exposed to anti-European media coverage and are more likely to feel a sense of loss to a European identity. Younger voters are more likely to have an internationalist view, and less likely to see Britain as a world power in the way that older people do. Younger voters are also far more likely to be supportive of a multicultural society, which has been a key theme of the campaign.

Predicting turnout is extraordinarily difficult for pollsters, but, in any optional voting environment, people over the age of 45 are far more likely to vote at all. If turnout is anywhere near the Scottish referendum, above 80%, then the UK is very likely to stay in the EU, Harrison explains. If turnout is like the last general election, at 68%, the outcome will be quite close.

Fear and neverendum in Downing St

To help the public make an informed choice, a government produced leaflet went to every Briton’s door. It was based on “the facts” as best determined by the civil service. Harrison says it had all the right intent: “I’m sure the civil servants involved in that will have done their absolute damnedest to follow the civil service code — that isn’t a fearful document.” However, the impact of one fairly innocuous leaflet tends to get lost when senior government ministers are right in the thick of fear and scare campaigns of their own — on both sides.

Right now, the British civil service is an enormously trusted institution — much higher than Australia’s Commonwealth and state public services. However, having the Prime Minister on one side, and members of the cabinet on the other is causing all kinds of issues for government communications. For the engaged public, they will understand this is about politicians. It’s less clear if the bank of trust will be eroded among those who don’t really understand the difference.

“The EU referendum is a good example of a situation so complex, so riddled with attachments and prejudices, that decision-making tends to be more emotional rather than rational.”

The government machine, rather than political machine, hasn’t encouraged the British people to use their vote. Harrison looks to that as one area the civil service communications machine should have done more to ensure the country heals afterwards: “Using their vote is a way you give people a chance to feel after they were part of the answer, they were part of the debate, and wherever we come out they took part in it.”

Relations have been broken under the strain of this referendum and now its up to the government communicators to bring the population back together again. The spectre of a second referendum, or “neverendum”, has been raised as a consequence if the country cannot rally around today’s result.

Emotional rather than rational

The killing of Labour MP Jo Cox on June 16 looms large over this referendum. The “Remain” campaign had been waning, struggling to find a cut-through message, but surged back into the lead after her death. That’s not a rational shift, but an emotional one — like much of the “Leave” campaign communication strategy as well.

The poisonous tone of the campaign has been its hallmark, says political marketing professor Paul Baines of Cranfield University School of Management.

“The EU referendum is a good example of a situation so complex, so riddled with attachments and prejudices, that decision-making tends to be more emotional rather than rational,” Baines says.

There are lessons in how the campaigns were run for engaging the public in complex political issues through communications. The Leave campaign has best used the fear in its messaging, because its followers believe it to be authentic rather than politicians being deliberately manipulative, he adds. Once the public stop believing in that authenticity, negative campaigns cease being effective.

The Remain campaign had “star power” support from international leaders like US President Barack Obama and Ireland’s Enda Kenny, but it didn’t make much of a difference. The rational argument, such as the economy, was overshadowed by emotional issues such as immigration, Baines says.

“To the credit of the Brexit campaign, they understand that they can only win by hammering away at the credibility of the economic arguments of the Remain campaign and by focusing voter attention on emotional issues. If they win, it will be this single-minded focus that lends them the referendum prize. Remain’s only hope is to use more hope.”

A taste of what’s to come?

Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department officials have been preparing for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage for some time, having been asked to rescue the conservative side of politics from a wedge.

These officials are, as far as The Mandarin has seen, following the same duty-bound minimalist approach that the UK civil service took. But the arguments aired in the unofficial campaigns to date are no less emotional than the nationalism and xenophobic hatred witnessed in Britain through its campaign.

The “yes” camp fear violence and hidden mental harm to children. The “no” camp, including the likes of Scott Morrison, say they face recrimination for their beliefs.

It will be interesting to see if AGD are prepared to produce a document of their own that convey “the facts” where they may contradict claims by senior government ministers. Even without officials entering the debate with sage, sanitised facts, Australian may yet experience violence and reprisal as tensions rise.

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